In the drive to accelerate new product development and time to market, the pressure to validate a design can be intense. With a prototype of a product or component, designers’ finally move designs from the screen to physical objects that can be handled. Does it fit? Will it function as intended? Can a 3D printed part be manufactured by injection moulding? And—in the case of prototype products, rather than parts—what might potential customers think of it? Increasingly, smart manufacturers—and their design teams—are looking ahead, past the prototyping phase of the product design process, and are thinking in terms of the end product and its required performance characteristics.
Right first time
In product development, parts or products generally move through three phases of evolution: first, prototyping; second, low-volume production; then third—and final—serial production.
Prototyping is about crystallising a proven, working design. A prototype can be one of several (or many) such iterations, or just a final one-off physical validation of an on-screen design before design sign-off. On the other hand, low-volume production is less about the product itself, and more about its market or production process: a phase of low-volume production can help to refine a manufacturing process, or alternatively get test products or launch products to market in order to gain and validate customer perceptions. Finally, the precise volumes that are associated with serial production will depend on the product itself, and its market, and will typically range from thousands each year, to millions each year.
In each case, the goal at each stage is to move smoothly from each phase of development to the next, refining the product and its manufacturability. Overall, the objective is to minimise the total time and cost of the overall process, bringing a product from initial concept to serial production smoothly and efficiently, and as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.
In some industries bringing a product to market involves extensive compliance testing, often involving third-party certification. Aerospace and defence product development, for instance, calls for such compliance, and no manufacturer will want to finalise a product design and get ready for serial production, only to discover that the product in question does not meet its design requirements in terms of durability, usage cycles, or some other testable attribute. Making use of the prototyping stage to carry out such testing—a process known as pre-compliance testing—is therefore prudent. In such circumstances, it makes excellent sense for a designer to seek guidance from the prototyping provider in order to use a prototyping material that will yield meaningful information on attributes such as strength, flexibility and durability.
Finally, as well as these development and testing stages of bring a product to market, a manufacturer may wish the prototyping and development process of a product to take into account a number of broader business considerations.
Decisions about packaging, for instance, can impact packaging cost, vulnerability to damage during shipment, and the cubic utilisation of both primary and secondary packaging. Ultimately, of course, cubic utilisation will affect vehicle and container requirements, as well as shipping cost. It can be prudent to, wherever possible, use product prototypes in order to inform packaging decisions as early as is practicable.
Similarly, a business may have sustainability and branding objectives in addition to those impacted by packaging and shipping utilisation. A decision to use a particular means of packaging, for instance, may again impact damage statistics, or product aesthetics during a long shelf-life. An objective of using high levels of reclaimed plastic may not prove practical when injection moulding a specific part. And sourcing both prototypes and production parts over long distances will impact a business’s carbon footprint, as well as drive costs higher.
Quality, reliability, and business resilience are other important considerations. These are generally trade-offs: the cheapest prototyping provider will not usually be the fastest, or produce the highest-quality prototypes, for instance. Maintaining a close business relationship with a prototyping provider is becoming a strategic consideration for many businesses; value is placed on sourcing a recommended manufacturer as an outsource partner with the ability to satisfy prototype needs, plus low- and medium-volume product requirements. These suppliers provide the support that fully understands the need for DFM (design for manufacture) and are key to smoothing the way.
In short, successfully bringing a new product to market can call for a multi-faceted approach to design and development, embracing a wide range of issues, priorities, and trade-offs. In this paper we look at how an intelligent approach to prototyping strategy at each phase of the development process can help with this. The objective: an approach to prototyping that shortens overall development time, and brings to market a better product with a better performance, and at a lower overall development cost.