Prototyping vs. production. What's the difference?

Product development nowadays is a highly intensive process that includes many phases: requirements gathering, documentation creation, negotiating, building, testing, and so on. Prototyping is a separate phase of a product development process on the way to production. However, there are some people out there that have never dealt with anything like this before. Yet, they have a great idea and want to make it into a real product.

Let's have a closer look at prototyping to help you understand why it's important and what the difference is between mass-produced products and prototypes.

Prototyping is one of the steps on your way to mass production. It may have a few iterations depending on product complexity and your needs. Prototyping begins with a Proof of concept, then an Appearance model, and a Functional prototype.


Proof of concept (POC)

This is when you need to prove that your idea works using any suitable off-the-shelf components: Raspberry Pi, Arduino, cameras, speakers, sensors, plastic or aluminum enclosures, etc.

It does not even have to look like a product, just a concept. Some of the features that you would like to have might not be there just yet. But that's just the beginning.

Appearance model

Usually, it's just a solid piece of plastic or metal shaped to resemble the form of your product. If you want, you can take another step and split your appearance model into individual parts. These might be either solid blocks or shelled parts. This would allow you to simulate the weight of the product more accurately (if you use shelled parts) and a color break would be more realistic.

It's a totally different experience compared to viewing a 3D model on the screen of your computer. Now you can see what you like about it and what needs to be improved.

This is when you decide if you like it at all or whether it is better to move forward with a different concept. At this stage, you also try to project the end users' experience onto yourself and predict how they would feel about your product.

At this stage, you also try to project the end users' experience onto yourself and predict how they would feel about your product.

At this point, every little detail does matter. A slightly different color tone, a little difference in surface texture, low painting quality ... all these "littles" may and will influence your final decision.

That's why it's crucial to have a partnership with a decent company that provides prototyping services of the highest quality. If not, there is a high risk that your potentially award-winning product may remain just an idea and never exist in real life.

Functional prototype

At this stage, it has the look and functions of the final product. However, there are still design differences compared to the production unit.

Many of the products are made of plastic to reduce mass production costs. Making an injection molding tool to have a single unit for testing would be expensive. There are a few ways to bring that cost down: 3D printing, CNC machining, silicon molding, etc. The cost difference is significant. Nonetheless, these processes have downsides.

 Firstly, you are limited to a smaller number of materials you can use. Secondly, most of the time, the mechanical properties of these materials do not meet your requirements. That's when you start to make compromises: thickening up the walls, adding stiffening ribs, splitting apart into more pieces to be able to CNC these, etc.

Testing here is critical. You need to go step by step and pick up any little issue you do not like. Note all the things that do not work and consider the areas that need improvement.

It may require more than one iteration to make it work as planned. Be ready for long testing hours, some manual rework and adjustments, and even failures. It does not mean that your product is not good. That’s the way the development process goes. All this hard work will help you save costs on further stages on your way to mass production and make it a great product rather than just a good product. 

Prototyping is not just another step to production. It’s a must! Otherwise, you will have to face all the issues described above in later stages: Engineering Validation Testing (EVT), Design Validation Testing (DVT), Production Validation Testing (PVT), and Mass Production (MP). Any issues found on these stages will cause a significant cost loss, schedule delays, and, as a result, a final product price increase and release date shift.

To review the 6 steps of the new product development process, check out this article