15 years, 5127 prototypes is what it took James Dyson to create the DC01, his first upright vacuum cleaner with the patented cyclone technology. Dyson clearly understood the importance of creating and testing prototypes for the development of his new product.
As an entrepreneur or inventor looking to bring a new idea to market, it will be useful for you to know the various types of prototypes, common manufacturing processes and how you can get a prototype made for your new product idea, especially if it is an electronics product with a plastic enclosure.
This is part a 2 part guide to prototyping for hardware startups:-
Why create a prototype?
Types of prototypes
Why create a prototype?
Product development is an iterative process. The more prototypes you create, the more you learn about the challenges to overcome in your next version and ways to improve upon your original idea.
Prototyping = Experience
Nothing instills more confidence in potential investors than something tangible that proves the underlying concept of your idea. Considering how accessible rapid prototyping has become, you cannot afford to not have a good prototype of your idea.
Apart from proving the concept, prototypes are a great way to get a feel of the form and finish of your product, test it under different conditions and get feedback from users. Not testing your product enough before shipping out is one of the 11 Reasons Why Hardware Startups Fail.
Prototyping also gives you a good idea of what your BOM (Bill of materials) would cost, and accordingly an approximation on what the retail price of your product should be.
Types of prototypes
For this guide, we will be talking about the prototyping of a typical consumer electronic product which has an outer plastic enclosure and the electronics inside it. It could be an IOT device, something for home automation, a pet product or any other “smart” device.
Each prototype has a purpose - whether it’s to demonstrate the product’s functionality, use for marketing, secure funding, test ergonomics, test some assumptions or gather more data about the product. Therefore, different stages of product development demand a different type of prototype best suited for that specific stage. As the fidelity and quality of prototypes increase, the cost increases too.
1) 'Works-Like' Prototype
Also known as 'Functional Prototype', this type of prototype demonstrates the core functionality of your product. For hardware startups this means using development boards like the Arduino or Raspberry Pi to demonstrate how the product is intended to work. Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform. It’s easy to use and can be used to create some hardcore electronic projects. With a whole lot of sensors, add-on boards called shields and compatible hardware, Arduino can be used to create almost anything you could ask for.
There are a wide variety of boards available that make hardware prototyping more accessible and fun. Here is a list of 12 Development Boards you can use for your next prototype.
The ‘works-like’ prototype will look like a mess of wires initially, but that’s fine since it’s only purpose is to demonstrate the core functionality of your product idea. At this stage, the electronics may be enclosed in an off the shelf plastic box with holes drilled in for buttons, or in a wooden box. There are also metal enclosures available online if your project demands it.
Though working with these prototyping boards won’t require a degree in engineering, but it can still be overwhelming for someone just starting out. For non-technical founders wishing to start a hardware company, It may be wise to have a co-founder with an electronics background.
While the prototyping boards allow great flexibility with the use of various sensors and shields, they are not economically feasible when transitioning to mass production. Eventually, when the functionality of your product is proven, you will need to graduate to a custom designed PCB for your product. A custom PCB trims down the unnecessary components of a development board and helps reduce the internal space needed in the housing, it also helps you replace electronic components with equivalent or better alternatives that help you streamline the supply chain and reduce costs further.
2) 'Looks-Like' Prototype
The end-user has limited interaction with the underlying electronics, the outer appearance and usability of the product are the major factors which create a specific perception about the product in the customer's mind.They have a major impact on the buying decision of the customer and also help your product stand out.
The ‘looks-like’ prototypes can have a few different variations based on their intended purpose as discussed below.
At the most basic level, the ‘looks-like’ prototypes can be created using simple household materials like cardboard, duct-tape, papier-mache or foam.
Picture credit: Oxo
We use foam, 3D printing or sometimes modeling clay for creating initial mockups which are used for refining a product’s form, testing ergonomics, user interface or user experience.
The flexibility of sculpting in clay or foam allows for relatively quick design refinements in complex forms and collaborate with others intuitively. Working on something tangible helps in identifying the real-life scale and form of the objects, which becomes even more important in products that are meant to be worn or hand-held.
This makes form prototypes irreplaceable in the development of consumer products, yet often overlooked due to the availability of less manually intensive processes like 3D Printing.
There are also appearance models which are created for the purpose of product photography, marketing materials, showcasing at exhibitions or finalizing the right look and feel. The appearance models have a form and finish very close to the actual final product but are not functional.
