This article is a transcription of episode #2 of IDology - the industrial design podcast by Mindsailors. You can watch the entire episode on YouTube or listen to the audio version on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.
In this episode Anita Rogoża, who is a designer and researcher at our company, sat down with senior designer Mikołaj Wiewióra, to discuss the importance of prototyping in the product development process. They discussed different types of prototypes, why they are important on what stages of the industrial design process and how you can save many in new product development by prototyping wisely.
Anita: Hello, Mikołaj. It's good to see you again. And I'm really happy that we'll be talking about a topic that is quite pleasant for me, which is prototyping. I really do enjoy creating prototypes. I think that is something that pushes projects quite far quite often. Maybe let's start with how our clients think of prototypes. Do you maybe encounter some misconceptions about them in your work?
Mikołaj: Yes, there are a lot of them. Regarding the misconceptions, we were speaking with Voytek about TRL - NASAs levels of technology readiness, and we mapped them into prototypes. So yes, sometimes it's difficult to understand what we are actually talking about when we say the word prototype, because prototypes are different at different stages. We've got to first make them, sometimes a lot of them, before we finally know that the product that we are developing is the product that we wanted.
Anita: Okay, So maybe let's go through our design process and let's maybe match each stage or each phase with a different type of prototype, because I believe that this is the easiest way to maybe categorize them.
But first things first, I've prepared a definition of a prototype to maybe settle some knowledge at the very beginning and to create a common ground for everybody who will be less than that. A prototype is an early sample model, or release of a product built to test a concept or a process.So in that very definition we have testing, exploring, and something that's not finished yet, basically.
What types of prototypes do we have at the earliest stage of the projects? Do we prototype during pre-design or is it this phase too early?
Mikołaj: We can prototype during predesign, but usually we call it not a prototype yet. We tend to use the word or the term "proof of concept”.
Because we would like to know if our concept is doable. So we're making a physical proof of how to put together basic ideas or basic principles of mechanisms of electronic components that will eventually build up to a concept that we want to develop.
Anita: Okay, I see. So it's for looking for validation of an idea.
Mikołaj: Yes. We want to see if the main principle works. If it does, then we have to make it work as a product. And that's a different topic.
Anita: A proof of concept is something to build on in the following phases. When you prototype, what type of prototyping technologies do you use?
Mikołaj: We utilize a lot of different ones because each project or each product that we are designing is a bit different. Of course, technologies are not so different that for each product we have to develop a new technology, it's not that complicated. We still use a bunch of different prototyping techniques that are perfect for the particular project that we are developing. For example, if we are designing a large industrial machine, it is widely accepted that each manufactured part is a type of prototype. So when we design this machine, we do not prototype at a one-to-one scale. We can make some small printouts of our ideas. We can use foam or clay for the discovery stage. But it's not that common in industrial machinery to be honest. Speaking of those manual or those craftsman techniques, craftsmanship techniques like clay design, like sculpting, using paper for prototyping. Using all these different techniques to achieve a physical model is usually utilized when we are designing for ergonomics. That is, when we are designing things that are going to be in close contact with a hand or a human.
Anita: So, in general, while looking for the best way to interact with potential users in the future. Okay, You've mentioned that you use prototypes at different stages of the design process. So I believe we can say that prototyping is a type of tool that a designer can use while working on a project to discover different aspects of that project, starting from shape upwards towards the more ergonomic aspects and so on.
Mikołaj: Yes, we can call it that. A picture says more than a thousand words, and a prototype is something like a picture, but in 3D, so it says even more.
Anita: Okay, Awesome. The first prototypes are not very functional. These are more general prototypes looking for forms or looking for a general shape.
Mikołaj: We're speaking of the conceptual phase still. These are things that look as if they might look, but they are not performing any function at all.
Anita: Okay, During the later stage, mechanical design, we sometimes prototype functionalities as well. Maybe you could tell us a little bit more about it.
Mikołaj: Yes. You can understand it as a development of the proof of concept because in the proof of concept we had a project like a watch winder for example. We didn't know if we were able to design this mechanism within all these movements that this mechanism had, so we had to design a proof of concept. We tried to build this mechanism without thinking about the style, without thinking about how to cover this mechanism, just to make ourselves sure that this will work. And of course when we proved that it would work, we had to jump back into the conceptual phase because we wanted this mechanism to be fitted into a nice looking enclosure, because it was a high-end product. So we needed it to look good as well.
And when we jumped into the fourth phase of the design, which is called the mechanical phase, then the adventure started to translate this proof of concept into a real world product with working mechanisms, using parts that could be sourced from different manufacturers and still fit in the space that we designed.
Anita: I believe that it shows that prototyping, which is a very broad term, already has at least three levels: the level of validating the idea, the level of validating looks, and the level of executing functionalities and improving them. That's quite a bit. Maybe let's switch towards talking about techniques of prototyping because you've mentioned sculpting, you've mentioned using paper, and I believe there are some more advanced ones as well.
