How to build a product protoype

When launching a new product, a working prototype will tell you a lot about the its flaws, limitations and saleability. Here's what you need to know to get that prototype right.

A prototype needs to be built for three prime reasons: to check that the parts fit together and work; to test whether the built product performs as desired; and to show the product to customers for feedback and potential commercial discussions.

So to the question is, how should you build your prototypes?

Keep these core principles at the heart of your project:
• It’s very important to do it iteratively
• Know what the prototypes will be used for
• Plan what you are going to do with them.

With these in mind, the process of building iterative prototypes often looks like this:

1. First prototypesDesign plans with paint, brushes, rulers and tape

These are to test the design, shape, form and ergonomics. Today we can build multiple designs very quickly, so designs can be tested by customers for feel, shape and aesthetics. In some cases they can be made to work, to simulate real use, but the design of the parts is not yet ready for production.

What once took a month can now be built days. These first prototypes can be built using any technique – cost and speed are critical at this stage. They are made to help visualise and test ergonomics, and ask customers' opinions, but are not yet ready to have their full function tested.

2. Pre-production prototypes

These are used to test the fit and function of the parts before you spend money moving to production. The design is ready for production and these prototypes test the data so we know it all works before production begins.

These must be accurate even down to the right material and finish. Why? Because testing these parts is the last step before you go to tooling and production, a large cost in any project.

If you are testing new ideas, these prototypes will often need to be repeated once discoveries from the previous prototypes are known.

These are generally best made using computer numerical control (CNC) machinery. This is very accurate and specific materials can be chosen to machine parts from. It’s important to note that SLA and 3D printing have some limitations in terms of the materials that can be used.

In summary

During projects for product design, service design or experience design, it is crucial to choose the right technology and techniques that match the reason you need the prototypes. Of course, underpinning all this is a great design and a well-run design project.

Robert Tiller is the founder of Tiller Design. The business has been creating new products and experiences for over 25 years. 

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