The value of a good prototype and the pitfalls of getting there

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This is the second article in our series that introduces tech startups to the process of developing a new product. This time we will focus on the second stage leading to full production. Your team took care of developing the hardware and software as well as the aesthetic aspects, the general appearance, the user experience. You are now ready to build a prototype before making final checks and hitting the button to start manufacturing.

The value of a good prototype and the pitfalls of getting there

By John Bowman, Marketing Director, Anglia Components and Andrew Pockson, Divisional Marketing Manager, Anglia Components

This is the second article in our series that introduces tech startups to the process of developing a new product. This time we will focus on the second stage leading to full production. Your team took care of developing the hardware and software as well as the aesthetic aspects, the general appearance, the user experience. You are now ready to build a prototype before making final checks and hitting the button to start manufacturing.

Why build a prototype?

But let’s get back to the ground for a second. Many start-ups going through this product journey for the first time believe that around 80% of the road to market is over by the time the first prototype is in their hands, and they will soon be paid for their hard work. and their inspired thinking. . In reality, according to Steve Farmer of Pharmatechnics, a design consultant Anglia has worked with on several occasions, only about a third of the hardware journey is complete at this point.

Steve’s first question to potential customers seeking help with their designs is to ask why they want to build a prototype. The issue is not to dissuade, but to target the project and ensure that the prototype, once built, will provide accurate information so that the product can move on to manufacturing. This helps avoid surprises later in the journey that could present a number of issues, ranging from delayed production start-up, to diminished manufacturing yield, to usability or reliability issues on the terrain that can harm market perception. In addition, the prototype can be an essential tool to promote the start-up. It can be used as part of the process of making investments. Additionally, it can help secure the early engagement of channel partners, so they are in place when the first production batches appear.

What is a prototype?

The prototype is not the first production model. It is, by definition, a bit far from that. However, it must resemble the intended finished product in all significant ways. If it fails in any material respect that impacts usability, performance, cost, reliability, appearance, or other parameters of the final product, it will have failed in its objective, which is to discover these kinds of problems before production starts. Fixing these issues after committing to production can cause long delays and be costly, especially if you’ve started investing in mass-produced components (which normally have to be purchased in bulk before production begins). production), tooling or specially ordered parts such as a custom case or display.

There is a significant difference in approach to building a prototype, compared to building a proof of concept. The two descriptions are often used interchangeably, but the realities are very different. The PoC is usually made up of evaluation boards that simply aren’t of consistent or proper quality, while the cabling, connections, and physical layout of the various parts just won’t perform the same way as a product properly designed and packaged.

A prototype should do more than just validate the design idea and should be close to, if not identical to, the final form factor. It provides the first opportunity to touch or hold an object that closely represents the product in terms of shape, size, finish, weight, balance, user interface. It allows you to examine integration and fit, how close components are to each other to help you assess any unexpected interaction between them, appearance, and overall user experience. You can also better visualize and organize product assembly and determine necessary adjustments to processes or materials to improve manufacturability, reduce production costs where possible, and optimize performance in the field.

What else can you learn from the prototype

The prototype also offers the first chance to perform EMC checks and perform measurements to assess compliance. There are inevitably some adjustments to be made after the initial EMC tests, so a good prototype should be representative of the product’s actual performance in terms of EMI immunity and as a source of interference signals. Aspects such as distances between components and housing material properties can all affect electromagnetic behavior. Any thermal effects may also become evident at this stage. You may have a heat source such as a power transistor near a heat sensitive element or inadequate ventilation causing the inside of the product to become a small oven. Steve Farmer comments that this is a common problem. The customer wants clean lines and good aesthetics, but the hardware needs airflow to dissipate heat. Therefore, the prototype must closely resemble the final product, not only electrically but also physically and mechanically.

Of course, product is also about software, and the arrival of the first prototype is when software can start running on suitable hardware. Further development at this stage can be a challenge due to difficult access to certain ports or signals to attach test equipment. There are ways around this, as Steve Farmer points out: “On one project, we designed the production board with small removable sections to allow access to the probe for software development. In production, the clips were removed so the card could be installed in the case. This gave us a fast and cost-effective way to move from prototype to full production while allowing software development to continue until the last possible moment.

Occasionally, small changes in circuit design or configuration can have a significant impact on electrical performance. Steve talks about a project update that contained a GPS receiver and antenna that was changed to a different omni-directional pattern and surface mounted in a new position on the chart to better suit operational needs and to the new industrial design. The different type of antenna, in its new location, began picking up a strong signal from a clock trace passing below. A harmonic in this clock caused enough interference that the performance of the GPS receiver was severely degraded. Re-rotating the map to change the clock routing or repositioning the GPS antenna would have been expensive. Instead, upon investigating the issue, the issue was resolved in software by changing the clock’s operating frequency. It was a much more cost effective change than adapting the PCB or repositioning the antenna.

Testing a prototype using a multimeter

In another project, the prototype showed that the closed electronic system was too heavy for the type of enclosure the design team had originally envisioned. The problem was the material chosen: a hard, brittle, high-gloss polycarbonate that failed drop tests after installing the electronics, including the circuit board, battery, and display. Switching to a tougher hybrid material provided the required strength while allowing for an attractive surface finish. The precise prototype for production highlighted the problem in time for a cost effective alternative solution to be developed.

From prototype to production

If you’re designing an entirely new product, you should expect to go through at least two prototyping iterations before coming up with a production-ready design. More cycles may be required, depending on the complexity of the product and the processes used to build it. On the other hand, if you are updating an already mature product, adding or upgrading features, a prototype may suffice.

Support at the prototyping stage

There are a number of ways to access prototyping services, including finding an established independent consultant and using the pre-production or new product introduction (NPI) services frequently offered by contract manufacturers. In addition, a number of our customers have used UK-based organizations to work directly with Chinese factories that specialize in high-quality small-batch manufacturing for prototyping and research purposes. The production work can then be transferred to another factory, locally to the OEM or overseas.

It’s important to remember that getting your first product through development and into a factory is never easy for anyone. It’s an eye-opener, to say the least, and prototyping is a process that requires careful consideration of all aspects of the product – design, performance, compliance, materials, manufacturability, testability – to avoid unpleasant surprises once this manufacturing commitment has been made. made. You may need to spend thousands or even tens of thousands of pounds to get through prototyping and production.

www.anglia.com

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