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What Should I Know About Prototype Development?

By Carol Francois
Updated May 16, 2024
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Prototype development is the creation of the first working model of a new product or invention. Before the prototype can be created, the designer must create detailed product specifications. This document must provide the exact type of material the prototype will be made from and drawings complete with measurements from all angles.

In most cases, the process of design, construction of a prototype, and testing is repeated multiple times. Each time, the design is improved, with items added or removed to create a final, working model. This cycle is the only method for refining the original design to create a fully functioning product.

In order to keep track of the prototype development, a naming strategy is used. Some designers use Greek letters such as alpha, beta, and gamma to represent first, second and third versions. Others use a combination of letters and numbers or use a decimal numbering sequence to distinguish the level of versioning.

A prototype specialist is someone with expertise in fabrication, testing and engineering. Their role is to work with the designers to create a working model of the proposed product in the most efficient method possible. They are also responsible for ensuring that the end product can be mass-produced in a cost-effective manner and determining the actual per unit production costs. These values are then used by management to determine the feasibility of the product for production and sale.

There are four basic types of prototype development that are used: proof of principle, form study, visual prototype, and functional prototype. A design may go through all of these categories or just one before being produced. The value of each of these stages is the ability to critically evaluate, analyze and reapply this knowledge to the original design, improving it at each stage.

The proof of principle model, or breadboard, is a purely functional model. The purpose is to test a portion of the design to determine if it will work as anticipated. No color or finishes are added to this model. The concepts commonly tested at this stage are range of motion, sensors, product architecture and mechanics. If an item cannot pass this stage, further development is required.

A form study model is used by designers to focus on the visual appearance and usability of a product. This may include its ergonomic design, look and feel. The model itself is without color, finish or texture, but is true to the shape and overall design.

A visual model is designed to review the actual color scheme, surface texture, material feel and other design elements. These types of models are used for market research, review by executives and costing by packaging firms. The color, material selection and other visual details have a direct impact on the success or failure of any project.

The functional model or working prototype is the last version and is designed to create the final, fully functional model of the end product. The product scale may be smaller, and the materials used may change, but the working prototype includes the final look, feel and functionality of the final product. This stage of prototype development created the final version that allows the engineers to ensure that the product will function as anticipated.

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