A prototype is a draft of a product that gives you the ability to explore your idea and demonstrate features before investing in the product's complete development. A prototype can range from a detailed drawing with pen and paper to a fully working version of the product.
In most cases, the prototype development process consists of a series of phases, each requiring more time and money to produce. A first prototype may look like the final version but may not be operational, while the second is operational but doesn't resemble the finished version. Throughout the entire process, the aim of prototyping is to get the product up and running as quickly and as inexpensively as possible.
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Prototype engineering definition: Engineering a prototype goes beyond sketches or physical mock-ups by creating a working proof-of-concept of the product. Usually done in phases, prototypes can range from an assembly of spare parts or handmade components to a precise rendering of the final product.
Benefits of Prototyping
Prototyping saves time and money and is a process that occurs in many industries, from software design to automobile manufacturing. You build a prototype as early in the design process as possible so you can examine it and get feedback from others while you are still thinking of ways to make it better. It makes little sense to spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars creating a finished product, only then to realize it needs modifications.
A classic example of prototyping is the first consumer computer mouse developed by Apple. After seeing a mouse designed by Xerox, which was a complicated device costing several hundred dollars to produce, Steve Jobs tasked design engineer JimYurchenco to come up with something more simple and less expensive. Yurchenco put together the first prototype in a few hours, using a butter dish and the plastic ball from a roll-on deodorant stick.
Professional web developers usually spend some time producing prototypes for their clients to illustrate how the website will work and what its features will look like. If the client wants changes, modifications can be made quickly because none of the back-end code has been put in place yet. Only when the client is satisfied with the prototype does the developer invest the time to make a finished website.
Prototype Development Process
Prototyping usually goes through a series of phases. A designer typically sketches a few ideas, often on paper or even on a napkin, before prototyping begins. Although the number of stages may vary, there are usually five prototype stages, followed by the final matured version of the product.
- Appearance Model: This may be a series of finely detailed drawings or a model made of foam or cardboard to demonstrate how the product will look.
- Proof of Concept: This is an assembly of components to demonstrate how the product will work. It often doesn't resemble the finished product at all.
- Alpha Prototype: A finely crafted, early version of the product.
- Beta Prototype: An enhanced version of the product that closely resembles how the final product will look and work. Software companies often refer to this as beta testing.
- Pilot Production: A limited run using normal production equipment to be used for fine-tuning of the product and production procedures.
Matured Product: The final version of the product that is ready to ship to customers.
Some projects may require one or more iterations of any of these prototypes, while others may not need all of these stages. For example, if the first appearance model or proof of concept is unsatisfactory, the designers may go back to the drawing board and start again. A web developer making a website for a single customer may be able to skip the proof of concept or pilot production.
An appearance model may be images of the product developed by a designer or a physical mock-up made with a 3D printer, foam or cardboard. The images are more than sketches and are usually a series of drawings used to explore different configurations of the product. The primary use of an appearance model is to examine and evaluate the size, color and visual features of the product.
An appearance model can be used for fundraising and for developing interest in the product from a company's board or potential investors. If someone is starting a company based on a new product, it's often the appearance model that is used when presenting the business plan.
Proof of Concept Prototype
Proof of concept is a quick and dirty assembly of the product. Unlike an appearance model, it isn't always supposed to look like the finished version. Instead, the focus is on the feasibility of the idea to evaluate its performance or the performance of some of its components.
Designers use this prototype to consider risks and to determine which components are needed in the final version. This can include testing the user interface or evaluating specific technical components. Primarily used for internal development, it can also be used to present to investors to prove the concept works.
An alpha prototype usually resembles the finished product and works much the same as the finished product is intended to work. It's used for testing to evaluate design flaws and evaluate the appearance of the product. User testing is sometimes done with the alpha prototype.
Developing the alpha prototype is more expensive than the previous versions. It may take months to construct an alpha prototype, while earlier prototypes may have been done in a matter of days or weeks. It gives designers an idea of how the final version will be produced because much of the process involves constructing parts that will appear in the final design and showing how they fit together.
A beta prototype is a refined version of the alpha prototype. It's as much as a 90% approximation of how the final product will look and behave. It is usually made by the production department rather than the design department, using the machinery or tools that will be used to produce the final version.
Several beta prototypes may be made for user testing or clinical trials. It's with the beta prototype that production tests and protocols are documented as the product is made and assembled. Changes to the beta prototype usually involve minor tweaks rather than major changes.
Pilot Production and Matured Product
When the beta prototype testing is complete, companies usually launch a pilot production of the product. The production and quality management departments often take control of the project at this point. They may produce up to 100 or so units of the product, which are suitable to be released to the market or used for additional clinical trials.
After all the issues have been resolved with the pilot production, the prototype development process is complete, and the product is ready for its final stage as a matured product. Any modifications required after testing of the pilot production are incorporated into the mature product, which is the product released to the market.
A published author, David Weedmark has advised businesses on technology, media and marketing for more than 20 years and used to teach computer science at Algonquin College. He is currently the owner of Mad Hat Labs, a web design and media consultancy business. David has written hundreds of articles for newspapers, magazines and websites including American Express, Samsung, Re/Max and the New York Times' About.com.