I started this blog string identifying steps to be taken while working on the development of a new product, outlining Concept and Development. Now I will talk about Design, which includes Pre-Production Prototypes and Testing. This stage is the most crucial part of your New Product Development (NPD), as all the testing and research conducted to this point will streamline the design choices made before starting on your next stage, which is Production.
Recent advancements in the fields of Rapid Prototyping (RP) and Additive Manufacturing (AM) have revolutionized the prototype and testing stage of NPD, vastly reducing a new product’s development and time to market. AM technologies take virtual designs from CAD or animation modeling software, transforms them into thin, horizontal cross-sections and then creates successive layers until the model is complete.
Companies in the field of rapid prototyping that work with additive manufacturing technologies are known as “Service Bureaus.” 3D CAD data is required to operate AM machines, and firms typically accept a variety of CAD files including STL, IGES, STP, PRO-E, and Solid Works. These files are rendered models of your product and will be utilized by inputting the file into the software that will create your prototype.
Some of the rapid prototype methods available to you are Stereolithography (SLA Fig.1a), 3D Printing (3DP Fig.1b), Selective Laser Sintering (SLS Fig.1c), Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM Fig.1d), Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS Fig.1e) and Room Temperature Vulcanized Silicone (RTV). I am going to go into which prototype method you will utilize and why, before I do that let me explain why you need a prototype.
Sterolithography Fig. 1a
3D Printing Fig. 1b
Functional Prototype: Simulates the final design, aesthetics, materials and functionality of the intended design in full scale.
Proof-of-Principle Prototype: Used to test some aspect of the intended design without attempting to exactly simulate the visual appearance, choice of materials or intended manufacturing process.
Form Study Prototype: Allows designers to explore the basic size, look and feel of a product without simulating the actual function or exact visual appearance of the product and are often hand-carved or machined models from easily sculpted, inexpensive materials (e.g., urethane foam), without representing the intended color, finish, or texture.
Visual Prototype: Will capture the intended design aesthetics and simulate the appearance, color and surface textures of the intended product but will not actually embody the function(s) of the final product. These models will be suitable for use in market research, executive reviews and approval, packaging mock-ups, and photo shoots for sales literature.
One of the most popular prototype methods would be 3D Printing, which is optimized for speed, low cost, and ease-of-use, making it suitable for visualization during the conceptual stages of engineering design when dimensional accuracy and mechanical strength of prototypes are less important. The reason why this is one of the most popular methods is because of how inexpensive it is to create a model. 3D printing machines feed liquids, such as photopolymer, through an inkjet-type printhead to form each layer of the model. These photopolymer machines use an ultraviolet (UV) flood lamp mounted in the print head to cure each layer as it is deposited. (Fig. 1b)
The latest RP technology is Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS), which fuses metal powder into a solid part by melting it locally using the focused laser beam. Parts are built up additively layer by layer, typically using 20 micron layers. Metal parts of the most complex geometries are built layer-by-layer (down to 20 microns) directly from 3D CAD data, automatically, without tooling. DMLS is a net-shape process, producing parts with high accuracy and detail resolution, good surface quality and excellent mechanical properties. (Fig. 1e)
It makes patenting easier: For nearly 100 years, our culture has seemingly indoctrinated us in TV, books and movies to believe that we must patent our ideas immediately, lest they fall to the wayside or be stolen. It's an expensive and complicated process to take a rough idea and turn into a patent, so you wouldn't want to enter that $10,000-plus arena without being prepared, right?
Prior to 1880 you actually had to have a prototype built before it could be patented. While it's not required now, a prototype is a great way to show that you built it first. Also, building your idea flushes out the benefits and features that may not have been immediately evident in the rough idea stage. Now, you can patent that too, which may offer the best protection in the long run.
Smooth out your invention's design: Once you build your idea into a prototype, now you can actually test it in real life situations and look out for design or concept flaws. In addition, this is a great time to work out the aesthetics of a product, creating it for the right user. For example, you want to ensure its size isn't too big or threatening, if the user will be a child. Alternatively, you want it to be durable enough if the user is a mechanic. Again, all of these tweaks and such will help you out when patenting, because you know what to draw up and what the benefits are of these features, which didn't exist when it was in its conceptual phase.
Prototypes determine the manufacturing process: Eventually, whether it's you or the person you manage to sell the idea to, someone is going to have to manufacture your invention. Prototyping helps you determine what manufacturing processes will be required. Will it be injection molded, ultrasonically welded or die cut? Perhaps you even have to determine a new manufacturing technique to build your invention, but you'd need to know all of this before a manufacturer or a corporation will get on board with your project.
It makes it easier to license or sell: With a prototype ready, you'll not only be able to explain what the features and benefits of your invention are, but also be able to get into the numbers to explain the costs of manufacturing, how it will be built, etc. This shows professionalism and companies respect it. For too long, a lot of well-meaning people have submitted ideas as just paper drawings or hard-to-interpret patents, but having the prototype ready to go, (bonus if you have sample packaging) means a lot.
There is also the fun factor when presenting a real, working prototype. Now, they have something to talk about, look at and interact with. This gets marketing people thinking about how to advertise and showcase it. It also lets everyone handle it and determine for themselves the validity of your project. Demonstrations sell.
So, don't underestimate the power of prototyping your invention. Not only is it at the very heart of inventing, but it will greatly benefit you in the long run.
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