Products rapid prototyping allows fast testing of product ideas and facilitates alterations where needed. This improves the produce quality long before it gets tested in the real market.

Rapid prototyping definition

A product prototype is a physical representation the designer uses to show and verify product feasibility. Rapid prototyping can be as simple as a hand-made model that helps communicate the new concept, most commonly referred to as a mockup. It can also be a high detail fully working representation of how an intricate concept will look, feel and work in the real world. A prototype is the first tangible representation of your idea, making it extremely important. The good thing about a prototype is that it need not be something fancy or expensive to produce. It can be a rudimentary representation as long as it is able to demonstrate the feasibility of the idea. You can always improve it from there.

Prototypes are made so that designers and various other stakeholders can think of them not as abstract ideas, but as tangible products. A tangible prototype helps the designer check for flaws in the design. The prototype can show the best materials and other components that best work for the concept.  A prototype can also be used by the designer to see how the end-user thinks about the concept. Sometimes the prototype can be given to a test group so that the designer can get feedback on the concept and make alterations where needed.

If the company sees great potential in the product idea, a prototype will be made for testing. This process can take weeks or months in order to come up with a workable prototype and make sure it meets the safety and utility requirements of its target consumers. To make sure the prototype passes this stage, many companies involve the actual users and make adjustments based on their feedback.

When trying to build a business with a physical product as its basis rather than something intangible like a service, having a prototype speaks volumes about the viability of your business. So here are five simple things you need to know how to make a prototype. The main aim of the prototyping stage is to create a working product to use as a sample. It is very unlikely to get the perfect finished product in a single try. Prototyping involves experimenting with a number of versions of the idea. This enables the designer to eliminate options, make changes and improvements until they reach the desired final sample.

Prototyping is done using a reference. There are various types of references used in prototyping such as 3D models, sketches and physical models depending on the type of product being developed. As a designer goes through product development, each journey to the final product is different. And each industry has its own special set of techniques involved in designing something. By following these steps, the designer can breakdown the huge task of bringing a product to life into more digestible phases.

Prototypes are important to the movement of the design from the digital to the physical existence. This is very helpful to assist visual and functional aspects. It also helps get feedback from various stakeholders, especially the end-user. Prototypes range from basic ones usually now done using FDM 3D printers to sophisticated ones done using final manufacturing processes, e.g. CNC milling, Injection moulding. Prototypes are different from mock-ups, where mock-ups can be started, as early as, in the concept development stage to provide an understanding of ideas. Prototypes are usually used to validate ideas usability at a closer level to the actual end product.

An alternative to this process would be a simple mock-up prepared from e.g. cardboard, to represent the idea, or an off-the-shelf product modified to add the value expected from the new idea.

Low fidelity rapid prototyping

A low-fidelity product prototype uses a simple model of the product for testing. These models may be incomplete and use fewer features than those intended for the final product.

These prototype models are usually cheap and easily made. Examples of low fidelity prototypes may include storyboards, sketches, card sorting and so on. Low fidelity prototypes have a huge disadvantage because they lack realism and so most tests conducted on them lack validity.

Photo of hand holding a prototype printed in black plastic
Product prototype 3D printed using filament based 3D printing (FDM)

High fidelity rapid prototyping

A high fidelity product prototype is a model that appears and works similar to the intended final product, e.g. 3D models with movable components allow the user to interact with the model the same way they would the final product.

High fidelity prototypes have a huge advantage in that the designer easily communicates the vision of the product to stakeholders. They also allow the collection of high-level validity and applicability of information from tests. The biggest disadvantage is that they take longer to make and cost more.

Photo of a silicone part on a person's hand
Silicone pre-production sample made using soft-mould for our company

Rapid prototyping benefits

Product prototypes help designers find better ways in overcoming potential production difficulties, higher costs and large-scale production disasters. Here are some key benefits of prototypes in product development:

1. Understanding the look and feel of the design: the best way to visualise your product is to have an actual physical model. You can truly see how the concept has been turned into a physical product. This is proof of concept; it shows that the tangible idea can be made into a physical working quality product.

2. Make fast changes while saving time and money: before the product reaches the production stage, prototypes allow the designer to identify potential issues in the design and material to be used. Changes to the product at this point can be made instantly and with as little cost as possible.

