Using prototypes to help you successfully navigate the design to manufacture journey
Achieving commercialization success with an innovative product is challenging. In the case of hardware innovations, most promising ideas result in failure sometimes due to technical reasons but more often, the root cause is insufficient product development knowledge, low cash flow or poorly considered market or customer needs.
Approaches such as prototyping can increase the probability of success and is something we recommend you consider strategically. KTN’s Dr Abi Hird talks to PhD researcher Konstantinos Petrakis to find out more about his work in this area.
What is prototyping and why is it worthwhile?
“The main aim of prototyping is to test your idea before spending lots of money (and time) into the final version of the product and, of course, before investing in mass production.
“From an engineering and design perspective, a prototype is defined as an early, experimental version of a product and is generally used for the purposes of testing and feedback. In detail, designers build prototypes and use them to evaluate their concepts and reveal specific areas of the product that need improvement. Also, prototypes help them to gather insights on user needs and on how the product fits with the identified market opportunity.
“In traditional product development and design processes, people tend to apply prototypes towards the later stages of final configuration and pre-production. However, the complexity of modern globalized markets, challenging user requests, business innovation and entrepreneurship require more holistic design approaches.
“Designers need to place the users central to their decision making and consider behaviours, interactions, and motivations to deliver the most viable solution to a problem. Such approaches have prototyping at their core due to its capabilities in stimulating imagination and creativity, in exploring the problem space and being regarded as “building to think” tools. Designers can learn important information through the actual prototyping process, apart from the final prototyping outcome. For example, potential issues during the building of a simple mock-up model can always hint at what might not work during the actual production process.”
Where do people go wrong with prototyping?
“Nowadays, when many business domains are showing interest in implementing novel design approaches, there are still instances of misguided prototyping observed particularly in entrepreneurial and start-up settings. These are usually due to the lack of available funds, pressure to progress and limited design and prototyping skills of many hardware innovators.
“Although everyone agrees that prototyping is something that should be done as quickly as possible, a typical mistake has to do with investing in prototyping too early. As they invest people can be stuck with a particular idea they like and find it difficult to remain open to new options and learning. Having sufficient market understanding, considering alternatives, and properly defining the overall problem before you invest effort is key.
“Also, another example is related to the way the allocate their resources. Inexperienced ones can be carried away and spend a significant amount of time, money and of course, effort(!) in the fabrication of a “fancy”, high detailed and aesthetically pleasing prototype only to find out that it does not serve their purposes or that it is not what was required for a specific pitch or competition. A great quote from Dr Andy Bell, mentioned in the KTN Guidebook is “£20 at the hobby store and an evening at the dining table can save months and millions. A low fidelity prototype using readily available craft materials can quickly isolate and resolve problems”.
“Most of these problems have to do with people’s design mindset and prototyping mentality. Unfortunately, businesses do not fully realise the value of holistic design approaches and fail to adopt and invest in them. According to a recent report from the Danish Design Centre, lots of them struggle to view “design” as something more than a form-fitting or styling process of the final stages and end up disregarding prototyping’s strategic value and consequently design’s economic effects.
“Five top tips for innovators:
- The most important thing is to set explicit objectives before initiating the prototyping process. Asking the question “WHY should I build a prototype?” will reveal what you want the prototype to achieve, and this in turn will assist you in evaluating the outcome more efficiently. What is most important to test? Is it functionality? Is it appearance features? Deciding upon these factors will also provide some insight on the overall prototyping strategy.
- The second thing has to do with weighting up cost-benefit. Innovators have to consider their available funding when forming their strategy in order to inform their decisions and integrate prototyping into their project plan. For example, how many prototypes will be used, at which stages etc. In the case of low cash flow, they might need to consider how they will apply prototypes for the purpose of acquiring the needed funds.
- Third, seriously consider the prototype’s audience. Who will view or interact with your prototype, where will it be presented? It might be an end consumer, a focus group of experts, a panel of investors during a pitch, an award competition etc. In this case, you would have to spend a considerate amount of time in appreciating the background and experience of these people as this will uncover where the focus of the prototype should be.
- Also, you must appreciate what can you bring in terms of prototyping and whether your skillset is able to accommodate specific prototyping techniques and tools. You must play to your strengths or try to find additional, external support. But you can develop new insights or prove assumptions with even the simplest forms of prototyping such as sketches, role-playing, storyboards, or basic physical models with off-the-shelf parts. People must remember that it is not always about the quality of the prototype but for the lessons to be learnt instead and, of course, how these lessons will be evaluated and used in practice.
- Finally, “success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.” This can be definitely applied to prototyping as it is an overall experimental journey that helps you understand the overall experience and empathize with the user instead of just focusing on the final prototyping outcome. Also, people have to keep in mind that failure during the prototyping process should not be regarded as a design failure. Mistakes are supposed to happen during this exploration and problem-solving process to reveal new ideas and new learnings.”
The Guidebook: Navigating the Design to Manufacture Journey is a useful resource for thinking through the product development process.
Register for our Made Smarter Innovation Network webinar on Design to Manufacture (Tuesday 15 June, 10.00 – 11.30) where we will explore elements of design to manufacture to create a product that is easily and economically manufactured.