There are many processes involved in manufacturing a part or product before the manufacturer releases it to the client base. While it might seem like a unilinear process, many of these stages have to be done severally before the part/product can move to the next stage. One example of such a stage is the prototype development phase.
This stage is one of the most important as it determines if the product will be fit for manufacture or function. It also reduces costs as the machinist can eliminate unnecessary features of the parts in this stage. If you like to know what the prototype development stage entails, you should read this article to the end.
What is Prototype Development?
To define the phrase, let’s break it down into its constituents. A prototype is a look-alike or a copy of a part that demonstrates the product features and explores all possibilities before investing in the part’s complete development. A prototype can range from a detailed drawing with pen and paper to a fully working version of the product. Therefore, prototype development is simply a series of processes that the manufacturer uses to produce the prototype. Many also refer to prototype development as prototype manufacturing.
Categories of Prototype Development
We can classify prototypes into four categories based on the product’s design and how the manufacturers expect the final product to function. The categories include:
1. Working Prototype
Just as the name implies, the product developer makes the working prototype exhibit as many of the final product features and functions as possible.
2. Functional Prototype
A functional prototype and a working prototype are similar in their development processes. However, the product developers usually make the functional prototype on a different scale and using a different technique.
3. Visual Prototype
The product developers design the visual prototype to project the shapes, measurements, and outlay of the concept they have for the product. Since this process doesn’t involve showing whether the product functions or not, it is easier to make than the other prototypes.
4. User Experience Prototype
The product developers make the user experience prototype showcase enough details that can help with further research in the product manufacture.
Importance of Prototype Development
The prototype development stage is an invaluable process that is important to every part manufacture. Here are some reasons why part manufacturers cannot overlook the prototype development stage:
1. Pitching the Product
There’s no point in making a part or product which the clients or stakeholders will not support. We can all agree that selling a product with a prototype will convince the client/stakeholder more than selling without one. This is because they can touch and feel the prototype and give feedback. Their feedbacks are also important in making considerable design changes to the final product.
2. Putting the concept to the test
Drawing out the design for a part does not guarantee that it will fulfill its intended functions in real-life conditions. Designing a prototype is a great way to evaluate how the part will perform when subjected to its working environment. This test will help the manufacturer to determine the parts of the design to revise or discard.
3. Minimizing the cost of production
To some, this might seem wrong since the prototype will also consume some of the capital meant for product production. However, the amount used in the prototype production will be insignificant compared to the amount the stakeholders will have to waste if the trial and error method is used. This is because the prototype will help determine all the revisions the manufacturer has to make with the product. Hence, a more accurate estimate of the production cost can be determined.
The Difference between a Prototype and the Final Product
Generally, manufacturers and product developers try as much as possible to minimize the difference between the prototype and the final product. The actual product might differ from the prototype in terms of its appearance, material used, or the machining process.
For instance, the materials used to make the final product is usually expensive, while the prototype raw material is made from something cheap. However, its properties are usually identical to that of the final product. This difference in raw material could cause a change in the appearance and finishing of the final product.
Also, the quantity of the final product and prototypes made are always different. Normally, manufacturers make the product prototypes in low volume as they only need them for the production process. However, they make the final products in large batches for several reasons. One, the manufacturing process might be a complex one. Hence, they can’t afford to make the product in small volumes like the prototype. Also, producing the final product in batches will help save time and money.
Prototype Development Phases
As mentioned earlier, there are three general phases involved in the product prototype development process. They are:
1. Alpha Phase
This phase of prototype manufacturing develops prototypes that answer two questions:
- How will the part look and feel?
- Will it work?
In most phases, each question has a separate prototype made for it. However, some manufacturers might make one prototype for both questions. It all depends on the situation. Manufacturers call the prototypes made to answer both questions appearance and proof of concept prototypes, respectively.
The proof of concept prototype is the prototype used to test if the part will work. This prototype is not really concerned with appearance. Its main goal is to test the preliminary functionality of the design. This way, the manufacturer can determine if the design is feasible for manufacture before embarking on it. It makes use of very cheap and easily accessible materials such as cardboards, motors, switches, etc.
