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Project Management Series: Prototype Strategy and Adjusting Designs for Production Volume

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Developing new hardware from the ground up is a multi-faceted process requiring continual testing and precise modification to get things right. Previous articles in our Project Management series covered the importance of well-defined requirements and identifying risks that can help you avoid costly setbacks.  

Those aspects of project management are crucial, but there's more to the story. Before bringing your product to market, you must go through various prototyping stages and adjust the design for your intended production volume.  

Voler Systems takes these often-overlooked aspects of project management seriously, ensuring that the development process doesn't choke closed as we prepare for manufacturing.

In the last part of our series, we'll discuss prototyping strategies and how design elements can impact your production costs. 

 

What is Prototyping? 

 
Prototypes are a crucial part of product development. You can't expect to go from raw ideas to production without making several prototypes. Think of them as preliminary models for testing.

Experimental by nature, prototypes work toward the goal of meeting minimum requirements. It's an opportunity to test ideas, fine-tune designs, and gather data.

More importantly, prototypes help to manage risks further. It's not enough to identify where things can go wrong. Prototyping lets you see the product in action to understand how it works in the real world. You can test key assumptions, address potential issues, and perfect the requirements you need to bring the product to market. 

 

Prototype Strategies 

 
Contrary to popular belief, prototyping isn't a one-shot endeavor. Not all prototypes are the same, and the goals for those models can vary depending on where you are in the development stage and what types of information you're trying to gather.

Having a well-rounded strategy ensures that you're covering all bases and creating prototypes when they're most necessary. Generally, prototypes exist to test three factors: Feasibility, desirability, and viability. 

 

Feasibility 

 
Feasibility tests are for internal use. The goal here is to test assumptions and evaluate the overall function of the device. Does it work how you envisioned it? Are the planned features possible within the scope you've already set? Test any technical risks with this type of prototype.

With early prototypes, you can get answers to those questions and more. Feasibility tests don't have to be complex. Most prototypes at this stage look nothing like the final design. In fact, some feasibility tests consist of nothing more than illustrations, wireframes, or development boards.

Testing functionality is the top priority with this prototype strategy. 

 

Desirability 

 
Next comes desirability. Here's where you start to put your target audience into the mix. This prototyping strategy is for your prospective customers and helps you make improvements that meet their needs as much as possible.

It's about putting a prototype in the hands of a potential customer and getting the feedback you wouldn't be able to obtain in a traditional testing environment. How does it feel to use, and is it something your target consumer would realistically buy? Does the product meet your market requirements?  

This type of prototype is often closer to the finished product. But once again, it's about gaining early feedback. So, you might showcase the general appearance and dimensions without having all the functional parts just yet.  

 

Viability 

 
The last thing that prototypes test is market viability. This strategy is for your investors. Prototypes in this stage are about showing a product's worth so that you can gain funding and progress with development.

Commercial viability is a critical detail that you must test and prove. What's the point in developing, manufacturing, and marketing a product if it's not improving the bottom line? These prototypes must showcase the product's value proposition. It's about proving its commercial viability and giving investors a reason to fund production. 

 

What Kinds of Prototypes Can You Make? 

 
To test feasibility, viability, and desirability, you can create many types of prototypes. Again, when and how you make these prototypes depends on the information you want to gather. Understanding when to use them can help you develop your prototype strategy accordingly.

 

1. Proof of Concept

Also known as a "works-like" prototype, this prototype proves that an idea or feature is possible. Generally, this prototype is put together with existing materials and components. The goal isn't to create the final design, so many aspects aren't present here.

You want to demonstrate functionality and identify any technical risks that might come up. As you can guess, this prototype is the one you'll use most when testing feasibility. A “works-like” prototype has all or most of the key functions of the final product, but it may be a group of prototype boards lying on a table, so it doesn’t look like the product at all. With this, you can learn about the reaction to the functions of a product. 

 

2.  Visual Prototype

You might see this iteration called a "looks-like" prototype. It's about getting the general look and feel of the device figured out. The prototype might not have any electronics inside, but it's the first tangible glimpse of what could be the finished product.

