Understanding the 5 Stages of Prototyping
One big mistake people make when thinking about the stages of prototyping is viewing them as a linear process. In reality, most prototyping efforts are far more cyclical. A creator may design a prototype, review it, scrap it and redesign it over and over again. That’s the whole purpose of prototyping―to create a full vision of the creator’s project that proves its efficacy and inspires confidence in the concept.
Prototyping comes in many forms. In some cases, it’s wise to use a rough model to show the concept works. In others, the design must be as close to the future product as possible to get stakeholders on board. Regardless of the needed fidelity, most prototypes will go through five distinct stages: defining, focusing on features, production, testing, and presenting.
5 Stages of Prototyping
Prototyping is used for many reasons. The creator may develop one just to see what the end product looks like, or they may need a complete model to test the user experience. The need for the prototype will guide the developer through each of the five stages of prototyping.
#1: Define the vision
At this point in the prototyping process, the developer needs to come up with an overarching vision for their product. This phase may include sketches, but it can also work as a verbal description as long as a few key questions are answered:
- What problem does it solve?
- Who is the key market?
- What other options are available?
- What’s the anticipated price point?
- What are the material and labor needs for creation?
Answering these questions gives critical clues as to whether the design will be useful and if its demand will be able to justify the cost of creation. This way, the creator can determine if prototyping is even necessary, or if they should reconsider their vision.
#2: Focus on key features
One common mistake of creators is trying to make their prototype identical to the end product. While this is useful when the prototype is for demonstrating value to investors, it’s not necessary for most other needs. The creator should single out one or two key features of their product to focus on in their prototype. Less critical issues, like the overall cosmetic look of the product or optional features, are not necessary unless they are the sole reason for the prototyping.
The actual building of the prototype is the lengthiest part of the process as the creator has to consider all the various options involved. Some standard prototyping methods to consider include:
- 3D Printing: This is a great option when the creator has a clear vision and wants a fast way to test its efficacy and function. However, it may not be ideal for situations where a highly detailed, near-perfect model is required.
- CNC Machining: This is a bit more exacting, meaning it’s great when the creator needs a highly detailed model. It’s a process that eliminates potential human error, as much of the creation is automated and machine-controlled.
- Powder bed fusions: This is a process specifically designed for metal or aluminum materials with high melting points. If the prototype must be in these materials, it’s the ideal option.
- Mold making and casting: This process allows a lot of flexibility and is ideal for building custom parts and designs without the need for computer input.
In some cases, a few different methods are employed in developing the prototype for the best result. When time is of the essence, rapid prototyping may be the way to go. Conventional options are more suited to detailed designs. The choice will generally depend on materials used, timeline, and budget.
#4: Test and refine
After rolling out the initial prototype, the creator will want to evaluate it, consider update options, and seek out ways to improve the overall process. This may require a few simple tweaks, or it could involve scrapping the whole initial design and starting over from step one. In any case, testing and refining should occur multiple times to ensure the prototype is ready to be unveiled to stakeholders.
The presentation stage will differ based on the purpose of the prototype. It may include creating multiple models for testing among consumers, sending the design in for patenting, or showing it to potential investors. The presentation stage will both help gauge interest and guide manufacturing methods, whether the need is for a simple short run or if more mass production is necessary.
Picking a Prototyping Partner
Selecting an agency to provide prototyping is challenging. Creators may focus on cost and, as a result, choose to work with an overseas outsourcer. However, these agencies typically can’t offer the hands-on collaboration needed to guide the design of a product. The workers at these agencies will rely on the creator’s initial design without providing much input on potential improvements.
It’s best to work with experienced, local partners to enjoy collaboration through all stages of prototyping. Through this, the creator leverages the expertise of the agency and can get insight on design improvements. Collaborative partnerships are the key to any prototyping project, no matter the size.
PRL’s engineers have dozens of manufacturing options available to help you solve any challenge facing your product: CNC machining, custom tooling, 3D printing, thermoplastic molding, reverse engineering, and more. No matter what stage your product is currently at, we can create it and optimize it for manufacturing.