Mikołaj: There are, definitely. I think that all of us have heard about 3D printing, which is one of the most popular prototyping techniques nowadays. There are different reasons why 3D printing got so popular. One is that it got more affordable. Even regular people, regular customers, can own a small 3D printer, a household 3D printer that produces parts for everyday use. But it's not that advanced. It's not that good for more sophisticated prototyping. So we've got a lot of different other technologies in 3D printing that we utilize to fit the needs of the prototype.
So yes, 3D printing is one of these technologies. We've got a bunch of other technologies that are more, let's say, major, like CNC. CNC machining is an older technology, but still very useful regarding sheet metal, for example. Because we've got lasers today, we don't have to make very expensive tooling to cut out a really crazy shape out of a sheet of metal.
Still, it might be perceived as a more expensive technology than 3D printing, because stamping is just a process, but you need a tool. If you use a laser, you don't need a tool. A single part is more expensive per piece, but you get it faster and you can test quicker without tooling expenses.
The third in a row might be just welding, for example, if we want to make a desk. Something that has a structure that needs to withstand some forces. We need to make prototypes out of the materials that are going to be used in the final product. So welding or any other metal processing technologies are also prototyping technologies for us.
But on the other hand, we've got more craftsmen, as we mentioned already, techniques like clay, like paper, like foam sculpting. So all these different techniques are serving different purposes.
And with creating things, we cannot forget about finishing things like paper sanding, like painting, or covering with different materials, like flocking. Some technologies that use chemistry, like chemical vapor deposition, when you can achieve a metallic looking part out of a plastic part and you can put a thin layer of metal on top of the surface.
Anita: And then mimic the future finish of that surface as well.
Mikołaj: Yes, you can simulate the real-world product that you are going to deliver with these. And you can simulate it pretty closely to the end product. Of course, some problems will appear.
Anita: It takes time.
Mikołaj: It takes time, it costs money.
But if you want to be sure that this product is going to hit the market and be successful, you should think of prototyping as a part of the design process that is 200% necessary to do.
Anita: Yeah, Regarding the technology or techniques used for prototyping, it seems that the purpose of the prototype determines the technique that will be used. Is it testing the looks, for example, and mimicking the different surface finishes? Or is it, for example, validating the construction and welding of some steel elements to see how they act in the real world?
Mikołaj: Yes, you can test the look, and you can test the function. Of course, the final product should test the function and …
Anita: Should pass the test?
Mikołaj: Yes, but of course, the final product is something that is already optimized, that is after several rounds of tests, and you don't want to build on each step, the whole product representation with all these little details that are going to be on the finished product, unless you have tested this one thing,
Mikołaj: Like the strengths or like the look if it's important to you. That's why in the car industry there are concept prototypes that are made out of clay and then the designers look at them and think, "Okay, the form is okay but still needs some tweaks”. So they jump into the cut system and do the tweaks after clay modeling.
Anita: Yeah, So they combine software modeling with physical modeling.
Mikołaj: Yes. And this is something that we are also doing as industrial designers. It's not just the automotive world. We are spending more and more time in CAD software. beautiful concepts, especially when we are focused more on delivering finished prototypes of future products instead of beautiful concepts. Concepts might be really awesome and crazy, but you need to be able to manufacture them if you want to release a product. For example, the concept of a thin display that you can find on your iPad or any other tablet in the world was an unthinkable achievement for human engineering even 20 years ago. But something happened, the technology developed and these unthinkable concepts became reality but only after that, and have now been on the market for several years.
I do not want to say that conceptualizing and making crazy concepts is bad, but if we are working today and want a product in a year, we have to use the technologies that are probably already on the market. So we should deliver concepts that can answer all the requirements of the client and still be manufacturable within technologies that are on the market or that are going to be on the market in a year.
Anita: Okay, Thank you. You've mentioned that prototyping is a process that is 200% necessary for developing the product, but maybe could you tell us a little bit about how costly it can be or how to prepare yourself for the cost that it will add to the development of a new product?
Mikołaj: We can start with as low as a few dollars if you print it with your FVM 3D printer, or it might be as high as several hundred thousand dollars If you are prototyping a full-scale industrial machine. It all depends on the level of the prototype and the thing that you want to test, but to make it more understandable, we can use an example of a remote control for your TV, for example, because it is usually an assembly of a few parts.
It is an assembly of the PCB that is inside. You have to build this PCB or cover this PCB so that the user won't destroy it and won't damage the internals of the remote so that the remote can serve you for years. So you have to make the remote out of, let's say, the top part of the case, the bottom part of the case, and most probably a lid that covers the battery compartment, because you don't want to have to disassemble the whole remote control just to change the batteries. You don’t want that because even if most people would be able to reassemble this remote, there might be people that are not able to do this. So we have to think of the usability of this device, even this small remote control. So we've got basically three parts. If we want to just take a look at the remote we already designed, see if it fits our hands, if it is balanced in our hand regarding the point of touch. We can start with a clay model or we can start with a foam model, which is a little bit lighter than clay, but clay is still heavier than the actual product to be made. So we have to balance it.
