Because there are numerous types of designs and implementation processes, there are numerous types of prototypes—a sample of what the design will look like when it’s produced—that vary depending on what the design details. For example, a prototype in the electronics industry is going to be vastly different than a prototype for a mechanical engineering application. Mechanical and electrical engineering, electronics, computer programming, software, and computer engineering are just a few of the fields where prototyping plays an important role.
Due to recent developments in computer technology, it is becoming increasingly common to replace the actual physical prototype with a computer generated model. In the automotive industry, computer prototypes often are used until the design is ready to go to production—the first life-size version of the design would appear in the first production run. With modern technology, car designs can be tested for both aesthetic and functionality before they are even built.
Electronics prototypes usually consist of building a circuit based on a given design to see if it works. If it doesn’t work properly, then the circuit can be debugged. In order to create a circuit, a wire wrap technique, veroboard, or breadboard are often employed to make the circuit electronically accurate but not aesthetically akin to the design. Particular software, such as a program called Fritzing, can help in the prototyping process. Mass producing custom printed circuit boards is often the most cost-effective way to prototype electronics applications, and rapid prototyping services can do in as quick a time frame as one day, though often it take several.
Computer software prototypes operate much differently from a standard prototype in that they aren’t actually physical models, but rather an alpha version of a program. The term alpha refers to the fact that the prototype is the first version of the program to be run, with subsequent program prototypes named in the order they are developed (beta, gamma, etc). In the alpha version of a program usually only basic functions are present, so as to have something upon which to build. After additional features have been added to alpha software it then moves into the beta software stage because it essentially functions as a more advanced prototype. The software is then tested by consumers and after use feedback as been processed and changes implemented, another version of the program is tested again. Tools called Application Simulation Software effectively simulate how the next program will behave once recommended changes have been made.
In computer engineering there are several meanings associated with prototype. In one sense, prototype can refer to an evolutionary (also known as a breadboard) prototype, which is usually a simple, early, rudimentary version of the design, which then evolves into more finalized design. In another sense, prototype refers to a thowaway (or one-off) design, which is a prototype that is used primarily but not exclusively for testing purposes, but can also serve as product example for customers.
Other fields, such as pathology and metrology, also use prototyping. However, the meaning of prototype assumes a different definition, and isn’t directly applicable in the same way engineering, software, and computer programming make use of prototypes to verify designs.