Rapid Prototype Development 101:
Bringing a New Product Idea to Life

Rapid prototype development is an indispensable tool for many creators who want to bring products to consumers. In some cases, it can lower the barrier to market entry by making the whole process more affordable. The cost of product creation can be prohibitive, but rapid prototyping uses methods that accelerate production and reduce expenses for the creator.

Of course, cost-effectiveness isn’t the only reason to consider rapid prototyping. This agile process is also a staple of Lean principles because it centers on eliminating waste and improving results. Rapid prototyping is the opportunity to work all the problems out of a project to create more effective designs. 

What is Rapid Prototyping?

Rapid prototyping is a process that leverages sophisticated technology to create scale models of a given product quickly. It’s a way of accelerating the prototype production process to allow for multiple rounds of testing and improvements while keeping costs down. Some methods used in rapid prototyping include:

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3D Printing

Sometimes called additive manufacturing, this process uses a computer program teamed with a printing device to build an idea in layers. Typically, plastic is the material chosen, though other options include nylon, glass-filled polyamide, wax, epoxy resins, and pretty much any other material that can be melted down and reformed.

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Computer Numerical Control (CNC) Machining

This is an automated process where a computer program uses codes to operate factory machinery and tools. CNC machining eliminates both the need for manual operators as well as potential process variations that can lead to errors.

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Mold Making and Casting

In these cases, melted urethane and/or silicone is poured into a mold to create a solid plastic part. Typically, the pattern itself is created by a skilled expert, though in some cases, it can be developed through a CNC machining process.

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Powder Bed Fusions

In this, powdered materials, like metal powder, are heated by a high-powered laser to create a 3-dimensional model. A powder chamber holds the build material while a computer guides the laser through movements.

The prototyping expert may use one or a series of these various options to create a working model of a product. One significant consideration in the type of manufacturing process used is the needed fidelity.

Understanding Prototype Fidelity

Fidelity in prototyping is about how accurate the model is when compared to the final product. Typically, the level of accuracy will fall into one of three categories.

Understanding Prototype Fidelity

Fidelity in prototyping is about how accurate the model is when compared to the final product. Typically, the level of accuracy will fall into one of three categories.


LOW

A low-fidelity design is an extremely scaled-down version of the final product. It likely won’t be cast in the intended materials and components, and features may be missing. This level is ideal for testing parts or functionality.


MEDIUM

A medium-fidelity prototype may include all the components of the intended future project, but it will still be a very rough version when compared to the final expected model. It’s often cast in the planned future material to test its efficacy.


HIGH

A high-fidelity prototype will be very near or identical to the finished version of the product. This fidelity level is a late-stage product development choice, used to spur the interest of investors and end-user testers.

In rapid prototype development, it is very common to use all three of these models at some point in the process to work out kinks and implement feedback.

Pros and Cons of Rapid Prototype Development

Rapid prototyping may be appealing, but it’s not appropriate in every circumstance. To determine whether a rapid prototyping process is viable for a given project, it is essential to review its pros and cons critically.

PROS

CONS

Speed: This is typically the most significant factor in choosing rapid prototyping, as it can be completed in a fraction of the time compared to traditional prototyping. The speed allows creators to quickly determine if a product or part will meet their needs, and better allocate their time to more complex tasks. It also keeps them from wasting time on ideas that may not be feasible.➖ Limited complexity: Rapid prototyping is typically better for less intricate designs as it’s a bare-bones process designed to work out kinks. In instances where the model has a very involved design with lots of complex moving parts, it’s best to take a more traditional approach to prototyping to ensure the necessary detail.
Cost savings: Prototypes are very scaled-down versions of the final model, which allows the creator to save money during the development stage. It also keeps the designer from wasting resources during testing and planning. The money saved can then be reallocated for other parts of the project.➖ Quality control: Rapid prototyping is about creating a minimally acceptable design, not a perfect one, in the interest of saving time. As rapid prototyping is such an accelerated process, potential oversights during creation could lead to fatal design flaws later on. In smaller projects, this may not be a big problem. However, for more expensive endeavors, limited quality control could become cost-prohibitive.
Improved collaboration: With a functional prototype, creators can send their designs out to stakeholders, investors, and other involved parties. This provides an excellent opportunity for feedback so creators can improve their models and make the best product possible.➖ Limited technology options: In rapid prototyping, the creator is limited to a fixed number of manufacturing options compatible with the process, like 3D printing. A more complex process that involves a lot of interlocking patterns and human intervention may not be suitable in a rapid prototyping environment.

In rapid prototype development, it is very common to use all three of these models at some point in the process to work out kinks and implement feedback.

Tips for Optimizing Rapid Prototyping

When attempting to optimize prototype development, creators can take advantage of some tried and true methods that save time and ensure a better result. Here are six tips to enhance the rapid prototyping strategy.

Separate testing variables

When testing a design, it’s important to focus on one segment at a time to determine the root cause of any problems. Creating multiple prototypes for different tests is a common strategy that helps ensure a better final product.

