However, there is a lot of confusion about what the word 'prototype' actually means, so we're going back to the beginning...
Prototype derives from the Greek πρωττυπον (prototypon) or “primitive form”. For many people, however, it has become synonymous with ‘the thing you make just before you start making millions of them’. In reality, there are many types of prototype, and they perform a number of different functions within the product development process.
According to BS7000/2 (Managing the design of manufactured products) there are five distinct types:
- Mock ups, to simulate the overall shape,
- Experimental rigs, to test function,
- Test prototypes, to simulate both appearance and function,
- Development prototypes to finalise assembly and user issues, and
- Pre-production prototypes to ensure that every aspect is correct.
For most projects, the mock up and experimental rigs will, if they are needed at all, be simple and relatively inexpensive stages. The test prototypes and pre-production stages are, however, vital in order to ensure function, safety, quality and, last but not least, your reputation.
In our experience, a well-developed design that has a detailed CAD model associated with it should need between three and five prototype phases to ‘shake out’ the inevitable bugs and finalise your product idea.
Depending on the nature of your product, you may need to submit it for detailed testing to meet specific industry or national/international standards. Specialist test houses can provide detailed advice on this vital aspect of product development, but our advice is find out what standards your product will need to meet as soon as possible, and factor in the time and expense (usually considerable) of testing and approval into your project plan.
It is very tempting to try and shorten these stages of a project. They are an expensive phase of work at a time when most manufacturers are determined to get the product to market as soon as possible to recoup their investment. Our advice, however, is that this is no time to cut corners.
Getting it badly wrong will not just damage the new product, but could affect the reputation and legal position of your entire company.