The Ultimate Guide to Prototyping

One of the most critical aspects of the new product development process is testing assumptions and proving that the design meets the requirements in a real-world setting.  Prototyping allows stakeholders and users the opportunity to try out new products and provide feedback for the integrated product team to incorporate into future product designs.  It is a critical part of the process as it reduces risk in development by allowing the team to experiment with different ideas and identify errors before large amounts of resources are devoted to mass produce an idea.  For this reason, the closer the prototype can get to the final product, the more confidence the team can have when it comes time to launch.  There are several methods for creating prototypes at each stage of the development process with the natural flow being to start with a rudimentary mock-up and, through much debate and discussion, progress to a fully functional prototype.  Ideally, the team will arrive at a prototype that they feel confident can succeed in the market, while reducing the risk of errors and market misalignment.

This guide to prototyping will cover:

What Is Prototyping?

Prototyping is an action taken during the new product development process that provides the new product team with a real-life physical representation of what the product will look and feel like.  A prototype can be used as a visual aid, a functional model to test a specific principle, or to test an entire system.  The level of detail and functionality of the prototype will depend upon the stage in the new product development process.  Although many of today’s CAD design software packages can create incredibly realistic computer simulations, the product design still needs to be tested and evaluated in real world settings.  The results from the observations of the prototype can be compared with the computer simulations and any deviations can be investigated.  The goal by the end of the new product development process is to be able to have a consistent and repeatable product that can be released to the market. 

Why Do Organizations Use Prototypes?

Prototypes aid in reducing risk when introducing a new product.  Ideally, companies would like to create as many prototypes as possible and perform as many tests as possible before launch.  However, the need to test and experiment must be balanced with the speed of the market and the need to quickly develop new products and commercialize them.

Many start-ups and entrepreneurs also need prototypes when seeking investment in their new products.  An investor will want to fully understand the product concept and see the market viability before investing.  A founder would ideally have a functional prototype or at the very least a visual aid for these types of discussions.  Likewise, organizations of all sizes often have many stakeholders invested in a given product; it is important to adequately communicate the product concept to these stakeholders at all stages of development.  Whether it be a visual aid, or a proof of principle or a fully functional prototype, stakeholders want to be informed so they can identify possible areas of concern that can be revised and improved before spending large amounts of resources on further product design and commercialization.

Apart from visual aids, prototypes can be used to test relationships between components, stress loads, and thermal loads in real-life, rather than just in a computer simulation.  After each motion, stress, and thermal study, data points can be analyzed, and revisions can be made based on these data points received from the test.  It is much easier to make revisions early in the process before the product has launched.  Prototyping allows teams to reduce the risk of launching a product that doesn’t work and can tarnish the brand.

Categories of Prototypes

Visual Aid

Often referred to as a visual aid or a concept model, its main purpose is to simply provide a physical representation, either scaled or actual-size. This allows users and stakeholders to understand the look, feel, and size of the product’s features and components. Visual aids can range from rough mock-ups to highly detailed and intricate models. Multiple ideas can also be compared side-by-side. Each design can offer different features that can influence a user’s feelings towards a product. Ideally, visual aids can be used to capture user data and help the new product development team make design decisions more clearly amongst multiple options.

Proof of Principle

A step beyond a visual aid is a proof of principle, whereby, a specific aspect of the design is tested for functionality.  It can be to test the motion relationship between two interworking components or how the system handles mechanical and thermal stressors.  The entire system does not have to be produced, just the necessary components to test the assumption in question.  With a proof of principle prototype, the design team can test out each functionality step by step, further building out the system.

Functional Prototype

After many visual aids and proof of principle prototypes, a fully functional product prototype is next to be developed. Taking the feedback received from testing with the visual aids and the data gathered from the proof of principle tests, the functional prototype should incorporate the feedback and data gathered by the new product development team throughout the process. Often, several functional prototypes will be made as modifications will most likely be required to fine-tune the product. Ideally, the development team will eventually get the functional prototype as close to the final product as possible. The functional prototype should inspire confidence in the team that the product will successfully perform as designed and solve the user problem outlined in the new product strategy.

How Are Prototypes Made?

There are several conventional and high-tech methods for producing prototypes, with the method chosen being dependent upon the application and the stage in the development process.

Paper/Cardboard/Foam Board

For many early mock-ups, paper, cardboard and any other handy items are useful for creating a rough concept of what the product will be. The advantages are that it is a cheap prototyping method, while the disadvantages are that it is not very accurate or sturdy, and it is a manual, time-consuming process.