But a more refined way to prototype is to 3D print these enclosures out of some plastic material. So this is closer to the final product, but you can still test the form so that you can print a single piece of plastic that makes up the form. You don't have to split it into three parts. So this prototype could be cheaper because you've got only one part to deliver. As a result, your vendor will spend less time delivering this prototype in his order.Because usually, when you 3D print externally, you are just one of many customers in the 3D printing chamber. There are a lot of different printouts and you have to find the right one for you. So this might cost as little as $10 or $50 if you order it by yourself, or if you want someone to prototype for you, it might be a little bit more expensive because he has to spend time describing what he wants.
This is the beginning stage because if we want to show the potential customer a prototype that resembles the final product that we would like to have on the market, one that has a surface finish, is painted, has the rubber buttons working, and is resembling the fully functional prototype or fully functional product, then it's going to be more expensive. Because it's going to be hand finished and this hand or manual work will cost time, which is money. When speaking of costs, it's about $2,000, for example, for this kind of functional prototype.
So it cannot be as cheap as the final product because you don't have tooling, and you don't have an automated process of finishing. You don't have all these things that are making the product cheap.
Anita: Okay, it seems that each prototype pushes the project further and maybe helps to avoid some big mistakes or big errors that may appear during the preparation of tooling for injection molding, for example.
Mikołaj: Yes, because I was stating the costs from the perspective of a prototype. These might seem huge if you think of a remote control that shouldn't cost more than a couple dollars in production. But when you want to manufacture something that is this cheap, you have to invest. You have to do it properly before you invest a lot of money in tooling, and tooling is expensive.
And if you are not sure that the tooling is going to manufacture the part that you want, then it's a waste of money. The tooling might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. So if we compare it to $2,000 for a single prototype, and even if you try it 10 times, you still spend 10 times less money than if you didn't prototype.
Anita: Compared to if you had to correct the mold or even make it again.
Mikołaj: Yes. Sometimes you have to make it again. And that's the problem. So that's why prototyping is beneficial. And it's from this perspective that it's not expensive. It's, of course, a necessary expense, but it's not expensive.
Anita: So it's saving, no, it's spending smaller amounts to maybe in the future save larger ones.
The prototypes are very present in our daily work and in the processes that we participate in. But can you think of any examples of existing prototypes or prototypes that are accessible on the market for customers?
Mikołaj: Yes. But the problem is that it's difficult to find physical ones, but if we go into the software world, yeah, I think it's quite easy to show you that everything is a prototype.
It's, of course, not that black and white. It’s not that physical products are always finished products, and software products are prototypes all the time. No, but there are some functionalities that are. For example, if you are a power user of some kind of software, you are able to test new functionalities before all the other users of this software are able to do this.
This is called a test program or beta program that you can subscribe to and test the software that is already on the market because it is not fully deployed. It is a prototype that you can test. There are also some MVP products on the market. I can't think of one single example right now, but several years ago, Netflix was one of them.
It was a platform that was built for streaming, and they were using third-party servers that were able to stream some amounts of data. And you can't go beyond a certain threshold unless you invest more money in your own servers and infrastructure, or build a larger one from third-party vendors. So they had a prototype and they launched this platform. It could have been a failure, but it turned out to be a success. Honestly, in the times of YouTube and all the different streaming services, I think it was a good business model to test and to be quite certain that this business will be okay in the future.
Of course, even if you are using Gmail or a smaller piece of software from a big company like Alphabet or Microsoft, you are still experiencing some prototyping phases of your operating system.
All those updates are making this product better. So this is an iterative process of developing prototypes and deploying them into the market. It's quite difficult to find these examples in the real world. In the physical world, if you try to put a prototype on the market, it has to work at least 99% of the time.
I was mentioning Kickstarter in a talk about TRLs. So this is also a platform that shows prototypes. You can see that this is an idea that is realized somehow that has some form. but the shape, form, and functionality might change. completely.
Mikołaj: These prototypes are still test units that might be further developed by the manufacturer. And the difference, the big difference between a physical product and a software product, is time to market. Because if you think of a prototype of a software product, you can make it this week and the next week, after several tests made by actual users it is tested and validated.
You can make it in a couple weeks. But if we are speaking of a product, it has a bunch of functionalities and without just one functionality, this product will not be the product that it was meant to be.
So you have to develop all the functionalities beforehand, you have to put these into one single device, and then you can say that it's finished. So I think that we all understand that it takes more time. And time is the value that is the most important in product development and physical product development.
Anita: Yeah, Thank you. A prototype can serve different functions. I would say they push the projects forward. I think that we can say that a prototype is an object that does not have a production line, but I believe that it helps all the engaged parties—the manufacturers, the client, and the designers—to work towards implementing a planned product.
Mikołaj: Correct. I agree with you 100%, and I believe that design without prototyping cannot happen.
Anita: Yeah, good, strong words to finish our conversation with and thank you.
Mikołaj: Thank you.
Mikołaj Wiewióra is a senior designer at Mindsailors. He has extensive experience in leading teams of designers and engineers on all stages of the design process.
Anita Rogoża is a researcher & designer at Mindsailors. Her priority is on making functional designs that are both user and environment friendly.
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