Create consistently

Unless testing a specific portion of a design, it’s vital to keep prototypes consistent to monitor the results. If checking the design with users, standardized products ensure that feedback centers on a single model rather than multiple sources.

Focus on end-users

Prototyping should be about testing the viability of a product for end-users, not stakeholders. By making changes and updates from the end-user’s perspective, the creator can develop a more marketable and desirable product.

Stay Agile

Multiple prototyping rounds will ensure the best design possible, as the creator can work out issues and move on to the next one. While rapid prototyping is designed for speed, agility in that process ensures that speed doesn’t come at the cost of functionality.

Collaborate

Designers, marketers, investors, and test users should all be involved in the prototyping process to provide valuable feedback on both its design and the plan for launch. Prototyping can help facilitate those communications by proving the concept and giving a baseline to build on.

Choose the right fidelity

High, medium, and low fidelity prototypes all have their uses at certain stages in the project. Low-fidelity designs that are extremely basic are best to prove concepts, while higher-fidelity ones may be presented to investors. Choosing the right fidelity level will ensure a cost and time effective process.

Separate testing variables

When testing a design, it’s important to focus on one segment at a time to determine the root cause of any problems. Creating multiple prototypes for different tests is a common strategy that helps ensure a better final product.

Create consistently

Unless testing a specific portion of a design, it’s vital to keep prototypes consistent to monitor the results. If checking the design with users, standardized products ensure that feedback centers on a single model rather than multiple sources.

Focus on end-users

Prototyping should be about testing the viability of a product for end-users, not stakeholders. By making changes and updates from the end-user’s perspective, the creator can develop a more marketable and desirable product.

Stay Agile

Multiple prototyping rounds will ensure the best design possible, as the creator can work out issues and move on to the next one. While rapid prototyping is designed for speed, agility in that process ensures that speed doesn’t come at the cost of functionality.

Collaborate

Designers, marketers, investors, and test users should all be involved in the prototyping process to provide valuable feedback on both its design and the plan for launch. Prototyping can help facilitate those communications by proving the concept and giving a baseline to build on.

Choose the right fidelity

High, medium, and low fidelity prototypes all have their uses at certain stages in the project. Low-fidelity designs that are extremely basic are best to prove concepts, while higher-fidelity ones may be presented to investors. Choosing the right fidelity level will ensure a cost and time effective process.

These optimization tips can typically work in the traditional prototyping process as well, as they’re about testing, implementing feedback, and ensuring consistency. Those are all vital components in any product development project.

Is Rapid Prototyping the Right Choice?

Rapid prototyping is an excellent option for many creators, but it’s not suitable for every project. Below is a list of questions to help them determine if the rapid prototyping process is right for their concept.

☑ Does the concept require validation? 

Rapid prototyping can prove an idea will work while minimizing expenses. A very basic model will help establish the validity of the design, so resource waste is minimal.

☑ Is a large team involved? 

When there are many stakeholders in a given project, it can be challenging to communicate the idea effectively. A simple, low-fidelity prototype can demonstrate the vision to all key stakeholders.

☑ Is the idea a novel one?

When developing an entirely new concept, it’s crucial to test the user experience before moving onto production to ensure it is not just unique, but better than existing solutions.

☑ Is a patent in progress? 

The patent process is a lengthy one which can also get expensive without evidence that the concept is unique and viable. A working prototype can help speed the process.

☑ Will investors be needed? 

Investors in a project will make it much more affordable and expand its growth potential. A simple prototype can help give them confidence in a plan.

If they’ve answered YES to more than one of the questions in the above checklist, creators should consider pursuing rapid prototyping options with an industry expert. Through this, they can keep costs down, prove their concept, and ensure a better overall design.

Choosing the Best Prototyping Partner

Even more important than choosing between rapid or traditional prototyping is selecting the right partner. Not only will they advise on what prototyping path to take, but they’ll also be able to optimize the process and build an accurate, functional model. When looking for a partner, creators should seek out one who is:

Collaborative

It may be tempting to outsource the prototyping process to an overseas developer, but with that, creators won’t get the collaboration needed to ensure a working design. It’s best to choose a partner who offers on-site tours of their facilities and a single point of contact.

Experienced

The partner should have experience creating general prototypes – but they should also have expertise specific to that industry. The right partner will be able to provide examples of prior work they’ve done similar to the creator’s project to best guide them through the process.

Tech-savvy

The person creating the prototype should have experience with a wide variety of tools. With diverse knowledge, they won’t be pigeonholed into using a single method of manufacturing when another will do.

Secure

No creator wants to worry about the theft of their intellectual property. A good partner will have confidentiality standards in place to ensure client IP protection.

Rapid prototype development can help speed a concept to the market while providing a cost-effective, efficient design. This is an excellent solution for creators who want to test their idea as well as gain the interest of potential investors. With the right partner, a creator can bring their concept to life and create a product that delights consumers.

We Want to Collaborate with You

Pacific Research Laboratories is an expert in rapid prototype development for a wide range of industries. Visit our contact page or call (206) 408-7603 for more information on making your concept a reality.

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