With each new product design in manufacturing, there comes a certain level of uncertainty about whether or not it will meet established requirements. To help assuage this feeling and to guarantee that the final product will indeed serve its purpose, industrial manufacturers use a prototype—a manufactured test version of the design—to test the design for flaws and draft possible solutions. Additionally, a prototype can verify if the component can withstand appropriate amounts of stress or reveal potential areas of weakness. Generally, a series of prototypes are made, each with additional tweaks or necessary adjustments, until the resulting component meets standards and expectations.
Because “prototypes” and “models” are often linguistically used interchangeably, it is helpful to consider prototypes in terms of categories surrounding their function.
Proof of Principle Prototype
This particular prototype serves to test the design without providing an exact visual match. Mechanical testing, product architecture, and materials may all effectively be tested using a proof of principle prototype. Generally, they are intended to provide the manufacturer with feedback regarding design, particularly which designs are not feasible and how they can be improved upon.
Form Study Prototype
Not intended to withstand the wear and tear a component may in fact be destined for, a form study prototype is intended to provide feedback regarding the look and overall feel of the product. They are often either hand made or machine generated using inexpensive material and do not necessarily represent the exact detailed finish of the final product. Because they are not intended for actual use, they are used to make decisions regarding the general look.
A visual prototype resembles the actual product in look, feel, material, and dimensions. Like a form study prototype it is not intended for actual use, but does highly visually correlate to the final component. This kind of prototype is often used in marketing, sales pitches, photo-shoots, and packaging mock-ups. Product reviews can also be conducted using a visual prototype.
Unlike a visual and a form study prototype, a functional prototype bears the highest resemblance to the actual component insomuch as it can be used to test the actual function of the component. Although they are often made at a reduced scale to save money on materials, a final true-to-scale prototype should be made and checked for design flaws before ordering a product run of the component.
Although each of these prototypes serves a different role in pre-production process, all prototypes vary from the final component in several key ways. First of all, the production methods used in creating a prototype often substantially differ from those used to create the final component. Whereas expensive quality materials are often used in a production run, materials that bear a resemblance to the final product’s desired look and feel are often used instead. This yields a prototype that is fine for visual inspection, but not well-suited to performing the intended component function.
The process by which the prototype is made is also different from that of the final product. Unique processes such as rapid prototyping enable manufacturers to quickly generate a prototype. Manufacturing the final component, however, may often be more complicated and take longer, depending on the size and amount of the products generated. Additionally, prototypes often lack the structural integrity of the final component and are not generally designed to withstand stress or perform in place of the product. Because prototypes are used for engineers and manufacturers to inspect design rather than performance, it is common for them to lack certain details the final product will inevitably have.