What is a prototype? Definition and examples
A prototype is a preliminary or first model of something, such as a machine. Other forms are copied or developed from the prototype. In the research and development department of a company that makes, for example, flying machines, the prototype is the one that the aeronautical engineers develop and experiment on.
Put simply, a prototype is an early model or sample of a planned final product created to test its performance. Companies typically use prototypes to test or evaluate a new design.
We also use the term to describe somebody who exhibits the essential characteristics of a later type (see the dictionary’s second definition below).
Collins dictionary has the following definition of the term:
“1. A prototype is a new type of machine or device which is not yet ready to be made in large numbers and sold.”
“2. If you say that someone or something is a prototype of a type of person or thing, you mean that they are the first or most typical one of that type.”
In one of our previous articles, Veronica Cruz wrote:
“When you’re preparing to create a prototype, you want to keep it simple. You can add and make changes later on down the road, but the prototype lets you see the core elements of your product.”
A prototype – a step in the R&D process
R&D stands for research and development. If you are inventing a new product, you need to create a prototype, which initially could be a 3-dimensional version of your idea. What it looks like depends on:
- How much money you have, i.e., your budget.
- What type of invention you are aiming for.
- Your goals.
Ideally, you should create a handmade prototype, even if it looks very basic.
The following quote comes from an article in entrepreneur.com:
“We’ve seen prototypes made from the simplest of household items: socks, diaper tabs, household glue, empty milk containers – you name it. If it works for your initial demonstration purposes, it’s as good as the most expensive materials.”
Should you eventually decide to proceed, you will most likely need to create a pre-production prototype if you plan to mass produce it yourself. If you don’t want to manufacture it, you could license it. You will, however, need a presentation prototype.
Types of prototypes
There are several different types of prototypes. Let’s have a look at some of them:
A Working Prototype
A model of the final product that functions as intended. Its creator may use it for presentations to generate investor or partner interest.
A Proof-of-Concept Prototype
In most cases, this type does not have functioning parts. The aim here is to verify the intended design and some functional aspects, especially the key ones.
This type represents enough of the functions and appearance of the planned final product for user research purposes.
A User Experience Prototype
The model is close enough to the intended final product for research to be carried out on target users. In other words, researchers watch the model being used. At this point, user feedback is crucial before carrying on.
This model looks like the final product and works like it (mostly). However, researchers may have made it using different techniques. This model may also be smaller than the one they aim to sell one day.
This term is common in the world of computer software. It is a printed representation of the computer program’s user interface. These are typically used during the initial stages of software design.
Benefits of prototypes
- Inventors and researchers can identify and sort out design problems early on.
- It is easier to estimate manufacturing time, production costs, material requirements, and sometimes even the final product’s sale price.
- Engineers can determine what equipment and machinery they will need for mass production.
- By testing early test models, it is possible to determine the product’s durability and reliability.
- Consumer feedback helps steer developers in the right direction.
- It is easier to persuade potential investors if you have something tangible to show them.
- It is possible to determine more precisely what the product will be for and what it will look like (final design and function).
- You can save a lot of money, and possibly future disaster, if you determine early on that the product is not practical or profitable.
What is rapid prototyping?
Rapid prototyping is a series of techniques researchers use to rapidly create a scale model using three-dimensional CAD (computer aided design).
3D printing has helped rapid prototyping become extremely popular. You can develop a three-dimensional model of your idea, and then create it with a 3D printer in minutes, thus giving you something tangible to focus on.
According to formlabs.com:
“Rapid prototyping is the group of techniques used to quickly fabricate a scale model of a physical part or assembly using three-dimensional computer-aided design (CAD) data.”
“Because these parts or assemblies are usually constructed using additive fabrication techniques as opposed to traditional subtractive methods, the phrase has become synonymous with additive manufacturing and 3D printing.”