Electronics Design: Prototype

What is a Prototype?

A Prototype is done in order to explore some aspect of a new opportunity without having to fully commit to it yet. Prototype has a number of potential meanings including:

 

  • the original or model on which something is based or formed.
  • someone or something that serves to illustrate the typical qualities of a class; model; exemplar:
  • something analogous to another thing of a later period:
  • Biology. an archetype; a primitive form regarded as the basis of a group.

So a Prototype is either an early model or a smaller scale development to test a new idea.

 

Why Prototype?

So for engineering, we Prototype to reduce risk, and we learn from Prototypes to improve the likelihood of project success by being better informed for the next round of design. So a Prototype is a core Product Development Process Risk Management strategy.

 

Product Development Process

Product Development Process

A Prototype can also reduce other risks such as financial risk or market risk and isn’t always done for technical risk reasons.

 

Financial risk can be managed by breaking a project up into a series of stages and only committing funds to a stage when its predecessor has been successfully completed. A Prototype is often done ahead of a major block of Product Development to test whether the technical approach is likely to succeed and provide early warning of unexpected problems or interactions.

 

Market risk can be managed by trialling a new product idea with a smaller group of candidate customers to gauge their acceptance of the product. This has to be well managed however as history has shown that this approach, especially in the case of focus groups, can often just elicit the outcome the company hoped for and not a real example of how the market will react. Just look at all the failed Coca Cola new flavour launches.

 

And of course, technical risk can be managed by making Prototypes that implement the highest risk features as early as possible. We covered this in Improving Product Development.

 

A Prototype can often be used during Engineering Analysis in order to evaluate the effectiveness of different options for addressing the Requirements. This is covered in Electronics Design Process.

 

Successful Endeavours Development Process

Successful Endeavours Development Process

And then having designed a product it is normal to build a Prototype to ensure the final solution works as expected. This manages the risk that production tooling might need rework or even redesign.

 

How to Prototype?

This depends on the problem you want to solve. For this section we will focus on technical risks. A Prototype is very useful to allow you to measure some essential elements of the final product without committing to a final solution. So you can explore:

 

  • modelling a problem and simulations
  • noise and interference
  • power consumption
  • performance versus cost (compare several different prototypes)
  • responsiveness
  • system resources required
  • hardware versus software solutions
  • temperature rise
  • materials properties
  • shape and usability / ergonomics
  • fit (especially PCBs in mechanical housings)

And the list can go on. The key is to determine where the risk is and manage that. In Project Management Pre-preparation we looked at using a Prototype to reduce both technical and financial risk at the same time. In this case, other developers hadn’t been able to produce a working product so the client had a clear risk to manage. And our approach was to make a jig that allowed us to explore the sensing that was needed and get real data to then analyse and develop a solution. The same jig allowed the solution to then be tested before we designed the Electronics PCBs and Embedded Software needed for the final product. And the client was able to authorise each next level of expenditure with confidence based on us having delivered against the requirements for the previous stage.

 

Simulation

Simulation

And of course, 3D Printing for Electronics has enormously expanded the possibilities for mechanical prototypes by allowing anyone to quickly build and test the fit of objects together. It is also a viable option for low volume manufacturing.

 

3D Printed Spacer

3D Printed Spacer

3D Printed Spacer Fitted

3D Printed Spacer Fitted

 

Successful Endeavours specialise in Electronics Design and Embedded Software Development, focusing on products that are intended to be Made In AustraliaRay Keefe has developed market leading electronics products in Australia for more than 30 years. This post is Copyright © 2017 Successful Endeavours Pty Ltd.

Prototypes Blunt Innovation

Prototyping

Prototypes are very useful. We use them all the time when developing new products. They let us try out new ideas explore how well a particular technology will work for a specific application.

 

One danger of a prototype, is that there is the temptation to think that you can then just fix it up to make it into a product. This is a common enough dilemma with software. It mostly works so a bit more polish and it will be OK to ship it. This is definitely a danger zone. Once a prototype has served it’s purpose, put it aside. The design the product from the ground up. And then, if you can use any of the prototype design, then do so in a considered way based on the design and architecture you have determined will meet the entire needs of the project. Most prototypes do not have the exception handling and support featured needed to make them into real products that can be tested and maintained.

 

So I was interested to read about another potential problem with prototypes in the December 2011 edition of the Harvard Business Review in an article titled Early Prototypes Can Hurt A Team’s Creativity.

 

Innovation Blockage

The problem outlined is that the prototype can limit the thinking about the project. It is way easier to pick and choose features on a defined thing and critique flaws than to create something new. So the early prototype can really set the team back if they let it define the full scope of how to think about the underlying problem being solved.

 

Prototypes Can Kill Innovation

Prototypes Can Kill Innovation

I have seen the same think happen when a product needs a new model. It is obvious to look at incremental improvements and “Low Hanging Fruit” but sometimes you have to step back and think about the market and the customers and what they really need. Maybe it is time for a clean slate. And maybe there are good reasons why the old technology the product was based on is not the right choice for the next model.

 

In both cases, the prototype and the existing model act as a frame of reference that limits innovation and creativity.

 

The hard part of course, is recognising when that is the case and when it is not.

 

As an example, one project I worked on early in my career involved creating a new international product for a company entering a new market. It was for an existing category and there were 6 incumbents who had been there for a while, in some cases 30 years. The company did something very wise. They sent someone to talk to several opinion leaders and to all the local users of the equipment. The intent was to determine the best way to go about gaining market share. The story told was that none of the existing products met the customer needs really well. Over time they had converged into 2 formats, one for each market segment, and it was a price war as the products had become commodities. But when they were asked what they were trying to do, the customers gave 2 clear stories, one in each market segment. The marketing and product specifications were based on these 2 stories and we designed a single product to meet both market segments. The product entered a crowded international market at a price point 50% above the next most expensive product. The company planed to sell 300 in the first year and ramp up after that. The sold 1500 in the first year and had to move to a larger factory to satisfy the demand.

 

Leica Autostainer XL

Leica Autostainer XL

I also got a patent for one of the new technologies developed. The point is that if you meet the actual need, people will pay for that. The issue in this market was that the incumbents had let each others’ offerings define their responses and not the customers’ need. Another example of stifled innovation until a new player listened and changed the game.

 

I have never forgotten that lesson.

 

Successful Endeavours specialise in Electronics Design and Embedded Software Development. Ray Keefe has developed market leading electronics products in Australia for nearly 30 years. This post is Copyright © 2012 Successful Endeavours Pty Ltd