Low quality prototypes on the left contrasted with a high-quality prototype on the right.

If you have an electronics product idea and you want to bring it to market, you’re going to need a high-quality hardware prototype.

As you may already know, a prototype is a sample or model built to test a product idea and serve as the original from which all replicas will be created. Because prototyping is the first tangible step toward bringing your product to life, that makes it one of the most important stages in hardware product development.

But what constitutes a high-quality prototype? One that’s designed with manufacturing and assembly in mind every step of the way so that your product is produced in a cost- and time-efficient manner.

You’ll learn more about design for manufacturing, or DFM, below as we discuss how the process will help improve your hardware prototype, and subsequently, your final product. We’ll also briefly discuss some commonly used prototyping technologies so you’ll know what to expect after prototyping.

The basics of iteration and design for manufacturing

By setting out to bring a product to market, you’re not just creating a nifty gadget — you’re ultimately trying to solve a problem. Remembering this goal at key stages in your project will help you successfully develop your product and solve the problem for your customer base.

During stage one, the idea building stage, you are free to come up with as many ideas as possible about your product’s specifications, but it will be helpful to have a general sense of the manufacturing guidelines or limitations for the type of product you’re trying to create.

From the design stage of your project, which is stage 2, you’ll need to consider design for manufacturing principles more seriously so that you can create a product with the best manufacturing scenario possible in terms of timeline and resources. Your product development company should work with you to create design files that reflect both your requirements and realistic manufacturing scenarios.

During the hardware prototyping stage, which is stage three, a prototype is created based on your design files. The completed prototype is tested or evaluated to be sure that it follows DFM principles, meets your requirements and solves the problem it was originally designed to solve.

So what exactly is DFM? According to design4manufacturability.com, design for manufacturability is “the process of proactively designing products to (1) optimize all the manufacturing functions: fabrication, assembly, test, procurement, shipping, delivery, service, and repair, and (2) assure the best cost, quality, reliability, regulatory compliance, safety, time-to-market, and customer satisfaction.”

In other words, DFM is focused on reducing overall costs while maintaining the aesthetics and functionality of the product. Engineers refer to the following principles, or a similar variation of them, when going through the process of DFM:

  1. Reduce the number of product parts
  2. Use commercially available components rather than custom-engineered components
  3. Use the same part on more than one product
  4. Design for easy fabrication by avoiding unnecessary features and surface finishes
  5. Design parts that can be consistently produced within the intended specifications
  6. Mistake-proof the product so it can be easily produced and assembled
  7. Minimize the use of flexible components, such as rubber and cables
  8. Use modular design, with five to 15 parts grouped into modules for subassembly
  9. Shape parts so they can be packaged with standard, automated packing equipment
  10. Aim to eliminate or reduce design adjustments during the manufacturing stage

While prototypes can be a computer-generated or tangible model of a product, for an electronics product, you’ll find that a tangible hardware prototype will help you find the best solutions. Through iteration of the prototype, you can address DFM principles and explore new ideas, which will ultimately help you work out all the “kinks” before manufacturing.

Making your hardware prototype

Now that you’ve learned about how to design your prototype with manufacturing principles in mind, let’s discuss the technologies that will likely be used to make your prototype.

At Jaycon Systems, we specialize in two of the most commonly used technologies for plastic products that will ultimately be manufactured with injection molding: CNC (computer numeric control) and 3D printing. Computer-aided design (CAD) supports the rapid prototyping process for plastic products, as CAD files are created to represent the product specifications and can be modified as needed with ease.

We can also complete circuit boards with a rapid prototyping process. Our engineers first create a circuit board prototype with a breadboard — which is a solderless, reusable board — then design the circuit board itself. This process is completed by hand for small batches. For bigger circuit board prototyping batches, we use a pick and place machine.

With both processes, we are able to deliver hardware prototypes with a quick turnaround. Most prototypes can be completed in a minimum of about four weeks, but a project’s complexity can increase the turnaround time.

Once your prototype is complete, you’ll receive a functional sample for user feedback and beta testing. Testers will create test cases that help determine whether your product has achieved the intended requirements and explore how your customer base might interact with your product’s features. Test cases are based on personas, or fictional but realistic representations of your product’s customer base. The Canada-based business incubator MaRS notes the goal of test cases “is to find all possible situations that the developer might not have considered.”

After the final iteration of your prototype, you’ll be ready for the manufacturing stage. At that point, you’ll be able to move on to circuit board assembly or injection molding with the assurance that your product will be produced as you expected because it’s been designed for manufacturability.

Manufacturing for both circuit board assembly and injection molding projects can be completed in a few weeks or less, depending on the size and complexity of the order. Sometimes manufacturing can be completed in less than one week.

Conclusion

If you consider DFM early in your project and aim to incorporate DFM principles into the first and subsequent versions of your hardware prototype, you will most likely avoid many of the problems that can arise during manufacturing. The problems may or may not prevent the completion of manufacturing, and can include time delays due to parts that are difficult to produce, adjustments to the design because the product does not function as intended, incorrect assembly, an inability of the product to fit into standard packaging and many others. Needless to say, these delays can be expensive and frustrating — and with a product design process that includes DFM and as many prototype iterations as needed, they’re often avoidable.

Jaycon has worked with makers, entrepreneurs and companies of all sizes to design and manufacture a wide variety of products. We take steps to ensure that each prototype reflects your required specifications and DFM standards. If you have an electronics hardware product idea and want to make it a reality, we encourage you to contact us to learn more about how we can provide high-quality prototyping services at budget-friendly rates and with a quick turnaround.


A High-Quality Prototype Will Save You Time and Money was originally published in Jaycon Systems on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.