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Testing out a new idea carries a natural difficulty, as you planned everything on paper, it can prove complicated to transfer those ideas into a real-world device. Functional prototypes aim to solve that issue by offering a way for engineers to test designs before manufacturing them at scale.
This article will dive into what functional prototyping is, why it’s relevant and how you can start implementing a functional prototype.
A functional prototype is a sample or model of a product built to test a concept or process, it can also serve as a visual prop to be replicated, improved, and learned from. The term is found in a variety of domains, from design and electronics to software programming and most importantly product development.
This type of prototype serves to provide a visual product impact instead of an individual imagined view, it’s here to test and try new designs to enhance precision by inventors.
Functional prototypes are most of the time built using a mixture of 3D printing and “off the shelf” parts to develop real-life functioning prototypes. It’s incredibly important as it conveys seriousness and professionalism about a new product.
The goal of a functional prototype could for example be to test a certain mechanism that should work on paper but that has never been tested.
You now understand what a functional prototype is, let’s look at the reasons why you should develop one when first building out new functionality.
Prototyping does not only provide strong visualization that lets you understand the look and feel of the final product, but it also helps the team to comprehend what, why, and for whom they are designing.
When building a product, one of the central aspects is the feedback you need to make sure that your product aligns with a market and has a target audience. You’re developing the product to fix someone’s problem. Feedback will help you understand who these people are, what their problem is, and what features they are willing to pay for in order to fix their problem.
As you develop your idea, you will have to make changes, it’s better to do these beginning of your project. Later on, these could require complicated restructurings that are costly and time-consuming. Early changes help you achieve your goals faster.
Prototyping, especially functional prototyping will ensure that your prototype works. This means that it fits the requirements of your customer. It allows for multiple discussions between iterations of your product and ensures you have what you need.
Your prototype will help you a long way when discussing with your customer. It will help you collect your customer and clients’ ideas to serve them better. This will tell you how valuable your product is to the end-user as well as how they would use the product.
The most important idea behind your prototype is that failing faster is better as it will get you moving in the right direction.
Let’s try and map out the different steps that lead to a functional prototype:
Start off by setting a goal for your product and certain requirements. How sturdy should it be ? What size, weight, height should it have ? Try an implement your idea in a CAD or Computer-Aided Design app. These are modelization apps that are compatible with simulation software and printer software. They help you visualize what you’re working with and make changes quickly. You shouldn’t worry about getting it right on the first attempt as you can carry out simulations in the next step.
You’ll most likely come back to this design step as you make changes to your product to fit your requirements.
Now that you have a numerical model of your device, you can import it in a simulation app like Solidworks simulation. In there you can measure a lot of different parameters. It can also help you estimate the weight of your prototype, what effects certain constraints will have on it, and a lot more. The point here is to test out whether or not your device fits the requirements you chose at the beginning of the process.
Once you think your prototype will work, you can import the numerical model into your printer software. GrabCAD Print works with a wide range of printers and can import Solidworks files. Once you have your file in GrabCAD, you can edit an assortment of things such as layer height, support structure, and material type. A very big consideration to be aware of is part orientation which affects strength, surface finish, and the speed at which you print. For example, you would not want to print an L shape standing up because it would take a long time to print and would not be as strong as one printed laying down.
Once the print is done, the final step is to remove the support which comes up much easier when the piece is warm. You can now test your prototype to make sure it fits your requirements. If it still isn’t what you were expecting, that’s fine and completely normal, figure out what revision you could make and start again from the numerical model.
As prototyping is becoming a much more demanding aspect of the design process, a lot of applications have emerged to facilitate the process. We’ve seen a few that can help you create a numerical model, test it in a simulation environment, and another one that helps you print your prototype.