Prototyping is a pivotal part of the product development process, but it’s oftentimes one of the trickiest. Traditionally, it has been a source of bottlenecking and roadblocks, compounded by added drains on money and time when you are constantly making new prototypes, only to head straight back to the drawing board when it does not pan out how you envisioned.

Time, personnel, and precious resources are sucked up as increased demands for building new products are complicated by the process, which is made even more convoluted as you try to match changing market demand.

Now, we are not here to argue that creating prototypes should be thrown out with the bathwater; it is a crucial step towards creating products that perform and withstand consumer demand. However, to argue that the traditional Waterfall approach to prototyping (i.e. going from point A to point B to point C only to hit a snag and remain delayed) is fine as it is, would be dishonest. True, while the Waterfall approach involves more detailed prototyping, this ends up being a glaring weakness; if your prototype hits a wall, you remain substantially more delayed because you have already gone too far with pouring resources and time into your scrapped model.

Yes, a series of measurable steps toward progress is desirable, but when it starts to interfere with the main focus — your product delivery — then some reorganization of a legacy methodology needs to happen fast

This reorganization comes in the form of rethinking the Waterfall approach by introducing rapid prototyping paradigms that solve the drawbacks common to the traditional product development pipelines. The advantages of rapid prototyping are made possible by utilizing the breadth of possibilities offered by new technologies, data frameworks, and a novel approach to development.

What is rapid prototyping?

Rapid prototyping, briefly, is a series of prototyping techniques built upon iterative and fluid steps that increase the speed at which these prototypes are generated. It is a method of reappraising the traditional Waterfall method by allowing designers to move as quickly as possible without sinking too much time into detailed prototypes that may not even end up looking the same as the final product post-revision.

A common misconception about rapid prototyping is that it is low-quality, or because of how quickly the prototypes are made, they may miss key elements of a design and pose more problems than they claim to solve. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rapid prototyping, on the contrary, offers an element of fluidity and freedom to designers and engineers, as the constraints from the Waterfall method (where you move stepwise and backtrack as needed) are removed. You can re-evaluate a product at any stage through adopting this method, and optimize precise elements of the design just as quickly.

In principle, rapid prototyping seems like a viable alternative, but there are some drawbacks you need to keep in mind. Here are some compelling advantages.

Advantages of rapid prototyping

  • Faster speed to market. That’s the “rapid” part of rapid prototyping.
  • Reduced costs down the road, since you save the recurring costs associated with going back to the drawing board and creating expensive models all over again.
  • Quick iterations through A/B testing.
  • Can gain real-time feedback on a product’s direction before fronting the costs of creating it.
  • The data builds on itself, you will know exactly where the product’s design hits a snag, and can quickly rule out unfeasible approaches.

Disadvantages of rapid prototyping

  • Relies on high-quality data, for instance, pedigree data that ensures the information used for the prototype is accurate. Windpact accomplishes this by way of our access to material databases that archive key information on a wide array of materials.
  • Added upfront costs associated with additional computational tools and training.
  • Requires skilled and knowledgeable engineers.
  • Need to consider the optimal method for creating the prototype of your product.
  • If company A is working with company B on a co-branded product, both companies must be aligned and collaborate equally. If one company tries to dictate to another company, rapid prototyping becomes very difficult. You have different visions and desires competing against each other, and this can often lead to frustration and delays.

Fidelity Types

There are two schools of thought when talking about rapid prototypes, namely designating them as low-fidelity vs. high-fidelity prototypes.

Low-fidelity: prototypes of low-fidelity enable early visualization of various design solutions by using methods that are low-cost and speedy. They are typically very simple, and are meant to encapsulate design directions without added complexity, testing the broader concept as a whole. Types of low-fidelity prototypes would be paper sketches or a 2D CAD mockup of the product, for example.

High-fidelity: prototypes of high-fidelity incorporate more detailed and tangible design elements, and are much closer to the intended design. Some high-fidelity prototypes will include detailed descriptions of the prototype’s functionality, aiding engineers and QA teams. High-fidelity prototypes can include scale models that are 3D printed, and increasingly, 3D CAD models that are far more intricate than their low-fidelity counterparts.