Wood is a popular prototyping method for many products that will eventually be made from metal or composite material and generally will be quite large. Wood can give a good physical representation of the dimensions and is very sturdy. The main advantage is the high amount of manual labor required to shape and fasten the wood together to make the product.


Another method for prototyping is putting a plaster, epoxy or resin into a mold to create an object. Molded prototypes tend to have a higher level of accuracy than many other “mock-up” methods. However, there is still a relatively high degree of labor involved in creating the mold and the available materials are limited.

3D Printing

3D printing is probably the most widely used method for rapid prototyping as it can build fast, highly accurate parts fully autonomously once it is fed a CAD design file. There are many materials that can be 3D printed, including: plastic, carbon fiber, fiberglass, and metal. From visual aids, to proof of concepts, to functional prototypes and even to bridge manufacturing, 3D printing offers unbeatable quality, speed, and cost. Multiple design iterations can be built at once and design revisions can quickly be incorporated into new prototypes.

Who Creates Prototypes?

Large companies, startups, inventors, practically all organizations utilize prototyping during their new product development process. Every organization requires experimentation and revisions upon an initial concept idea. Some large organizations handle their prototyping in house while others utilize outside services, which offer fast and high-quality products. Especially with prototyping methods that require a high amount of technical expertise and capital resources such as 3D printing. Many companies and start-ups do not have the time or resources to master 3D printing or purchase the necessary equipment. In these cases, utilizing a 3D printing service such as ZABFAB Manufacturing can allow businesses to utilize all the benefits that 3D printing can offer, without having to purchase a 3D printer or learn how to use it.

Integrating Prototyping Into The New Product Development Process

Ideally, prototyping will begin during the idea generation and idea screening phases of the NPD process. Visual aids are useful in understanding and presenting a concept to other stakeholders. Multiple versions of the same idea can also be generated to validate different aesthetic features. As the process progresses and the overall concept begins to become clearer, the visual aids can begin to start having more functional characteristics to experiment with different principles.

Although prototyping can provide immense value during the pre-product design stages, the product design stage will undoubtedly conduct the most prototyping, experimenting, and testing.  Multiple proof of principle models will need to be created and quickly revised and retested.  This is where 3D printing can provide a lot of value to new product developers.  3D printing can provide fast and highly accurate parts in many different materials that can be used in many functional applications.  More time in-between product iterations will drag out the timeline of the entire development process.  The faster new product teams can modify and create new prototypes, the faster the product design can be built, tested and validated.

Ultimately, after the functional prototype has been tested and validated, the next step is to move towards commercialization.  Another benefit of 3D printing is that it can be used for both prototyping and small batch manufacturing whereby the new product can be tested within a set of beta trials in the market.  Rather than running the risk of having to create 10,000 units only to find out that there is a functionality that doesn’t work or is disliked by the user, companies can produce in batches of 50 or 100 units.  This allows companies to continue experimenting with increasingly larger user pools and eliminate risk while launching a product.

Difference Between Functional Prototypes and Final Products

Ideally, new product teams want to create functional prototypes that are as close to the final product as possible to get the most accurate test data. Many times, functional prototypes are almost unrecognizable from the final products, so what is the difference between functional prototypes and final products? The main difference comes down to manufacturing method, materials, and regulatory requirements. Final products are typically produced with mass production techniques that allow for a high volume of identical units to be produced very cheaply. In contrast, most functional prototypes are made with 3D printing, which is mainly used for one-off batches or low volume production.

The materials used are also slightly different. Although prototyping materials may be functionally identical and have comparable mechanical and thermal properties, some materials are better suited for mass production than others. 3D printing materials are optimized for being sintered or extruded whereas materials used in mass production are optimized for being formed or molded.

Though not required for every industry, many final products that are being released to consumers must undergo certain validation tests by regulators. Prototypes can be tested and evaluated by internal staff to the standards, but do not have to pass external tests apart from user feedback exercises. In contrast, final products, depending on the industry, may be required to pass multiple tests from regulators to be deemed safe to use by the public.

Ready to Start Prototyping?

Interested in improving your speed to market and shortening your new product development cycles? ZABFAB Manufacturing offers fast and high-quality rapid prototyping with 3D printing. We can make multiple iterations of visual aids and functional prototypes quickly and accurately! Contact us to start your project!

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