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In the startup world, most hype is created around the web and Software as a service. These startups only provide an interface that is downloaded at the time of usage, which can be a lot easier to prototype in basic ways.
That prototype can help showcase the key features of an idea. It helps gain traction and attract potential investors. The idea can then be iterated upon to use real-world data and refine the product.
Hardware is a little different and is the focus of this article. Parts have to be purchased or produced and assembled to achieve an extremely minimal prototype. You then risk having a nonfunctional device that makes you redesign your entire idea.
Hardware prototyping tries to keep pace with the rapid development of web startups. It does so by implementing standard development and evaluation boards that are known to produce results quickly. From this, we can build a prototype with very little work needed that isn’t direct development of features of the actual product to be prototyped.
The field focuses on hardware and covers electronics, mechanics, and a bunch of various fields that depend on the domain you are trying to build in. In that sense, Rapid Hardware Prototyping covers a variety of fields and is always changing.
To keep up with the usual requests of clients, most basic tasks are automated or a process is set up to quicken their implementation. For example, accelerometers have libraries designed around them to allow easy setup, the same goes for ethernet and other very classic elements that are almost always implemented in the prototype solution.
This method works extremely well to put the focus on developing new ideas, setting trade-offs (keep in mind this is a prototype, it’s not intended to be perfect), and exposing any design flaw in your prototype candidate.
Using a certain framework, you systematize your approach and make sure that you don’t go over the lengthy processes or struggle with the basic designing.
Prototypes are often wrongly thought of as proof of concepts. The latter aims to prove the feasibility of an idea. It helps determine and validate the technologies you put in the place and the architecture you chose.
The intent of the prototype is different, it starts when you customize the proof of concept to match specific requirements. We create prototypes with the intent of improving on them.
It’s therefore particularly important to come up with a hardware prototype rapidly so that all the people participating in the project have a general idea of what the product is or is going to be.
Rapid prototyping can also help you maximize the cost efficiency and the success rate of hardware product development.
What makes a team truly efficient and performant when doing hardware prototyping can be summarized in 4 aspects :
Multi-Disciplinary Collaboration. Prototyping requires you to be ready for anything and master a wide variety of technologies. The ability to get prototypes out quickly heavily relies on having experts in different fields, some are going to develop the design, others the circuit choose the board, some program the different elements, and if the firmware is functional. Diversity of knowledge is among the most important aspects.
Experience. With experience comes knowledge, as a creator, it is important to know what the norm of an industry is. Your experience allows you to understand how the prototype is going to work, what the typical implementations are etc. It makes you move a lot faster and contributes to putting the Rapid in Rapid Hardware Prototyping.
Diverse In-House Capabilities. Knowledge and skill can go a long way but resources have to be put in place to make the magic happen. Having the hardware capabilities of creating a 3D printed model or cutting out a board using a laser cutter. These hardware needs are just as important and will help you get your prototype running in a lot less time than if you had to move to another space to access a certain machine.
Third-Party Relationships. As you venture into business, your network is extremely important. You can get stuck in a situation you’ve never faced or simply don’t have the capacity to handle a given technology. Having a large network can help you access what you are missing as well as get access to customers. If you request your neighbor’s help for something, he will tell his clients or come and see you for help on something you master more than him.
The space also makes use of several important prototyping methods, here are the most famous processes for 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, a term that describes the way layers of plastic are added to each other to create your design.
Fused Deposition Modeling. This method builds by melting and extruding a thermoplastic filament which is deposited layer by layer in a build area. This is the most widely used form of 3D printing.
This method however has the lowest resolution and accuracy when compared to other methods, it doesn’t work well with complex structures.
Stereolithography. This method uses a laser to cure liquid resin into hardened plastic in a process called photopolymerization. This is the most popular method among professionals because of its high resolution, precision, and material versatility.
The method is also up to 10 times faster than the previous 3D printing method.
Selective Laser Sintering. This last method is particularly useful for complex geometries and is popular in industrial applications. It uses a high-powered laser to fuse small particles of polymer powder. The unfused powder supports the part during printing and therefore eliminates the need for dedicated support structures.
Rapid hardware prototyping makes use of various methods to quickly create a prototype that can in turn be improved to meet the initial requirements. The field makes great use of 3D printing methods and leverages diverse teams to master the various technologies involved in the process.