We also use advanced 3D rendering software to create ‘digital prototypes’ which show exactly how the final product would look like and try different variations of it digitally without creating actual physical prototypes every time. Here is a more detailed overview of how you may use 3D rendering for product marketing.
3) 'Looks-Like, Works-Like' Combined
This is where the 'works-like' and 'looks-like' prototypes are integrated into one single product.
The outer shell or housing design goes back and forth between the industrial designer who fine tunes the aesthetics & form, and the mechanical engineer who integrates the electronics into the shell, ensures that the product meets the engineering requirements and prepares files for prototyping using more advanced techniques like CNC machining and 3D Printing.
Finishing techniques like anodizing, painting, electroplating, polishing and many more may be employed for a more polished prototype but finishing may or may not be a priority depending on the situation.
3D CAD Model of an electric toothbrush
4) Pre-Production Prototype
This is the closest you can get to replicating the end-product that you are going to manufacture at scale. The pre-production prototypes are often created using manufacturing processes that are very similar to the final production processes and are used to identify potential problems at the final production stage.
The prototypes created at this stage should meet all the engineering specifications and are also used for applying for various product certifications. At this stage the design is optimized for Manufacturability (DFM).
Depending on the design, the changes for DFM could either be minimal or it may involve a complete redesign of your product if DFM is not considered from the start. One often overlooked aspect is DFA (Design for Assembly). Design for Assembly is meant to ease the assembly process of a device and helps minimize time and costs at the assembly line.
A good design is not only the one that looks good but also the one which considers manufacturing and assembly, transportation, product’s pricing, usability, user experience, ergonomics, life-cycle, sustainability and a whole lot of different factors that are inter-related.
For a startup, A poorly designed product can prove to be a good way to go out of business and it is therefore also important for startups to understand the importance of design beyond superficial looks.
Update 1: June 27th, 2018: After an overwhelming response to the original article, we have decided to write more about the prototyping process and divide the original article into 2 parts.
Update 2: July 10th, 2018: The second part of "A guide to prototyping for hardware startups"
In this second part of this guide to prototyping, we will write about some common manufacturing processes which can be used to create prototypes, how to get your prototypes manufactured and what documentation/files you would need to give to the manufacturer. Since this is about hardware startups, we will be writing about what it takes to manufacture a custom enclosure for your electronics.
Common Prototype Manufacturing Processes
Here is a brief overview of some of the most common manufacturing processes that are used to create prototypes in a wide variety of materials and shapes.
1) 3D Printing:
3D Printing comes under additive manufacturing and the process inherently allows complex shapes to be formed. While it may be tempting to create some complex artsy shape for your product, remember that 3D Printing is not suitable for high volume production. The design ultimately has to be compatible for high volume techniques like injection molding.
Depending on the level of details and quality needed, different 3D Printing techniques like FDM (Fused-Deposition Modeling), SLA (Stereolithography) or SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) with their own unique strengths can be used for prototyping.
3D Printing is commonly used for prototyping plastic products and sometimes metals.
2) CNC Machining:
CNC Machining is subtractive in nature, which means that it removes material to create the end product. This process provides a wide choice in materials, like foam, plastics, woods and metals.
CNC machined parts are expensive and the per part cost doesn’t go down much even at scale when compared to injection molding. You may have to re-design your CNC machined parts to suit metal casting or sheet metal processes which are cost effective at high volumes.
3) Sheet Metal Processes:
There are a variety of manufacturing processes like Laser Cutting, WaterJet Cutting, Plasma Cutting and Stamping for sheet metals which makes it great for prototyping as well as transitioning to high volume production.
After cutting a pattern on a flat metal sheet, it can be bent and formed into desired shape to create enclosures for different products like computer cases, machine enclosures, home appliances etc. or used in internal parts of consumer electronics that may be too fragile/expensive for manufacturing in plastic.
4) Vacuum Casting/ Resin Casting for Plastics:
It involves a silicone mold to be created for your product from a ‘pattern’. This pattern is a one-off prototype of your product created using CNC or 3D Printing, with finishing that replicates production grade quality. The pattern is used to create the silicone mold into which resin is poured.
Resin Casting gives a quality that is very close to what the end product will look like and is a cost effective, low volume alternative to injection molding.
5) Metal Casting:
It is very similar in principle to resin casting but the mold is commonly made of steel(die-casting) or sand (sand-casting) and the parts are cast from different metals and their alloys. Die-Casting and Sand Casting vary in their suitable production volumes, material options and associated costs.
