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The Evolution of Prototyping

“The Evolution of Prototyping” by Robert Tiller

November 2016

“Have you ever asked yourself if you need a prototype or not? If you have, then there are a number of things you need to take into consideration to ensure that brilliant idea you have in your head will actually perform when it comes to life.

As the industry has evolved so to has the technology available to create the next generation of innovative products and experiences designed to capture the hearts and minds of customers. With the recent introduction of 3D printing, every man and his dog thinks they are a product designer or developer, however this is far from the case and it’s really just one step of the process.

When it comes to prototyping, the first question you should be asking yourself is – what technologies should I build my prototypes with?

Over the past 25 years at Tiller Design, we have changed the way we deliver creativity to clients and consumers by embracing advances in technology. We once did 2D drawing’s to define the product and faxed long strips of paper data, today we build fully detailed immersive 3D CAD models share information and drawings via secure cloud based servers.

The most significant change has been how we create prototypes. There has been a huge transition from hand built models to rapid prototyping and manufacturing technologies. The raft of choices now available has given us the ability to mimic production samples so closely it’s even possible to treat them as saleable products.

Machines once the realm of high-end factories are now readily available to consumers. It won’t be long before 3D printers and prototype machines reach high volumes in domestic markets. The day is approaching where you will print a new cup if you break it washing it up!

Looking back to one of my first products for sunbeam in the early 1990’s, who used to manufacture everything in their workshop in suburban suburb in Sydney its amazing. We would send our design data down to a dedicated prototype workshop where highly skilled model makers meticulously machined parts, glued, painted and prepared working prototypes of the products we designed. It often took over a month just to build one prototype. Design projects were long, prototyping and testing cycles were even longer.

During the 90’s at a commercial level, very expensive technology emerged to make prototypes that leveraged emerging 3D CAD modelling. Technologies like stereolithography, or SLA (catchy name!), took off. The process involved a vat of resin being hardened by pinpoint lasers, creating layers within the liquid resin that slowly built up to become the part being prototyped.

I recall first using SLA technology, where the machine was well over $1 million to buy and the parts cost thousands of dollars to purchase from the supplier, but it only took one week to make.

Today this technology and 3D printing technology has developed into a range of consumer available machines to create prototype parts. These machines have a long way to go to deliver repeatable convenient high quality parts, but it will emerge in the near future.

What is often not talked about or reported, probably because it’s far less exciting than creating a 3D model for an object and watching it emerge from the high tech primal slime of an SLA machine, is CNC. Computer Numeric Control.

CNC is the machining of parts using 3D data. These machines have also had a huge technology push over the past decade or two and have become so fast and able to cut in multiple axis that it is often quicker and cheaper to CNC your prototype parts than 3D print or use SLA.

As a seasoned designer and working with multiple industries, the prototyping needs to be built for 3 prime reasons.

1. Check parts fit together and work.
2. Test the built product performs as desired.
3. To share and show the product to customers for feedback and potential commercial discussions.

So to the question – how should I build my prototypes?

– It’s very important to do it iteratively
– Know what they will be used for
– Plan what your going to do with them

If we take the prime reasons above then the process of building iterative prototypes often looks like this:

**1. First Prototypes**

To test the design shape form and ergonomics. Today we can build multiple designs very quickly, so designs can be tested by customers for feel, shape and aesthetics. In some cases they can be made to work, to simulate real use but the design of the parts are not yet ready for production.

What once took a month can now be built days. These first prototypes can be built using any technique – cost and speed are critical at this stage. They are made to help visualise and test ergonomics, ask customer opinion, but are not yet ready to test full function.

**2. Pre Production Prototypes**

These are used to test fit and function of parts BEFORE you spend money moving to production. The design is ready for production and these prototypes test the data so we know it all works before production begins.

These must be accurate even down to the right material and finish. Why? Because testing these parts is the last step before you go to tooling and production, a large cost centre in any project.

If you’re testing new ideas these prototypes will often need to be repeated once discoveries from the previous prototypes are known. These are best in my opinion made using CNC machinery. Because they are very accurate and specific materials can be chosen to machine parts from. It’s important to note that SLA and 3D printing have some limitations of the materials used.

In summary…

During projects for product design, service design or experience design, it is crucial to choose the right technology and techniques that match the reason you need the prototypes. Of course underpinning all this is a great design and a well-run design project.

Tiller Design has been creating new products and experiences for over 25 years. For every single project ever undertaken the process of turning ideas into meaningful products that capture the hearts and minds of customers has stayed for the most part the same. ”

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