Why and How to Prototype your Product

by | Jul 9, 2021

Product designers prototype for one of two reasons:

  1. To complete a low-volume order of a custom part
  2. To test an idea en route to creating a minimum viable product (MVP)

Having worked with dozens—if not hundreds—of clients to create prototypes for both aims, A-ONE Group Holdings has found the following advice particularly helpful:

Building an MVP

Many new clients don’t know what the development process is like. They have an idea for a product and don’t know how to get from square one to done. Whether they approach us with only a napkin sketch, or a modeled design, they almost always underestimate what is needed to make it the rest of the way.

Since A-ONE has participated in everything from initial design, prototyping, and mass manufacturing, we’ve seen all sorts of pitfalls and have overcome many challenges. If you find yourself aiming at an MVP, we recommend first understanding what makes a product “viable” and respecting the importance—even at this stage—of quality.

What Makes a Product “Viable”

Viability has three pieces: functionality, materials, and understanding.

Functionality is about validating your product. Does it do the correct job? Will the materials hold up? Is it sized correctly? This is the most obvious aspect of an MVP.

However, once you’ve solved the functionality, you’re not done. Your product’s materials and perception will also play key roles. The best prototypes don’t merely function; they mimic the end result as close as possible. If you’re testing the product with potential customers, the look and feel really matter. Are you using the proper plastics? Does it feel like an unpolished prototype or like an injection-molded final product?

Since design is both an art and a science, getting a physical prototype into your designer’s hands can help them understand and improve the product. Understanding is about efficiency and effectiveness. Is it designed efficiently? How could it be improved?

Regardless of what type of product you’re making, you’ve only achieved an MVP when you have a functional prototype made from the right materials that efficiently achieves the intended purpose.

Recognize the Importance of Quality

Many product designers skimp on quality when prototyping. This can endanger their ultimate success.

First, quality can affect your design. The difference between a low-quality and a high-quality product is astonishing. If you’re holding a physical prototype, you’ll be able to feel the difference. Why be distracted or confused by the prototype’s quality when you test out a proper version instead? Then, if you’re sharing the product with potential customers, you need a product that feels finished. At a trade show like CES, for instance, customers will respond differently to a clunky 3D-printed prototype than they will to one that feels injected molded and polished.

If you want real, honest feedback on the product (and not simply feedback on a low-quality version), be sure to use a high-quality manufacturing firm. Even at the prototyping stage, the vast majority of our clients find that this focus on quality pays for itself. Quality finishing, specifically, is an area where A-ONE always shines: We pride ourselves on delivering a polished, high-quality, and hand-finished prototype in only a matter of weeks.

For Low-Volume Orders of Custom Parts

A-ONE was able to CNC a biomedical product with their low-volume, customized design - ClickBio

If you’re prototyping because you need a custom part, your needs are different. From our experience, we recommend compiling advice from experts, learning from those who came before you, and considering the trade-offs inherent in different prototyping labs.

Compiling Advice from Experts

In the early stages, design commentary can be worth its weight in gold. Many product designers suggest initial designs with sub-optimal materials or processes. It’s not the designer’s fault: they simply lack the experience.

A CNC machine, for instance, can only go one direction: you can’t make a hole and then undercut a hole on the inside. We’ve even had some clients submit designs that defy the laws of physics! More commonly, they would simply benefit from expertise in designing a product in a cost-efficient manner.

This is a place where A-ONE’s concierge service shines. You can show us your design, and we’ll use our expertise to analyze it, highlight any flaws or concerns, and propose a price and timeline for it. We’ve spent so many years working with all of the manufacturing materials and processes that we know their properties and nuanced effects. Our improvements have ranged from suggesting a specific sort of plastic to raising concerns about strength, weight, or fire resistance, to offering a simplified and more attractive design.

Most prototyping labs (of which you can find dozens on the web) will simply take your upload, provide you an automatic quote, and manufacture it. A-ONE will actually add value to the product by evaluating the design and suggesting improvements.

Learn from Those who Came Before You

One of our recent clients approached us in need of a prototype that incorporated copper wiring, PCBs, and a plastic enclosure. We recognized that the company needed significant design and engineering assistance. Most manufacturers wouldn’t know where to begin! Since we have partnerships with leading engineering companies in the IoT space, we helped compile a serviceable team.

Copper utilized A-ONE’s design and manufacturing services

We brought in Breadware to sort out the mechanical part of the project, and then A-ONE supplied the cables, housings, and completed the final prototyping. While we didn’t provide the engineering solution, we know the right people to call. It can be very challenging to spot quality when hiring in unfamiliar industries, so borrowing from another team’s expert knowledge can save you a lot of danger.

After prototyping, we took that product to mass manufacturing, where the client required that a button click that felt “perfect.” We iterated the prototype and manufacturing tools to get the click to feel precisely like they wanted. Ultimately, they received a product that more than satisfied their needs.

Consider the Trade-offs of Different Prototyping Facilities

We frequently field relatively low-volume orders for high-precision custom parts. When one of our clients needs an engine—and fast—they come to us for speed, quality, and price. Not every prototyping lab has the ability to turn out the parts with these traits that our team specializes in.

Most manufacturing companies will take the designer entirely out of the process. You’ll spend less time working with them, which can appear as a benefit at first glance, but the quality often suffers.

“We’ve had many clients come to us after working with another prototyping company and say “thank god you’re not just a faceless online quoting service.”

Instead, A-ONE takes our clients the whole way, from initial prototyping to mass manufacturing. If you find yourself needing additional parts or a larger production of that prototype, we’ve already formed a relationship. You don’t have to worry about communicating the designs again (and potentially losing key details), nor must you worry about coordinating different timelines or needing to re-design for mass manufacturing.

Go Forth and Prototype

With a much larger toolbelt than most prototyping labs, A-ONE is typically faster, less hassle, and lower cost. Best of all, we’re not a faceless entity: With decades of experience going from napkin sketch to prototype to product, we walk our clients through any questions or concerns. If you’re building a high-quality product, contact us: we’d love to help.

Looking to prototype a product? Contact A-ONE today.

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