The whole subject of prototypes for product development is dogged by misunderstanding. For some people, a prototype is a one-off that you make just before you start full production. For others, it is a development tool, and there might be thousands made to finalise each product. Let us help you make some sense of the issue...
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.
The tendency to only think of pre-production prototypes is unfortunate, as the test and development stages are often the most useful. Dyson famously made thousands of prototypes when he was developing the original cyclone vacuum cleaner, and I firmly agree with his belief in the value of refining and developing an idea using development models.
But how many do you need? We tend to create one or two test prototypes very early in the design process to check on basic function and to find out where the main problems are. We then refine the design and produce one or two development prototypes to finalise all the details and make sure the design is going to work as intended. Given the chance, we will also work with the client to produce a fully operational production prototype (or several) for detailed long term testing. I say ‘given the chance’ because some clients believe they don’t have the time or budget for detailed testing. If you get away with it, this can make sense. If you don’t, the consequences can be commercially disastrous.
So, how many? Between three and five should be enough for most projects, but complex products may need many, many more.
Read more about our Prototypes for Product Development services.