Prototyping. Some designers live for it, others fear it, and others may not fully understand exactly what it means or what it’s supposed to achieve. Whatever your attitude towards the process, there’s a growing movement towards a transformative approach to prototyping— rapid prototyping, or RP. At Beyond Design, we’re huge proponents of this effective approach that can supercharge your path from concept to finished product.
The Purpose of Prototypes
When you’re getting ready to create a prototype, it’s important for companies to never lose sight of the purpose of prototyping in the first place.
One of the most powerful aspects of the prototyping process is that it propels you and your team from the ‘thinking’ phase to the ‘doing’ phase. To create a prototype, you have to have a design far enough along that it can be used to produce a physical product. When this goal is in mind (and a timeline is set), it can help break up the cycle of meeting, pondering, and feature-dreaming that can keep projects from moving forward.
A prototype should be used as fuel so that you can get real feedback from a real, tangible product— rather than living in the hypothetical stage of design.
That’s why the power of rapid prototyping can be so potent for you and your team.
What is rapid prototyping?
In the most basic sense, rapid prototyping is exactly what it sounds like: the process of creating a prototype in an extremely short timeframe. In practice, this usually means quickly creating a physical part or working model using CAD and producing it using additive manufacturing— also known as 3D printing.
Rapid prototyping is used by a range of different designers, developers, inventors, and organizations to quickly execute a prototype that they can then immediately use to test, garner feedback, and iterate on their initial design.
Rapid prototyping is now more accessible than ever thanks to the widespread availability of 3D printing technology and its relatively low cost. That said, other tactics are also sometimes used for RP work, including casting, moulding, high-speed machining and extruding.
In some cases, rapid prototypes are ‘high fidelity,’ meaning they very closely match the proposed final product. In others, a ‘low fidelity’ prototype is produced to serve as a first draft of what is planned to be a more functional or complex finished product.
So why are so many companies turning to rapid prototyping as an essential part of their product development process?
Benefits of Rapid Prototyping
When it comes to the positive effects of rapid prototyping, we’ll start with the most obvious— speed. Because a rapid prototype allows you to have a product or part designed, produced, and tested in such a short period of time, you’re able to very quickly assess its benefits and flaws and begin planning the next iteration (or production phase if the product is ready.)
The adage that it’s best to ‘fail early and often’ certainly applies in product design. When it comes to rapid prototyping, in some ways the best result you can achieve is to discover that your prototype is a complete failure in several ways. Imagine how much time you might have wasted over a longer, more drawn-out prototyping process only to discover the same result and have to go back to the drawing board— now several more days or weeks behind than you might have been with a faster process.
The next major advantage of rapid prototyping? Reduced cost. The process of creating a prototype, testing it, and garnering feedback can be done at lower expense when dealing with low volume. If you can minimize financial risk by working this way, you’ll be able to keep your project under budget and pour any money saved back into costly elements of your process.
Are there any downsides to rapid prototyping?
Though rapid prototyping can be very effective, it certainly has potential downsides. One downside is the risk of missing obvious design flaws that might have been identified pre-prototype in a more thorough process. In rapid prototyping, the design process is streamlined— sometimes at the expense of early-stage vetting. This results in the costs of a prototype which reveals issues that otherwise might have been caught beforehand.
Rapid prototype can also be limited to specific industries or product types. When it comes to products with a wide array of moving parts, interacting systems, or complicated designs, rapid prototyping simply can’t handle all of the manufacturing techniques and technical challenges necessary.
Is rapid prototyping right for you? It all depends on your unique industry, business, and the product itself. For most relatively straightforward products that can be handled by basic prototyping processes, this approach can have a dramatic positive effect on your timeline and your bottom line. If your products are more complex, rapid prototyping might result in costly double-backs and ultimately do more harm than good.
That said, it’s an approach worth considering for your business, as rapid prototyping processes are becoming more affordable and accessible than ever before.