3. Identifying design flaws: prototypes allow the designer to test the physical properties of the product. This helps reduce flaws and allows the designer to make improvements.

4. Making custom designs and upgrades: prototypes can also be used to make original designs and make custom designs or upgrades of already existing products. A prototype can help save a lot of money for developing a new product as a prototype can be used to learn from, test and replicate.

Prototypes can be a fast and effective way of bringing ideas to life. A sample of the intended final product can be tested and observed by the target user or evaluator, and their thoughts and opinions can be used to make improvements and alterations during the production process. The prototype simply proves the feasibility of an idea to be made into a final product.

Photo of a transparent rectangular shaped part held between to fingers for the photo
Pre-production of a part for our company using SLS 3D printing

A prototype can simply be defined as a functional sample based on a product’s design. There are many reasons for producing a prototype, but one of the primary and most important reasons is that it is used to gather feedback from potential investors and targeted consumers. Prototyping is without a doubt a significant part of new product development, and here are five reasons why.

Helps with Early Detection and Fixing of Errors, as when it comes to business, there is a risk of failure, but this can be reduced with a good prototype. By prototyping your product, you can catch mistakes early on and fix them before moving on to another stage in the development process. This is extremely important because mistakes that are discovered later on are more costly to fix than if they were discovered in the prototype stage.

They are Good for Convincing Investors. If you want investors to buy into your idea, having something that they can visualise and interact with is a great way to get them on board. This is what prototypes are particularly good for. The prototype does not need to be perfect, considering that investors will not look at it as a full representation of the final product. As long as the prototype is functional to a reasonable degree, it should increase the chance that investors will want to buy in.

They Simplify the Process of Filing for a Patent. Although a prototype is not particularly necessary when filing for a patent, it is a great way to demonstrate the functionality of your concept. This has the added benefit of increasing the chance that your patent application will be successful. Just be sure not to waste time on making a prototype with all the bells and whistles since, when it comes to prototypes, the general rule is that the first one to invent it is the one who will get the patent.

Every business would love to minimise costs and increase profits. Luckily, this is something a prototype can help with. By manufacturing a functional sample early on in the new product development stages, you can figure out which steps can be removed, improved or streamlined during production, saving you a lot of time and money in the process.

As mentioned earlier, this is one of the main reasons why prototyping is very important – getting user feedback. You can then use the information you have gathered from users to update the product accordingly. If you do not take into consideration the input of your target consumers, you will end up designing the product for yourself, which can decrease the chances that it will resonate with consumers once it hits the global markets.

These days, with the way prototyping is becoming more and more inexpensive, no successful new product development project can do without it. Prototyping smoothness the road into the local, national or global markets, allowing companies to launch products that have been perfected to the best of their ability.

Rapid prototyping development

A prototype does not need to have all the bells and whistles included in order to effectively communicate that you have an idea that works. You just need to show people that you have a design that is cohesive, meaning you can certainly do more with less here. Making a simple prototype based on your product design is the first step towards having a fully functional product and the quickest way to enter the local, national and/or global markets. By making it simple, we mean you should build a mini prototype first before anything else. Just make a list of the components you need, visit your local hardware store and construct the mini prototype. With that in hand, your startup’s concept should be easier to explain to people.

When it comes to prototyping, the reality is that you will probably come up with a few prototypes before you have something that is more in line with what you intended. And the fact is that it will probably not look professional at all since you are just using simple materials from your local hardware store. But this is a necessary step to work out the kinks. Once you get it to function properly, you just need to improve the aesthetics to make it more presentable. Also, do not get bogged down in making it perfect (keep in mind that you are only refining at this stage).

After you have worked out the kinks and made your prototype more presentable, you can look into building a fully functional prototype. At this stage, you can find companies that can help you build a functional prototype that can further help you win investors and even file for a patent (since you will be the first to demonstrate a workable concept like this). Just keep in mind that your prototype still does not need all the bells and whistles included at this point; it just has to be good enough to show.

