Prototyping serves a critical role in a modern product development effort. Often times production of a prototype serves as an important development milestone since the testing of that prototype will generate new information that will feed back into the development process.
For prototyping service design, every prototype should exist for an apparent purpose. As prototyping service design professionals are defining the plan to take a product from concept to manufacturing, they should be asking themselves what the highest-risk assumptions about the product are. Often, these assumptions relate to how a user will interact with the product, or how valuable the feature set may be to the end user. The highest risk assumptions should be designed into early prototyping for validation or invalidation. If they are invalidated, it typically means a significant business pivot. If this happens early in development, before significant manufacturing investment, that should be considered a success. This philosophy is at the heart of a phrase that is now used so often that it is almost cliché: “Fail fast – Fail Cheap”.
It is common for businesses that are new to hardware development to consider a ‘prototype’ as the final step before scale production can begin. This is largely correct, with an important caveat: the prototype that is representative of a production unit is typically the last in a series of less refined prototypes. For consumer electronics devices, it is common for businesses to go through dozens of prototype development cycles prior to launch. For industrial products, this number is lower – commonly three to ten porotype development cycles.
What is a prototyping development cycle?
A prototype is a physical representation of a design generated by the prototyping service design team. In very early development cycles, prototypes will serve to prove basic assumptions about function, component selection, and feasibility. At this stage, it makes sense to avoid spending development time on aesthetics, refined User Interface, and optimization for production. In later development cycles, these things should be incorporated, prioritized by how much risk is tied to each specific feature.
Business priorities and constraints can be very important inputs throughout prototype development cycles. For example, if development budget is constrained, businesses often seek outside funding prior to final design and manufacturing startup. In this case, development of a prototype for investor presentation is a good milestone. To make the most out of the limited development budget, it is common to intentionally leave some features out of this presentation prototype. A thorough understanding of what is important to the investor will drive what is developed into the presentation prototype.
Prototype Development Cost Drivers: High-Level View
1- The intended use of the prototype: A final prototype representative of production will take many iterations to achieve, whereas an early functional validation prototype may only take 10% of that to achieve.
2- Development of custom firmware and software can drive prototype development costs. If a prototype can serve the intended purpose using a less refined feature set, and a Raspberry Pi instead of a custom PCBA, the cost will be far lower.
3- Incorporating commercially available components where possible can significantly reduce prototype development cost. Everything from gears to enclosures to battery charge circuits can often be carried over from other products in early prototypes, while still fulfilling the goal of that development phase. As the design gets closer to production, fewer ‘sourced’ items and more ‘custom’ items will be part of the design. But pushing development of these custom components and subsystems usually makes a lot of sense.