Product Rescue Part 3: Alpha Prototyping

Once a product design is completed, you’re ready to move on to the much anticipated prototype stage.  At the end of this step, you will have 2 functional prototypes that prove the feasibility and concept of your design.

Product Rescue Alpha Prototyping

If you’re just joining us, you may want to review the previous 2 parts of the series:

// Part 1: Discovery //

// Part 2: Design //

Ok, now that you’re all caught up, let’s dig into prototyping. This is the moment you have been waiting for, the opportunity to touch and feel the product that everyone has put so much time and effort into dreaming up.

Bear in mind that prototype can mean different things to different people.  In the marketing department, they might refer to a prototype as something that looks and feels like the final product, but has no functionality.  That prototype’s purpose is for photography and promotional pieces.  In our case, this Alpha prototype is going to be strictly functional.  It might not look pretty, it might not even be the right scale, but it should prove the functionality of the product.

So where do you start?

When you wrapped up the design phase, you should have gotten the following (with a few variations based on your industry):

  • Schematics
  • Mechanical Drawings
  • Specifications
  • Preliminary Test Plans
  • Bill of Materials / Parts List

With parts and drawings in hand, you want to construct 2 preliminary prototypes.

For this part of the process, the alphas should be made without investing in costly tooling or mold development if possible. 3D printing or hand fabrication could be potential solutions depending on your product.

Why 2?

There are a couple of reasons for creating 2 alphas.

  • you will be able to use one as a control during testing
  • building 2 requires a certain amount of repeatability in your production process.  This may not reflect the final production pipeline, but it proves that multiples can be made.

Put it to the test

Now that you have a prototype, it will need to pass preliminary tests.  This is where things can vary greatly based on the type of product and end user. Remember that we aren’t testing things like durability at this point because the prototype has not been constructed out of the final material or with the final production processes.

We want to test functionality. Things like power, software, interface, mechanical functions, etc.

There are going to be problems

Consider yourself warned, you will be building more alphas. There will be hiccups along the way, maybe even before you get to testing, where you identify design, material, mechanical, or assembly flaws.

Correct  the problem, rebuild, and pick up where you left off.

Ok, it works…is that it?

No.

Once your prototype proves itself functional, dig out your original specifications from the design phase and go down the list. Verify that every spec has been met.

This might seem redundant, but you would be surprised at the amount of specs that are overlooked because the focus shifted during testing onto a different component.

Common issues

So that’s what a standard alpha prototyping process looks like. Where are the common pitfalls? Well the good news is you’ve already avoided the first one:

  • skipping the prototyping stage – Yep. I know, but people do it all the time. Small companies that are working on a new product might be in a time crunch or working with an incredibly small budget…so they skip right to short run production and bypass the prototyping stage. Trust me on this one, every step that you skip costs you 10x more to fix.
  • Trying to make the prototype perfect the first time – This is not a beauty pageant. Stop trying to create production-ready alphas. Pinpoint your most critical functions and build the prototype to prove them. period. Don’t allow yourself to be pressured by the marketing VP who wants to show off the new product at a trade show, just send him a 3D rendering from the mechanical engineer. If you focus on aesthetics at this point, you run the risk of missing a critical flaw in your design.
  • Design flaws – We kind of already talked about this, but it warrants a second mention. A design is always hypothetical, even if your engineers can simulate every possible scenario known to man…believe nothing until there is a physical prototype. Things work differently in 3D space. Components might not fit together the way you thought and the design may have to be changed a little…or a lot.

Where do we fit in?

Ehren-Haus specializes in prototyping. While we have the staff and resources to manage the entire product development process, many of our clients come to us at this stage. We have a team constructed specifically for custom plastic prototypes and a team for custom cable/electronic assemblies. Our low overhead and short lead times make us an ideal vendor for a wide variety of prototype scenarios.

What’s next?

Now that you have a functional prototype in-hand, the next step is…beta prototyping!

Tune in next week to learn what to expect during the second prototyping phase.

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