You should do this the moment you create the mini prototype based on your product design. We know it is hard to show people a product that is incomplete (it can feel as if you are not doing your idea a great service), but do not be afraid. People will understand that the prototype is not fully representative of the final product, so they will judge it based on its own merits. If they judge it harshly, do not take it too hard. Just go back and refine it some more and appreciate that you are getting feedback before the final product is released on the global market you are aiming for.

With these 5 simple things to know, you will have a functional prototype in no time. Once people and investors start seeing your concept take more of a physical form, they will start to have more confidence in your startup. Soon enough, you will have a finished product that is ready for the local, national and even global markets.

Prototype for a compact disinfectant device made using filament based 3D printer
Prototype for a compact disinfectant device made using filament based 3D printer

Rapid prototyping test steps

Every company needs to introduce a new product to grow and bringing if from idea to the market needs product testing. One cannot go into this process without a plan if you want to be successful. There are a lot of factors to consider if you want to obtain data that can be actionable. To ensure a smooth product testing process, follow the below tips. This way, you gain valuable insights from real consumers in terms of utility, performance, appeal and safety, among others, of your offer.

Define objectives

What are you trying to achieve with the product testing? This is a question that needs to be answered in advance as it will inform every decision you make. This includes everything from the data you wish to obtain to how you are going to use it. Make sure the goals are clearly defined and detailed as possible so you bring an idea to life that people will find useful.

Find venue

Location is everything. You need a venue that has everything the users need to make the most of your product. While the business premises might be the obvious choice, a neutral location is preferable. The ideal location would be a viewing or testing facility that is located somewhere convenient, with large park space and easy accessibility.

Make a contingency plan

Prepare to take action in case something goes wrong. For example, if there is a chance that you can run out of the product, bring extra. Also, make sure your testing venue is located somewhere near a ha
dware store that you can use to purchase supplies as the need arises.

Build a team

As this stage, you can either hire a product design companies or build a team. If you opt for the latter, you need to build a team of people you trust. Pick a good supervisor; someone you know will be on top of everything and will pick, train and guide team members to a successful product testing event.

Recruit participants

No matter what method you are using to gather data, you will want to sure the participants representative of your target audience. Data gathering methods can include interviews, surveys, focus groups, questionnaires. And you need to develop a proper recruitment screener that will give you candidates with having the desired behaviours and are from the right demographics.

Ongoing testing

Product testing is not a one and done type of deal. With the data you have obtained from user feedback, you most likely make alterations to the product. You need to test it again to ensure the issues (if any) have been resolved. Once you are sure users are satisfied, you will know you have conducted your final product testing. These steps should increase the product launch a success. Obtaining valuable data from actual consumers is the main reason why product testing is important. And when all goes well, not only will you get your product manufactured, but you will also increase its success.

Rapid prototyping test benefits

Product prototype testing gets the best version of a product to customers, which increases the business market share. For new products being prepared to go onto the market, testing should be a top priority. It is especially important for start-ups who are just entering the market and do not want to mess up their first and only chance to make the right impression in a market full of competitors.

Product prototype for a part using Powder-based SLS 3D printing, in front of computer screen showcasing the CAD model of the same part
Product prototype for a part using Powder-based SLS 3D printing, in front of computer screen showcasing the CAD model of the same part

Achieve durability

After the initial development of a product prototype, it has to be tested in various conditions and usability scenarios. This ensures they pose adequate durability. It also allows for fine-tuning the design and gives a chance to eliminate the weakest points. A product durability testing also reduces recalls and customer complains when the products go to market. It reduces the risk of damage and thus warranty claims are reduced to a minimum. It also protects against the biggest risk of all; bad word of mouth from unsatisfied and frustrated customers.

Customer satisfaction

Market testing a new product is one of the concrete ways to know that customer satisfaction is achievable. Even if the new product has great product design look, validation from end-users using product prototypes is still the most important step. Customers are always right and unless the product is revolutionary customers usually know what they want. It is hard to predict customer feedback without asking them. This step helps avoid disappointing sales. Customers feedback on the product prototype can also help improve the product design current or future versions.

Safety and regulations

Safety should be priority number one for new products. A prototype helps ensure all possible angles are covered. A product prototype can also help in the process of obtaining certification to iron out all non-conforming aspects before mass production can be scaled up. Product prototype testing is vital to the success of any new product, as it can be seen from the above points. All the biggest and most successful companies conduct rigorous product prototype tests, and that is why you see many consumers trusting and buying their products because they know they are paying for excellence in all areas.

