facebook open cellular design and engineering teardown

Fail Fast, Not Prematurely: How to Cost Effectively Develop Prototype

A popular adage in entrepreneurial circles is that it’s good to “fail fast”, meaning that if you have an idea you should test it to the limit as quickly as possible so you don’t waste time, energy, and budget on a concept that doesn’t have merit. This means when creating a new device it’s often beneficial to perform preliminary market testing of a working concept to see how users respond, without investing into a full production solution. However, particularly for consumer devices, if you show a bulky unfinished prototype to beta testers or a focus group it’s possible that the packaging and ergonomics could put people off from what is otherwise a great concept. Often times when presenting concepts designers will use both  “looks like” and  “works like” demonstration units, with the of goal showing both the final look & feel, along with the a glimpse at the intended functionality. However this can still be too expensive for a “fail fast” mentality, or the “works like” model can be so different from the “looks like” that investor may doubt the project’s feasibility.

So what is the best path; fail fast but possibly prematurely with a “hacked together” proof-of-concept, or invest heavily in an unproven product? As with most situations a compromise is often the best solution; create something that meets minimum aesthetic and ergonomic goals for the lowest level of investment. But how does one meet these goals for the lowest investment?  Here are three tips to help you down the right path.

1. It’s better to modify than to build from scratch

Ordering a small quantity or parts prior to starting production always has the highest per-part cost due to tool amortization and other economies of scale, as such; custom parts should be kept to a bare minimum. Instead look for companies that stock generic items that could be used/modified to fit your purposes, companies like Proto-case or Zero Enclosures carry lines of stock cases for products that can be modified to suite specific needs. In low quantities, the cost is much lower than building an enclosure from scratch as those companies have already invested in the tooling to create the base enclosure. Best value is attained if you can achieve your design by only removing material or adding simple things like press-in threaded inserts and stand-offs, as bonded on additions lead to higher finishing cost.

It should also be noted that the cost of an item is not just the price to produce it but also the development time invested in the design and verification. So when looking for things like hinges, latches, and switches while it may be tempting to develop custom solutions yourself, it is usually faster and cheaper to find off the shelf items from companies like South-co and McMaster. They have already invested the R&D to create products that work, saving you from the headache of developing them yourself. This is particularly true for things that seem simple like latches; most engineers can do the stress calculations and analysis to design something that should work, but there’s a large degree of iteration to get the proper behavior and feel. While they may not be the most aesthetic option, a good design team should be able to find something off-the-shelf, that integrates with the product.

2. Get good value from custom pieces

One downside to making an entire prototype enclosure with off the shelf components is that while you can have a relatively polished looking device, most options are fairly bland/industrial in appearance which can deter users. So some investment into custom pieces that can accentuate both the look and function can provide very good value. Things like creating a custom lid for an off the shelf enclosure can completely transform the look of a product while maintaining much of the low cost, inherent with off-the-shelf items.

premie rendering full design
Example of product utilizing many off the shelf components. Developed for a group at Yale, so low costs were important.

For small production runs like those used in focus groups or to show investors, a custom part can be 3d-printed or machined, then cast resin duplicates can be used. These parts behave like injection molded parts but because the mold is poured silicone rather than machined steel it is much faster and cheaper to produce.

3. Look for comparable technology to re-use

Everyone knows you shouldn’t “re-invent the wheel” but you should pay particularly close attention to avoiding it when trying to develop a presentable prototype, engineers are especially prone to developing things, sometimes to a fault, simply because that’s what we love doing. So it’s important to have the discipline do research to see if something already exists that comes close to addressing your problem. This is particularly important when addressing auxiliary problems that are not a pivotal part of your design.
For instance if you are developing a phone holder for use in a car with the novel portion of your concept being the phone attachment, and the wireless functionality, don’t waste time developing a new way of mounting to the dashboard. Many people have already solved that issue, so look for the best solution already in production and use that portion as the base for your demonstration units. You can work on improving these auxiliary features later but its best not to waste time on this when the most important issue is to prove the core concept.

surecall fusion trek design
Product using off the shelf car mount to avoid re-inventing that part.

By keeping these tips in mind you can quickly bring a new concept to a presentable stage without any wasted effort.