Prototypes play a pivotal role in the development process and are used to establish feedback loops that allow your product idea to evolve. During the development process, a number of prototypes will be necessary to verify your product design functions and appears as it is intended. As a rule of thumb, each development step is followed by a prototype.
The purpose of prototypes is to verify your product works as intended. If the prototype fails, then the product will not work as it should and redesign is needed. However, if the prototypes work, then you can proceed with the design or manufacturing stages and start to market your product with the prototype.
Don't assume your CAD files are always correct. A physical prototype will always trump renderings on a computer screen. This is what makes prototypes so crucial: They are a means of verifying your CAD designs.
Proof of concept (PoC)
The earliest version of your product is called the proof of concept. It is the single most crucial part to test the functionality of the product and verify your design concept was engineered correctly and works. The PoC won't be pretty and most likely will not use mass-produced materials, and that's OK – this prototype is only meant to confirm the validity and viability of your idea.
If the PoC fails, then the concept does not work and a new concept will be needed.
A functional prototype is when all of the mechanical and electrical components work as intended. The goal of this prototype is to have the product work exactly as the product was designed to function. Usually, you won't get this right off the bat. Specific design changes are typically needed to have the product functionally work as intended. However, it usually won't look like the final version, which is the purpose of the following prototype.
Nowadays, a product needs to be more than just functional. The color, shape and feel should evoke a positive response from your end buyer. The goal of an aesthetic prototype is to provide you with a physical sample of how the product will look and feel. Consumers may prefer rounded edges over sharp corners or softer materials as opposed to hard ones – difficult to grasp from just renderings. While you can get an idea of the colors with renderings, it's always best to verify this with a physical sample.
An aesthetic prototype will need to answer the following questions:
Does the product have the correct color combinations for the target audience?
Does the product have the desired shape for the target market?
Does the product feel comfortable when you are using it? Is it ergonomic?
If the sample looks great and is ergonomic, then the aesthetic sample is accepted.
The golden sample is completed after the functional and aesthetic prototypes are accepted. The goal is for it to be both functional and aesthetically appealing. It's a combination of the accepted functional sample and the aesthetic sample.
This is also the sample right before production – essentially a pre-production sample. The golden sample will be referenced when your manufacturing partner puts together the production documents (e.g., work instructions) and quality documents (e.g., inspection procedures).
The golden sample is proof your product can be made with the specific materials and that it is both functional and aesthetically accepted by your desired market.
The golden sample is multifunctional and can serve the following functions:
A sample to give buyers
A hook for your crowdfunding campaign
Confirmation of your production pricing
Development of production and quality reports
A production schedule
Usually, the product's packaging should be included as well.
For the first round of production, there will be a small trial run to ensure production runs smoothly. This is the pilot run. The pilot run is a small percentage of the purchase order, around 5-10%, and takes place to ensure production will run as expected. The primary purposes are to check for unforeseen quality defects and to make sure production can run smoothly with no hiccups.
Once the pilot run is complete, you can proceed with producing the remaining 90-95%. The pilot run might not be seen as an actual prototype, but samples will be taken and stored by your manufacturer to verify future orders.
Using these different variations of prototypes as a guide, you'll be able to find success testing your product and meeting customer demands.