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3D printed phone case. Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/Stephane Masclaux

How To Make a Prototype: Process, Testing, and Advantages

Xomety X
By Team Xometry
July 1, 2023
 9 min read
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A prototype is an early version of a product that is made to test and validate the product's functionality, performance, and design. It serves as a physical illustration of an idea that can be used to spot problems, enhance the design, and determine consumer demand. 

This article will examine the steps involved in creating a prototype, from idea generation to design iteration. It will also explore techniques for producing a physical prototype, such as 3D printing and CNC prototyping. Additionally, we'll talk about what to think about before creating a prototype, how to make a prototype, and how to test and determine when your prototype is ready. Finally, we will highlight the advantages of creating a prototype, including the ways it can minimize risks, save time and money, and improve the product's marketability.

What Is a Product Prototype?

A product prototype is a preliminary model or sample of a product that is created to test and evaluate its design, functionality, and overall feasibility. It can also be referred to as a mock-up, a demo model, or a proof-of-concept. Common purposes for prototypes include: confirming that the item works as intended, identifying and fixing any design flaws or defects, gauging user experience, getting feedback from prospective customers, and showcasing the product's features and advantages to stakeholders.

Prototyping is valuable for several reasons: it reduces the risks and costs related to product development, improves teamwork and communication, and increases your chances of commercial success. Conceptualization, design, development, testing, and refinement are among the stages that typically go into making a product prototype. Depending on the product's nature and intended use, the prototype may be made using a variety of tools and methods.

What Is the Process of Developing a Prototype?

The following steps are typically involved in creating a product prototype:

1. Brainstorm

The brainstorming phase is your time to come up with a lot of ideas and assess them to find the most promising ones. The purpose of brainstorming is to produce as many ideas as you can, either individually or in a group. These concepts can then be improved and assessed for viability and potential efficacy. Once a good idea has been chosen, it can be developed further in the form of a prototype. Brainstorming encourages original thinking and creativity.

2. Create a Rough Draft

Making a preliminary version of the prototype is the task of the rough draft stage. Create a basic design, choose the materials to be used, and build a crude prototype. It's essential to test the design at this point to find any potential issues or problem areas. You may have to produce several rough drafts to perfect the design and make sure it adheres to the required specifications. 

3. Create a Physical Prototype

In the physical prototype stage of the process, you create an actual working model of the design. The physical prototype should be a close match to the finished item so that it can be tested and improved. If you were creating a new kind of smartphone case, for instance, you might produce a 3D-printed model of the case so you can test its functionality and make any necessary adjustments before moving on to the next stage of development. The following are some of the techniques used to create the prototype product:

3D Printing

The first step in 3D printing a physical prototype is to design a 3D model using specialized software such as CAD. The 3D model of the finalized design is then uploaded to a 3D printer, which uses melted plastic or other materials to build the object layer by layer. After the prototype is printed, it can be tested for usability, fit, and other crucial elements. Any necessary adjustments can then be made before moving on to the next development stage.

CNC Prototyping

Computer numerical control (or CNC) prototyping is a manufacturing technique that makes precise, superior physical prototypes using computer-controlled machinery. The process of CNC prototyping begins with the creation of a 3D CAD model of the object. The CAD model is then converted into a CNC machine-readable format. To shape an object, the CNC machine removes material from a block, sheet, or other stock of raw material using cutting tools. The CNC machine requires little assistance from a human to produce extremely accurate and detailed prototypes. Once the prototype is made, it can be improved, tested, and altered as necessary to produce the desired result. Figure 1 is an example of a CNC machining operation:

Slide 1 of 1
piece of metal cnc machined
piece of metal cnc machined
piece of metal cnc machined

CNC machining a piece of metal.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/Red ivory

Refine Prototype

The prototype process must include refinement. It should enhance the prototype's design, usability, and functionality. Designers and engineers iterate and enhance the prototype during the refining stage using input from test users and other stakeholders. To improve the prototype's effectiveness and efficiency, they might alter its features, usability, composition, or production methods.