Many visual prototypes use 3D printing or basic construction with simple materials. Whatever the case, the goal is to create a physical representation for desirability and viability testing. It's a physical product you can put in the hands of consumers, which will help you gather tons of necessary feedback. A “looks like” prototype looks just like the final product but is nonfunctional. You can gauge the reaction to the appearance and location of buttons and indicators. 

 

3.  Working Prototype

 
Finally, we have the working prototype. It combines the "looks-like" and "works-like" prototypes into one. It is available late in the design process after doing a complete design. It may go through several iterations for complex designs as you use the prototype internally or present it to investors and customers.

The working prototype is the first prototype after the design process. It will undergo refinements as you continue to test the requirements and ensure manufacturability. It is more expensive than the “looks-like” or “works-like” prototype, so it is used in later stages of development. 

 

Low-Risk IoT Design: How to Manage IoT Design Risks from Planning to Manufacture

 

Designing for Intended Production Volume 

 
Bringing a product into the manufacturing phase is a huge accomplishment. You've met your requirements, managed the risks, and created prototypes to test every aspect of your design.  

While it's certainly exciting, there are many new things to consider. Creating hundreds, thousands or even millions of products on a production line differs from making small-scale prototypes.

There are potentially millions of dollars at stake, and even the smallest detail can cost you a pretty penny. That's why it's essential to design for your intended production volume.

Production volume is something you should consider long before you even get to the prototype phase. At Voler Systems, we take production scale into account from the very beginning so that we can make strategic decisions that support your bottom line. 

 

Saving Time and Money 

 
The goal of adjusting your design for production volume is to save where you can. Cutting costs is always a priority regardless of what type of product you're making. You want it to be profitable and meet market requirements while still fitting into your established product scope.

But your intended production volume will have a dramatic impact on cost-saving measures. Say, for example, that your planned volume for the first year is only about 1,000 units. Shaving 10 cents off the production cost for each item isn't worthwhile. For 1,000 units, that's a mere $100 extra to your budget.

Some products are produced in volumes of less than 100 per year. These products should use off-the-shelf components as much as possible. The development cost needs to be minimized much more than the production cost.

However, say that you decide to make a million units a year. Those 10 cents add up to an extra $100,000 to your production costs! Saving that dime per unit can go a long way! Spending extra on development costs can save huge amounts of money.

Making design decisions early can help you make the most out of your budget. So, what's the best approach? 

 

Low Volume 

 
If your intended production volume is relatively low, go for off-the-shelf components as much as you can to minimize development costs. Developing custom elements isn't worth it for a few thousand units. Off-the-shelf parts may cost a little more, but you can bank on a reliable supply chain, easy accessibility, and speed. You can still achieve a good return on your investment with a lower production volume.

Consider using parts that are easily adaptable to your project. You can even investigate pre-engineered platforms and prototypes. For example, Voler Systems has a Universal Health System Platform to capture and transmit patient data. You can build off the platform to cut costs and speed up the product development cycle. 

 

High Volume 

 
If you plan on producing millions of units per year, your top priority is production cost reduction. That doesn't mean cutting corners or sacrificing quality. It's about analyzing the dollars and cents and considering how every added expense affects the total production budget.

For high-volume orders, custom-made elements may be beneficial. You can fine-tune the design and identify ways to reduce costs. It might not seem like a huge difference at first but remember that scale comes into play. Spending more on development can save a lot of money overall. 

 

Crossing the Finish Line 

 
As you can see, it takes strong project management skills to turn ideas into a reality. It's about more than simply having a great concept or a list of features you want to offer. Without careful planning and management, even the most ground-breaking product ideas can't reach the market.

Voler Systems prides itself on our very successful project management process. When it comes to project management, we mitigate risks, stay on budget and on schedule, and we ensure that every aspect of the finished product meets your requirements.

Go back and read our entire Project Management series to learn more about our approach and experience. When you're ready to develop your product, give us a call. We’ll make your product a reality with low risk and on-time, on-budget development. 

Contact Voler Systems Today

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