Rapid prototyping process summary

Building a product is one of the major steps when trying to bring an idea to life. When one thinks about prototyping their feasible product idea, the reasons why to do it become apparent. In fact, there’s no way a new product development project can achieve high levels of success without building a prototype. It’s hard not to feel good about your product development project when you are looking at its early fruits in the form of a prototype.

However, despite the importance of a prototype being recognised, building one is an involving process that needs resources. It is not unheard of for people to pour in a large number of resources into making a perfect prototype when all they needed was just a functional representation of the final product. In order to avoid wasting resources over an obsession to build a prototype that is perfect, one must ask the right questions. These questions will determine when it would be appropriate and how much resources are needed.

Time and money is a very limited per project, and it needs to be channelled towards activities that will really ensure the continued existence of a company. That is why is it important to ask yourself if you have enough time and resources to dedicate towards a prototype. Coming up with a great prototype is important, but this doesn’t mean the project resource constraints should be foregone. Coming up with a prototype with all the bells and whistles means diverting resources away from other parts of the product development project. For example, this might impact your marketing or testing budget in a negative way – the latter can negatively affect the production of a quality product.

It makes no sense to prototype at every stage of product development. During the early stages, when requirements are being identified and ideas are being played around with, there’s no need to come up with anything fancy and tangible. At this stage, the designers can come up with pencil sketches and CAD diagrams to effectively garner feedback and explore the ideas with greater flexibility.

Only when the project has reached the generative stage, do you need to start thinking about developing a prototype. While sketches, 3D models and wire-frames can make sense from a design perspective, they might not be enough to communicate certain details of the design or the implications of its use. These things are better left to a prototype – if you have a simple product design, however, the prototype might not be needed.

Before you get your product manufactured, you need to get a lot of feedback, both internally and externally. The good thing about a prototype is that you can use it to get first impressions from target consumers in terms of things like aesthetics, utility and usability. If you need that kind of feedback to make better-informed decisions before moving forward, then you might need a prototype. Also, in regards to showing your idea to potential investors, a prototype is more effective than drawings and models. You can inspire more confidence in your designs and the overall project once you show the people you expect to give you money something tangible.

A prototype is not something that should be taken lightly, especially when it comes to its execution. There needs to be a great amount of consideration put into it before moving ahead and creating one. That way, a considerable amount of resources that would have been used in other parts of the product development project do not get wasted towards creating a perfect prototype. And it starts with asking the right questions.

This is the final product testing before launch and commercialisation takes place. This is like a mini launch into the market to test the response of the users to make further tweaks if there are any minute complains. Furthermore, this allows the marketing team to strategies for the full introduction and get ahead of the competition. With the information gathered from the market testing, a decision to launch the product or not is made. If it is a go, the marketing team comes up with a detailed plan to make the launch as smooth as possible. At this stage, a lot of financial resources are poured into manufacturing the product as well as advertising and other marketing activities.

The company also comes up with a roll-out strategy for the product, which normally starts with launching locally before going national and, if possible, international. Also, timing is crucial at this step and can lead to the delay of the product launch if it is not right. For instance, it would not make sense to launch the product in a time when the economy is down and people do not have money to spend on new products. New product development is a process that should not be taken lightly. Not every company that begins the process will see it through to the end, especially when they do not do it right. Furthermore, even if they manage to develop the product, they need to make sure it is something consumers want or need. The above steps make sure companies take a strategic and customer-driven approach to the product development process.

After you get your product manufactured, you need to test it out on the market on real consumers. Since that is Version 1.0, chances are it will not be perfect off the bat and you might need to work on it  further.  Also, with the tendency of consumer needs to change, you need  to make  sure that the product remains relevant to the people you want  to use it.  So make sure you are getting constant feedback from people  about your  product through testing.

Photo of a red travel bottle on a white table in a reception area
Prince Hassan

By Prince Hassan

20+ years of experience in products research and development (R&D) and expert in design for manufacturing (DFM). Founder and CEO of DegreeSign.