Things to Consider Before Developing a Prototype

To make sure the product prototype is both cost- and requirement-effective, several factors should be taken into account before developing it:

  1. Cost: The budget required to develop the prototype and the potential costs of manufacturing the final product.
  2. Units of Measurement: The type of measurements used in the prototype and whether they can be accurately measured.
  3. Tolerance Variance: The acceptable margins of error in the measurements and whether the prototype can achieve them.
  4. Material Selection: The appropriate materials required for the prototype and their cost-effectiveness. 
  5. Pick the Appropriate Tools: Choose the appropriate technologies and tools to create your prototype. This will make it easier to further develop your prototype if needed, and it will also help ensure that it is effective and functional.
  6. Functionality: The expected functionality of the prototype and whether it meets the user's needs.
  7. Intellectual Property: Ensuring that the prototype does not infringe on any existing patents or trademarks.

Tips For Making a Prototype

Here are a few tips for developing a prototype:

  1. Enlist an Intellectual Property Lawyer: To ensure that your prototype doesn't infringe on any existing patents or trademarks, it's wise to have an intellectual property lawyer review your idea and provide guidance.
  2. Use Non-Disclosure Agreements for Collaborators: If you're working with other people to create your prototype, have them sign non-disclosure agreements to protect your idea from being shared without your permission.
  3. Seek Cost-Effective Ways to Render a Prototype: To save money on your prototype, consider using 3D printers, off-the-shelf components, or other methods that are cost-effective in low-volume production schemes.
  4. Start Simple: Begin with a basic prototype and add more complexity as you go.
  5. Test and Iterate: Test your prototype, gather feedback, and make improvements as necessary to create a final product that meets user needs.

How to Test a Prototype

After it has been constructed, your prototype should be tested to make sure it meets user requirements and performs as intended. Formative and summative prototype testing are the two main types that are essential for product development. Summative tests assess it against predetermined standards while formative tests gather feedback for improvements. The full procedure for testing a prototype is as follows:

  1. Define the goals and questions to be answered during testing.
  2. Recruit participants who match the target user demographic.
  3. Collect and analyze the feedback and data.
  4. Make any necessary changes to the prototype based on the feedback.

Questions to answer during testing: 

  1. Does the prototype meet user needs? 
  2. Is it easy to use? 
  3. Are there any usability issues?  
  4. Is the prototype visually appealing? 

How to Know Your Prototype is Ready

Your prototyping process will eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. The following are some indicators that your prototype is complete:

  1. Solves the Problem: Your prototype should effectively solve the problem that it was created to address.
  2. Results are Aligned With Your Needs: The results of testing the prototype should be aligned with your needs and expectations.
  3. Positive User Feedback: Positive user feedback is a good indication that your prototype is ready.
  4. Successful Usability Testing: Conduct usability testing to ensure that the prototype is easy to use and navigate.
  5. Meets Technical Requirements: The prototype should meet the final product’s technical requirements. 
  6. Cost-Effective: The cost of developing the prototype should be reasonable and fit within the budget for the final product.

Advantages of Creating a Prototype

Developing a prototype has some benefits for the development of products, including:

  1. Functionality: A prototype can demonstrate how your product will function in the real world.
  2. Testing: Prototypes can be tested to assess user experience, identify issues, and make improvements.
  3. Spark Ideas for the Next Project: The process of creating a prototype can generate ideas for future projects and iterations.
  4. Risk Minimization: Prototyping helps you identify and mitigate risks in the early stages of development.
  5. Save Time and Money: Prototyping can save you time and money by identifying design flaws and issues early on.
  6. Improve Marketability: A well-designed and functional prototype can improve your product's marketability by demonstrating its potential and attracting investors.

Summary

This article presented how to make a prototype, explained it, and discussed the various steps and how to test. To learn more about prototyping, contact a Xometry representative.

Xometry provides a wide range of manufacturing capabilities and other value-added services for all of your prototyping and production needs. Visit our website to learn more or to request a free, no-obligation quote.

Disclaimer

The content appearing on this webpage is for informational purposes only. Xometry makes no representation or warranty of any kind, be it expressed or implied, as to the accuracy, completeness, or validity of the information. Any performance parameters, geometric tolerances, specific design features, quality and types of materials, or processes should not be inferred to represent what will be delivered by third-party suppliers or manufacturers through Xometry’s network. Buyers seeking quotes for parts are responsible for defining the specific requirements for those parts. Please refer to our terms and conditions for more information.

Xomety X
Team Xometry
This article was written by various Xometry contributors. Xometry is a leading resource on manufacturing with CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, 3D printing, injection molding, urethane casting, and more.