Why Prototype a New Design Before Manufacture?

A prototype is a fully functional version of a new product design manufactured before product release.

A prototype is a fully functional version of a new product design manufactured before product release.

How Useful is Prototyping a New Product Design?

The primary use of prototypes is testing.

But there are many more benefits associated with prototyping than initially meet the eye. And overlooking these advantages can lead to development issues further down the line.

New Product Introduction (NPI) is a complicated business.

The first step in the process is the generation of an idea.

Idea generation is the creation of a new part or assembly to perform a particular function. This may be to overcome a problem, improve an existing situation or to introduce an entirely new product to a market.

Before they start, the Designer needs to know exactly what’s required from the new product.  The Design Specification details this requirement in a formal document and should define what’s expected of the product’s functionality. But it won’t necessarily define how the product should achieve this.

The Designer’s Task

Define. Collect. Analyse. Develop. Feedback. Improve.

The Designer will apply engineering principles, calculations and simulation techniques to provide a design solution which meets the requirements. The Design Specification will typically include factors relevant to the product’s functionality, such as operating temperature range, mechanical and electrical interfaces, mass limit, lifecycle, recyclability, available space envelope and specific operational parameters.

But this is not an exhaustive list as each new product has a unique set of requirements.

It’s possible to gain confidence in a design prior to production release by using available technology to verify and validate against the Design Specification.

But this doesn’t guarantee that the manufactured product is fit for purpose. And this is risky with a safety critical product or a product which utilises cutting edge, innovative design, specialist materials or contemporary manufacturing processes.

The Proof is in the Prototype

Testing a prototype within the environmental limits defined on the specification.

The primary reason for manufacturing prototypes of new products is to enable physical tests to take place on a fully representative sample of the designed product, prior to full production release.

These tests are useful as they can determine whether the product can do what it’s meant to. Your tests should be as meaningful as possible to replicate the true operational environment of the released product.

Sometimes the only way to confirm theoretical data is to perform physical tests and gather empirical data for comparison. This may include verifying that the required functionality exists across the full operational ranges of physical variables such as temperature, humidity, vibration, pressure, voltage and frequency of operation and duration.

Check out our blog on Design Data Management for more detail on this topic.

Benefits to Design Prototyping

1) Allow the customer to visualise the end product.

2) Use the prototype to check the physical interface of the design with mating parts or assembly.

3) Test the prototype against the design specification to ensure that the design solution satisfies all functional requirements.

4) If the Design Specification defines a mass limit, then a prototype is useful as you can weigh it to establish an accurate mass value.

5) Find design errors early on so you can make corrections or adjustments to the design before manufacturing fixtures and tooling. This helps to reduce costs and speeds up product delivery.

6) Test prototypes beyond their required limits, even to destruction if required, to gather empirical data to establish the actual physical limits of the design’s capability.

7) Use prototypes to generate reliability data.

8) Test prototypes to make sure that the design will operate within the specified environment.

9) Iteratively ‘fine-tune’ designs to optimise functionally and aesthetically before committing to production tooling.

Final Thoughts

Deciding whether to create prototypes during the NPI process is a decision that requires careful consideration. Although the benefits of prototyping are clear, we have to be mindful of the fact that there is a cost associated with doing so.

Prototypes are one-offs or produced in a short batch so the piece part costs can be high. If you want to enjoy the benefits of prototyping, then you’ll first need to justify and budget for the cost of production.