The true power of the prototype

Jon Lawson

Austen Miller explores the often misunderstood role of the prototype and takes a look at its future

When it comes to new product development, the function of a prototype is often misunderstood.

For many, it represents a facsimile of the final product; a point in the plan to alleviate anxieties and put the sceptics to rest. If this can be done without spending too much of the development budget then so much the better.

And with so much talk these days about 3D printers, the general view is that you do a bit of CAD work and simply press F7.

The evidence of this mindset can be seen in the project plans that focus on a prototype milestone relatively early in the project.

But the trouble with trying to force the process is that it disregards the reality of what we are doing in the design and development process.

A successful product is the culmination of juggling many varied constraints into an elegant set of compromises.

Each of the elements that are wrestled with during design can indeed be tested and evaluated using prototypes. It’s not one size fits all.

The finished production item will capture the know-how gained during development, the experience of the design team and the attention to detail given along the way.

Whereas a prototype can only be a simulation of part of the story, because it’s constrained by the limitations of the process that created it.

The idea that a single prototype will be able to represent the design intent and be all things to all departments without spending the time and money on the design process is how optimism missteps expectations.

Participate in enough of these project plans and you understand why the various players are motivated to make the prototype stage so important: fear. So let's step back. What is trying to be achieved? What are the worries?

Get down to the specifics

Making a prototype to answer a specific line of questioning is far more appropriate and is more realistic to what a prototype is.

If I want to get an idea of what a product will look like then CGI is probably the most adaptable method, rather than a physical prototype.

Designers who sketch in 3D from the outset are the most useful to work with when it comes to strong realistic visuals: unambiguous communication of ideas that have the ability to inspire even the most faint-hearted.

If spatial context is required, then a simple block model can support the visuals, made with just a minor tweak of the 3D data.

Take this to the latest level and with virtual reality you can even interact with your ideas.

However, sometimes the question is not ‘what will it look like?’ but ‘will it work?’ This is answered by the prototypes that exist in the domain of R&D. Here sticky-backed plastic and plasticine are not necessarily out of place. Often referred to as 'jury rigs', all manners of methods are employed to reach an understanding of something that was theorised.

When R&D has provided a specification and the design intent satisfies the marketing objectives, then the process moves to its next level.

Engineering development provides the details for assembly and the geometry of parts with a clear understanding of the manufacturing processes. During this process, 3D printing comes into its own.

Designers that have access to this technology get instant feedback of fit and assembly difficulties and those able to create high resolution plastic parts throughout the process means the number of problems that reach pre-production falls significantly.

Physical versus virtual

During the engineering development process we may find questions that are about strength, reliability, and performance.

The use of a physical prototype here must be considered very carefully, especially when using rapid prototypes. The limitations of the materials and processes may do more to worry the observer than reassure. This is where virtual prototyping comes is most useful.

Computers can mathematically simulate the real world and offer the sort of reassurance that comes from science rather than simple faith.

However, the area of rapid prototyping is developing swiftly. New technologies and materials might soon mean that it can provide greater accuracy, flexibility and reassurance to design teams, clients and investors.

For example, new 3D printers that can combine different materials and print in hundreds of thousands of colours are being developed to reduce the time and expense taken by painting or assembling 3D printed products and components after they’ve been printed.

Eurecat Technology Centre in Spain has also recently developed a 3D printer that incorporates a virtual reality representation of the printing job, so it can be monitored, tweaked and changed in real-time, further helping to save time and costs and improving accuracy.

There is also huge investment in refining a 3D printing process using metal, which is set to transform the construction industry, as well as providing new opportunities to engineers developing new metal components and products.

But perhaps some of the biggest hype recently has been around developing materials for rapid prototyping that have an internal structure that can be manipulated to alter certain properties.

Ceramic foam ink allows for ‘tunable’ microstructures within the material, allowing for strength, durability and shape to be altered and experimented with, adding even greater value and scope to the prototyping process.

Adidas has demonstrated something similar with its newly launched FutureCraft 4D trainers.

Turning away from 3D printing, Adidas has used ‘digital light synthesis’ to create the soles of the trainers, a technique that uses light to sculpt a liquid resin with elastic properties, which is then set in shape under heat.

The process is fully ‘tunable’, allowing for different levels of cushioning and stability across a single element to create tailor-made trainers based on a customer’s running data.

The future of prototyping is certainly very exciting, but however sophisticated the techniques become, the role of the prototype in the wider design and development process remains the same: A single prototype cannot answer all the problems or questions. Only a well-staged process that knocks down the fears one by one, by considering the best type of prototype to use and when to use it, will get you where you want to be without leaving you bankrupt.

Where function meets form

The tagline that 3form Design operates under is simple: “We make great ideas into great products”.

However, the processes the UK-headquartered company deploys to satisfy that claim are anything but simple.

Companies come to 3form Design when they want to turn their idea into a game-changing product in their category.

The firm’s team of product designers do this by combining an instinct for aesthetics and branding with the real application of engineering, science and manufacturing knowledge. Its dynamic turnkey ‘design and build’ service allows the company to partner with clients across multiple industries from first concept and development through to box-delivered production of commercially savvy products.

The company’s knowledge of design, engineering and manufacturing means it is not constrained by preconceptions and it never designs to a set of rules. Instead, it says that its experts believe that anything is possible: any product, any process, any material.

3form Design champions a design process that embraces and enhances the digital tools available today. Working in the 3D environment from the beginning, it focuses on maintaining synergy between the aesthetic, computational and manufacturing know-how for a faster, safer passage.

Austen Miller is senior partner at 3form Design

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