By definition, prototype means it is an early stage representation of a final product or thing. They can be essential but also disproportionately costly, fragile and can often be done without.
To test something eg:
- proving a principle
- providing a sense of scale
- gauging customer opinion
They can be part of the new product development and presentation process. They may also be used to brief a manufacturer or check pre-production product.
Prototypes typically differ from a mass-produced product because:
- manufacturing methods are likely to differ
- different materials are often used
- it is will rarely if ever perform similarly or as well
The most significant disadvantage is often cost.
Modern rapid prototyping and 3D printing techniques help but even these methods have their limitations.
Types of prototype and things to consider before commissioning
There are three primary types of prototype:
- proof of concept: show that an idea works
- mock-up: a rough and ready version used for basic testing and explanation
- pre-production: a near-identical representation of the finished product
The key things to consider are prior to commissioning a prototype are: budget; need; what; when; and where.
They are usually useful when developing a technically feasible and commercially viable product if you can afford one. If cost is an issue an inexpensive mock-up may suffice or you could potentially do without one. It is often a personal cost and benefit equation.
An inventor or individual seeking to license a relatively straight-forward product then a prototype often becomes optional. A great presentation can be enough to convey or sell an idea.
If the idea is based on a technical theory or mechanism a proof of concept may be necessary to prove that it will work in practice. Similarly, if market testing is necessary, customers will typically want to see and touch it if not operate it.
Focusing on the specific need and acceptable compromises should help create the right prototype at the right cost. Consider that you may be able to modify an existing and similar product instead of making something from scratch.
A high cost, visually accurate prototype is likely to be treated as a final product by customers meaning they will comment on it as if it is finished rather than accepting its obvious compromises. A customer should not be confused here. It needs to be clearly a mock-up or the near-finished product, nothing in between in order to maximise the benefit of customer feedback – marking it as ‘prototype’ rarely works.
Also, do you really need a one-off? Relatively low cost, low production techniques exist and may be worth considering where you feel a small batch may be preferable.
Making the wrong type of prototype at the wrong time may be costly. The earlier in the development process a prototype is made then the more likely it is to change.
By contrast, if based on an engineering principle or mechanism then the sooner this is tested and proven the better.
Specialist businesses exist that design and manufacture prototypes on a contract basis. They can deliver very high quality work using multiple techniques often on very tight timescales but may be difficult to track down.
It is relatively straight-forward to find a business with 3D printing capabilities these days. The material used may not be ideal but it should help keep costs down. It is also worth considering your local university.
Wherever you go, nationally or internationally, make sure you are satisfied your selected company takes confidentiality seriously and balance cost and risk.
In summary, a prototype:
- may be discretional or essential
- can make an idea easier to sell
- will reduce risk in the long-term
- will increase cost in the short-term
- is potentially disproportionately costly and is likely to have aesthetic, functional and operational limitations
The key thing to consider is need. Robustly challenge whether you need one or not and if so why? What is one worth to you and is it a worthwhile investment?
If you need one, decide when you need it, choose the right type for the right purpose, the quantity required and consider the different ways of making it and alternative sources.
Make sure you consider options and confidentiality carefully and ensure customers know it’s a prototype.
Above all, ensure you ask questions throughout and seek objective advice when in doubt.