If you’ve designed a new product, how do you know if it’s ready for production? You can probably find a contract manufacturer who is willing to run with your design, promising excellent results at a low cost. However, you don’t want to sacrifice quality for short-term savings, which is the risk you run when a supplier cuts corners on crucial steps in product development, such as prototyping. In this article, we’ll talk about the important purpose that prototyping plays in product development and how you can get the most out of that investment of time and resources.
Why do I need a prototype?
Your prototype is the first tangible expression of your new product idea. With a prototype, your design is taken from the drawing board and rendered as a physical unit, which you can touch, handle, use, and examine in three-dimensional space. This allows you to perform three important types of testing:
- Engineering validation — Can the product, as designed, function as you intend it to? Is it usable, reliable, and durable?
- Design validation — Does the product meet your aesthetic goals?
- Production validation — Can your product be mass-produced successfully, so that you achieve consistent quality at a reasonable per-unit price?
For these tests, you might want to create different prototypes using different methods. The three main kinds of prototypes are:
- Proof-of-Concept — The goal here is to validate engineering and/or design as quickly as possible. These prototypes are usually made from inexpensive materials and may only target one component rather than the whole product. These are the cheapest and fastest prototypes to make.
- Looks-Like — Here we want to produce a prototype that looks just like the intended final product. Such prototypes focus on aesthetics, and although they are made of high-quality materials and given finishing touches for appearance’s sake, they are not made to function. These prototypes help create marketing materials, display them at trade shows, or support other pre-production needs.
- Works-Like — The most advanced kind of prototype is intended to function like the final product. This prototype helps companies select production materials, conduct user studies, and perform function-focused testing. They are usually made from the same materials being considered for production. They are usually not given the final aesthetic touches, so they’ll appear in natural material colors and finishes.
The process of building and testing prototypes is vitally important to product development since it helps answer questions about sourcing materials, production processes, and per-unit costs. It also informs the Design for Manufacture process, which ensures that the design is ready to undergo mass production and achieve consistent levels of quality.
Options for prototyping in plastic
Technological advances have created options for quick and relatively inexpensive prototyping, especially with plastics. If you require plastic components for your new product, the methods available include:
- 3D printing — Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is a broad term for several technologies that support rapid prototyping. Because 3D printing is quick and inexpensive, it supports multiple iterations, which can support various types of testing. The technology works seamlessly with CAD files, which speeds the process of design modification.
- Urethane casting — This process employs silicone molds to produce detailed plastic prototypes. This method is suitable for mature designs requiring cost-effective engineering testing. If you desire multiple units for testing, the molds become less expensive to use than 3D printing. Silicone molds can spare you the expense of aluminum or steel molds but do not last as long and therefore cannot produce as many prototypes.
- CNC machining — This technology employs a wide range of tools to carve out a mold from solid materials. Digital milling machines use CAD software to create molds from solid blocks. This is an option for the rapid production of mid-stage functional prototypes. But precision can be an issue, so you must have some assurance that the manufacturer can achieve the tolerances the project requires.
- Injection molding — This popular method of mass production can also be used for prototyping. This is an excellent method for limited runs of prototype production.
Which option is best depends on where you are in the product development process and what purpose you need to achieve. For these reasons, you can’t do prototyping in a vacuum. It must be integrated into the larger process of perfecting your product, supported by a team committed to your success.
Choosing the right partner to assist with prototyping
When looking for help with a prototype, you should consider the other elements that are necessary for successful product development. At Genimex, we support our clients every step of the way from design to production, helping to reduce overall costs and improve quality at every juncture.
Importantly, we have a dedicated team comprised of design engineers, quality assurance specialists, and quality control experts. We also have a thoroughly vetted network of suppliers whose capabilities are well-known to us.
For all these reasons, you should not simply look for a contract manufacturer who can build you a prototype. Consider also how that manufacturer can take you from prototype to finished product.