Rapid prototyping is often lower-fidelity, mainly because speed matters more. You want to be able to make almost instantaneous changes based on feedback. High-fidelity rapid prototypes do exist, but high-fidelity models often take too much time, and run into the same problems common to the Waterfall method: you spent all this time on a prototype that looks and functions great, but if it’s scrapped, that’s time wasted.

Both types of rapid prototyping have noticeable advantages and disadvantages.

Low Fidelity Advantages

  • Are the fastest to create, and can be massively overhauled based on real-time feedback.
  • Focus on the conceptual and the broader concept.
  • Accessible to most everyone (everyone can doodle).

Low Fidelity Disadvantages

  • Lack of intricate detail.
  • Less focus on the functionality.
  • Hard to pinpoint specific areas to test.

High Fidelity Advantages

  • Looks much more like the intended final product.
  • Captures functionality well.
  • Easier to test nuanced features of a design.

High Fidelity Disadvantages

  • Requires more technical skill depending on the method.
  • Takes longer than low-fidelity prototypes.
  • Costs more, again, depending on the method.

The added costs and limited accessibility of high-fidelity prototyping, however, are quickly becoming mitigated as software becomes more sophisticated, and their resources/documentation become more informed. Fidelity types are important to consider depending on your team’s goals, but it is also crucial to remember that depending on which you adopt, you may risk losing the freedom inherent to a flexible methodology that allows you to modify designs on the fly.

Products that traditionally use rapid prototyping

Nearly every forward-facing industry has adopted a rapid prototyping approach to product development, and for good reason. As access to market information becomes more rapid, teams in a variety of industries are becoming more tuned to the always-changing demands and trends of their individual fields. In order to match the speed at which this market data comes in, a development pipeline based on rapid prototyping is effective.

Most advanced industries have adopted rapid prototyping, including:

  • Automotive
  • Aerospace
  • Software development
  • Civil sector/engineering

Why all products should use Rapid Prototyping

As the landscape of the product development pipeline continues to evolve, adhering to legacy paradigms like Waterfall methodology simply cannot keep pace. Rapid prototyping is free from the usual constraints of the old way of doing things and is applicable to most materials and technologies. With its versatility comes a newer, more agile approach towards product development that is always forward-facing.

Concept models whether 2D or 3D CAD are useful for allowing team members to validate their assumptions behind the product and explore their ideas more thoroughly. They are also preferable because they can be demonstrated to stakeholders, who may value a rapid prototype over written reports.

Functional prototypes offer greater potential for flexibility, since they can provide a glimpse into the finished product and permit modifications prior to moving forward with more complex designs. Combined with the increasing availability of cutting-edge software, rapid prototyping can be adopted by nearly any team aiming to rethink a plan-wise, Waterfall method of product development.

Above all, products that embrace rapid prototyping inevitably end up saving costs down the road. The upfront monetary investment in software and training will show generous returns as an agile methodology prevents lags and reduces the amount of dead ends a product may encounter towards completion.

The focus is on building the right products, systems, solutions that address our customer needs and problems, with the highest quality deliverables in the shortest sustainable time. We build our prototyping using concepts from lean, agile & customer centricity, with a framework agnostic mindset. We achieve this by coaching, training, mentoring and strategizing predictive value delivery to the customers by aligning to their needs and goals. We continuously measure, learn and adapt to deliver value to the customers we serve building the right product with highest quality at the shortest sustainable lead-time to our customers.

Conclusion

In our experience at Windpact, the data and preparation needed to make agile methodologies that use rapid prototyping a reality are easily acquired. By taking full advantage of our encompassing materials database, we remain agnostic to the type of material our clients may require, and can adjust and optimize without worrying about missing anything. This gives us the unique power to deliver quality products incrementally, tailoring our customer’s feedback to create valuable prototypes throughout their inception, rather than near their completion (as is the case with the Waterfall approach).

Rapid prototyping is a method that requires skilled hands and strong team collaboration in order to produce functional models quickly. Windpact’s team of engineers and designers take care of these factors by equipping clients with knowledgeable consultants that bring years of expertise and experience with agile methodologies.