The appearance prototype comes next after the manufacturer deems the proof of concept prototype a success. This prototype is more concerned about the looks and might not even have any function. It also uses more expensive materials and machining methods for prototype manufacturing. 3D printing is a common machining process used at this stage.
Manufacturers can also use this to pitch to potential buyers and stakeholders. This way, the client and stakeholders can visualize the product. The manufacturers can also get proper feedbacks for the next phase. If this phase is deemed a success, the machinists start preparing more complex machining methods such as CNC machining for subsequent prototypes.
2. Beta Phase
This phase builds on clients’ feedback and stakeholders in the alpha phase to make even more sophisticated prototypes. In this stage, the products are inching closer to the final product in terms of the appearance of functionality. The prototypes also undergo extensive testing in this stage. The two prototypes produced in this phase are the engineering and production prototypes.
The engineering prototype is an upgrade to the proof of concept prototype in the alpha phase. It aims to achieve a visual, manufacturable, and functional imitation of the final product. Due to the feedbacks gotten previously, this prototype has even more sophistications made to it. The machinists use more complex manufacturing methods such as injection molding and sheet metal fabrication in this stage. This is to make it imitate the final product as much as possible. The machinist uses good grade materials to make this prototype.
Once again, the manufacturers test the prototype in real-time conditions to see if the new product can fulfill its intended function.
After the success of the engineering prototype, the manufacturers make a production prototype. This is the last prototype before the designs are approved for mass production and tooling set-up. Due to this prototype’s proximity to mass production, it should have the most similarity with the product. However, it might not utilize the expensive materials used for the final product.
In some situations, some machinists might combine both engineering and production prototypes. However, that largely depends on the risk assessment associated with the product. In conclusion, the machinists use the production prototype for the remaining decisions left. This ranges from aesthetics to final design approval. Once the stakeholders approve this test and the production costs, the machinists prepare for mass production.
3. Pilot Phase
This phase is where the machinists make the final/pilot prototype. It is the first product as this is exactly how other part units will look like, provided there are no further problems. The only reason the machinists consider it a prototype is because it still needs to get some certifications. Some changes could still be made here, such as changing the production method (such as injection molding and CNC machining) used to make some metal and plastic parts.
After any final changes, the machinists send the pilot prototype out to independent review committees for certifications. After they’ve obtained these certifications, production can finally commence into the commercial phase.
While some other machinists might use different terms like proof of concept (POC) and minimum viable product (MVP), these three terms are roughly universal for prototype development.
Common Prototype Development Mistakes
Many new-timers in the industry tend to have some misconceptions about the prototype development stage, which can cause many problems with the final product. Examples of such mistakes include:
- Not seeking expert considerations on how to progress through each phase of the prototype development.
- Failing to make an accurate estimation of the cost
- Not getting enough user feedback. User feedback is very vital for the success of the process.
- Trying to fit the prototype development process into a fixed time frame. The length of this process depends on the sophistication of the part.
One very important part of making your prototype development success is by seeking advice from the pros. At RapidDirect, we have all the expertise you need to make your product prototype manufacturing a success.
The prototype development of any part of production is a part of the process that requires a lot of planning and careful deliberation. While you can choose to do this yourself, you can seek experts’ help, which makes the work easier and saves time.
RapidDirect Rapid Prototyping Services
Need a company to handle your prototype development process? Look no further because RapidDirect has all the technical expertise you’ll ever need. With over two decades of manufacturing experience, we have experienced staff who can make expert revisions to your design to make your product succeed.
RapidDirect understands that you want excellent service, and you don’t want to spend much to get it; therefore, we offer precisely that. With us, you will get the exceptional service you crave at a highly competitive price. Our service is affordable, and we don’t compromise quality at any phase of the process.
Once you assign your project to us, we make insightful reviews to the project based on neutral user feedbacks. We also listen to whatever instructions or revisions you’ll like us to make. We obey your orders while guiding you along the right path every step of the way.
Q: How long does a prototype development process take?
A: This largely depends on the type of product it is. It can range from six months to a couple of years to go from the concept stage to commercial production.
Q: How much does it cost to prototype a part?
A: The price of prototypes varies depending on the prototyping phase and the sophistication of the product. For example, the appearance prototype could range from $500 – $150.