How to get your product manufactured?
Now that you are familiar with some common manufacturing processes, it will be useful to know what files or documentation you need in order to get quotes from manufacturers, where to find a manufacturer and how to get a quote.
1) Documentation and Files
After the design and development process for your product is complete, you should have some specific files and documentation of your product in order to receive quotes from different manufacturers.
For plastic parts, manufacturers typically require a 3D CAD model of the parts and 2D drawings which specify things like required tolerances, dimensions, finishing, color, product assembly, any special instructions, materials and such.
Make sure these specifications are mentioned clearly and are understood by the manufacturer, in a way, these specifications act as your contract with the manufacturer as far as part quality is concerned, the parts need to be manufactured within the agreed upon specifications.
There may be a little back and forth where a manufacturer may give recommendations to modify the specifications slightly to suit their processes better, and as a result provide better quality parts or reduce the part rejection rate.
Some popular software used for Computer Aided Design (CAD) are Solidworks, Autodesk Inventor, Catia etc, all of which can output 3D data in neutral file formats like STP, IGES, Parasolid etc which are needed to get quotes.
Soft goods like backpacks, wallets, apparel and other accessories require something known as a “tech-pack” which are very similar in function to 2D drawings for hard goods and list out the overall design intent and specifications.
These are accompanied by patterns or layouts of how the various pieces of textile need to be cut and sewed together in order to create the final product.
A common pitfall here that first time entrepreneurs fall into is that they look for “3D CAD specialists” or “3D Artists” or “3D Generalists” proficient in one of the popular CAD software to create a 3D CAD model for their product, because at the end of the day, a 3D model is a 3D model, right? Wrong.
A 3D CAD model created by a competent engineer or industrial designer would have been created after thorough consideration of various manufacturing and engineering constraints. This ensures the product will function as intended, be optimized for a given manufacturing process and does not fail to meet the engineering requirements while a 3D CAD model created by a 3D artist may not be technically sound or be feasible to manufacture at all. Not every 3D model is the same.
While 3D artists specialize in creating 3D models for CGI, visual effects, gaming and entertainment industry, engineers and industrial designers create 3D models for products that need to be manufactured in factories. Interchanging these roles can be disastrous for any company.
Finding a Manufacturer
Ideally, every part in your product assembly would have been optimized for a particular manufacturing process during the development phase. To source contract manufacturers for these parts you may look at the following places :-
1) Online directories:
There are online directories where you may find information about a wide variety of manufacturers in different countries. Some examples include, ThomasNet and mfg.com which are more US focused, Alibaba for China and IndiaMart for India.
Though there are many middlemen that lists themselves as manufacturers, so proper diligence is needed before selecting a manufacturer. The decision to have your product manufactured in your home country or overseas will depend on several factors, product size and shipping time being higher priority.
2) Google search:
Search using a variety of keyword combinations with words like “supplier”, “manufacturer”, “factories” along with the manufacturing process and location you are looking for. Not many small/mid-sized manufacturers have their own websites though, or even if they do have one, it is outdated. They don’t do much in order to rank higher in google results so you may need to search for a while.
Search within your network if anyone has worked with a manufacturer that they can recommend you. This can eliminate a lot of risks and headaches that come with finding and vetting a manufacturer, especially in a different country.
4) Trade shows:
Trade shows and exhibitions are a great way to explore a large number of companies from different regions all under one roof, which may otherwise could have taken several weeks.
It is also important to identify a manufacturer of the right size. This means that your order should neither be too large for the manufacturer’s production capacity nor too small to be neglected among the larger orders. With the right sized manufacturer, it will be easier to negotiate timelines, payment terms and quality standards.
Before sending an RFQ (Request for Quote) to contract manufacturers, make sure that your documentation and 3D models mention all your part requirements and acceptance criteria clearly and in detail so as to not leave any scope for misunderstanding.
Discuss your requirements with the manufacturer to ensure that they understand everything and will be able to meet your specifications. Don’t assume anything and also don’t leave anything to the imagination of the manufacturer.
Think through the whole process till the end and make sure to discuss things like shipping, whether they can arrange door-to-door shipping or door-to-port, who will assemble the product, what are the payment terms, what if they are not able to meet the timeline, what happens to the molds etc.
Make sure to have an NDA and non-compete agreement in place before sending out the 3D models or drawings.
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