Despite having a full shop filled with the latest tools, I am not above using soup cans to build a prototype. Prototyping is a technique to solve problems and learn about a product. It need not be a complicated process that takes special tools and skilled technicians to do well.
Savvy developers know that it is important to iterate quickly, and often simple is best. Found materials and simple tools can often be used to answer a question in minutes instead of having to wait days or weeks for a 3D print or machined part. The best part is that there are plenty of tools that are available to the masses and they are easy to use, even by even the most inexperienced prototyper.
The following are some prototyping tools and techniques that even those who have never set foot inside a prototyping shop can use in order to help develop their ideas and answer key questions about their product.
Always Ask Before Prototyping: What Is the Question?
Prototypes should be built to answer a question about the product being developed, and it is the nature of the question that should drive the choice of how to prototype.
In some cases, the question can be very technical. You may need to know how a full assembly works together, which requires the build of complex geometry in CAD software and 3D-printed parts.
However, most questions we have about a product in development are simple, such as how large should it be, what shape should it be, or how does it fit in your hand? For these types of issues, there are many prototyping techniques that can be used to help you answer your questions. The key is to make sure you are prototyping purposefully.
Using LEGOs for Prototyping
One of the first builder toys that GenX and younger people were exposed to were LEGOs. They are easy to build with and are cheap, ubiquitous, and excellent for quick prototyping. The square bricks limit the fidelity of the surface that can be formed, but this frees up our brains to focus on the macro, core questions, instead of obsessing with micro details.
LEGOs can be used to build rough prototypes to evaluate size, form factor or general layout of a product. You can build multiple iterations of your concept within minutes and think through how users could interact with what you build. With the multitude of motion elements, hinges and special bricks, you may even be able to make rough models of the moving parts of a prototype as well.
Using PVC for Prototyping
PVC tubes are great for quick prototyping with no building skill required. Long lengths of tube cost just a few dollars and fittings are usually less than that, so it is inexpensive to have a good inventory with which to play. The tubes can be cut with PVC scissors or with a hand saw, so you can build up a structure or fluid circuit in minutes.
The obvious use for PVC is for fluid-based products, but it is just as useful to use for prototyping physical prototypes. The tubing can be used as a handgrip or assembled together with fittings to make larger structures. Since it is so modular, it is easy to build and test multiple iterations in just minutes.
Prototyping with Found Items
Sometimes the purpose of a prototype is to test out a user flow. This can be an onboarding process, a logistics map or installation procedure. While these can be flow charted out or created digitally, manipulating physical objects to simulate the process helps our brains interpret the data differently and often yields interesting results.
Think of the old war room tables where generals move their fighting units around the battlefield to work out their strategy. For this type of prototyping, the parts need not be complicated. Game board pieces, soup cans, a deck of cards—anything fast and available that can be manipulated to simulate the process is key.
Found items can also help us build functional prototypes. Old toys have lots of great parts that can be harvested and repurposed, like motors and gear trains. Products with grips or handles can be scavenged to create your own ergonomic interfaces. Duct taping found items can be a valuable way to explore the physicality of a product.
Prototyping with Electronics
More so than physical prototypes, building electronic prototypes can really spike our anxiety. Electricity is hard to visualize and can be very intimidating to work with. However, there are some microcontrollers that can be used with block coding to build proof-of-concept electronic prototypes. Block coding is a graphical programming interface where you drag and drop elements to build working code without the need for typing anything or having to know any special syntax.
My favorite block coding program is called Make Code. It is a free website from Microsoft that can be used with developer boards like the Microbit, Adafruit Circuit Playground Express or LEGO Mindstorms.
The site will simulate the code for you before you upload your program to your board, and there are lots of tutorials to teach you the basics. Make Code is particularly powerful with the Circuit Playground Express as it has addressable LEDs, sensors and actuators that can be programmed with no circuit design or soldering required.
So as you can see, when it comes to potential tools used for prototyping at a beginner level, there is a range of options. Give these options a try the next time you’re trying to develop your product in its early stages. However, if you’ve hit a roadblock or are looking for detailed expertise when it comes to developing your product, don’t hesitate to reach out to our team for any prototyping, industrial design, engineering or manufacturing needs. As the leader in product launch services, we’re able to take your idea from a napkin sketch to the next big thing with our product development service options.