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Prototype Manufacturing

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Prototype manufacturing is a game-changer in hardware development, letting designers and engineers test out their ideas and spot potential issues before things get real in mass production. Investing in prototyping isn’t just smart: it’s a must for speeding up development, sparking innovation, and avoiding expensive mistakes down the line. 

In this article, we dive into everything prototyping—from picking the right tech and materials to choosing your manufacturer and the all-important testing and iteration phase. Read on to see how these steps can help you nail your product launch with confidence.

What is prototype Manufacturing?

Prototyping is the engineering process of building preliminary and evaluation models or samples of a product to evaluate design, functional performance and cost-manufacturability issues before commencing mass production.

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This is a typical G-Code CNC machining program, where machine and cutter definitions are required as inputs by a human programmer making complex decisions about optimum methods. The syringe plunger file would require ~1800 lines of G-Code for CNC machining

Types of prototypes

There are several forms of prototypes, including visual moquettes, functional/performance prototypes and user experience or field evaluation prototypes. 

Table comparing different stages of prototype production, including proof-of-concept, visual prototype, functional prototype, physical prototype, digital prototype, field prototype, and pre-production prototype, with descriptions.

The earliest stage prototypes fall into two categories: – evaluating shape, feel, proportions and user impression: or testing fundamental mechanical functional or strength issues, these often not looking like the product at all!

As the concept and details of the design develop, later prototypes will begin to resemble the ‘real product’ more closely in aesthetics, user interface and function. Valuable information about materials, user experience, assembly, manufacturing processes and aesthetics will inform ongoing design and de-risk the development process.

This evolution of form, function and accuracy of representation should continue through multiple generations of prototypes. The designers process and the execution of the product evolution will benefit greatly from a multi-generation approach. It benefits every aspect to resist the ‘too early to prototype’ and the ‘too many prototypes’ arguments that too often prevail.

Appropriate generations of prototypes serve different but converging purposes and can be specified/built under very different regimes depending on the application.

Critical role of prototyping in product development

Prototyping plays a crucial role in all stages of the product development cycle, by allowing designers and engineers to evaluate ideas and solutions, confidently refine solutions, and identify cost/performance/manufacturing issues earlier in the development cycle.

By equipping evaluations of all forms with tangible and/or functional representations of concepts, prototypes build stakeholder confidence through the visualization of and functional interaction with the product (or sub-elements of it). Nothing facilitates communication and collaboration between developers, marketers and customers better than a working execution. Prototypes quickly deliver meaningful feedback from users that images cannot, ensuring that the final outcome meets real user needs and expectations.

This reduces development risks.

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Choosing the right process for prototyping

Selecting the right prototype manufacturing technology is a skilled process that draws on a wide palette of capabilities and services that must adapt to the specific goals of the prototype. These range from old-school fabrication processes to extreme Industry 4.0 digital executions.

Plastic additive manufacturing

Can be ideal for quickly producing both general-visual and moderately functional prototypes with complex geometries. Highly developed for iterative design concept, fit and basic operational validation, these prototypes can be both precise and fast, but often they lack the strength and more esoteric capabilities of ‘real’ materials. Best for projects requiring fast turnaround times and cost-effective evaluation parts, they can serve in cosmetic roles but generally require considerable and skilled hand finishing if they are to substitute visually as finished product.

Metal additive manufacturing

Increasingly available to prototype precision metal components and potentially to manufacture rapid cavity tools for plastic molding. This option can deliver close analogs of real production and high precision parts of extraordinary quality. Processes are available adapted to larger parts with moderate detail and smaller parts with fine details and additional procession can be delivered by CNC post processing of prototypes to achieve engineering grade fits and precision. This family of processes is rapidly developing and increasingly accessible. It offers similar outcomes to CNC machining and can be faster to execute, although costs and schedules vary considerably, depending on access to competitive and local supply.

CNC Machining

Precision prototyping by CNC machining is ideally suited for producing highly accurate and high-functioning prototypes with tight tolerances and excellent surface finishes. The ability to prototype in real production materials (or close analogs) can deliver properties that are very close to mass production standard, for more extreme and demanding evaluations. Ideal for functional testing, form validation and creating prototypes that closely parallel the function of AND resemble final production parts, CNC machining delivers better outcomes. However they generally take longer to deliver and cost more than additive manufactured parts. These outcomes are ideal for projects requiring durable materials and the ability to prototype in highly selected metals and plastics, but cosmetic finishing can still entail considerable and costly hand finishing.

Injection Molding

Functional prototyping by injection molding delivers prototypes using production-grade materials, offering production-typical accuracy and surface quality. There are various grades of tooling that can be employed in this mode: very simple Aluminum cavity tools  for small vertical molders: cavity inserts for existing bolster tools: all the way through to basic grade production tooling capable of high volume. This approach is ideal for functional testing, material validation and producing prototypes for market testing. However, the tooling cost and lead times often rule out this approach as simply too slow or costly. This approach is suitable for projects requiring large quantities of prototypes that can serve in transitioning to mass production. It can also be useful where extreme functional precision is required in evaluations and multiple generations involving minor iterations are expected.

Vacuum casting

An intermediate option that can be useful in delivering moderate performance plastic components at lower cost than either tooled or machined alternatives. This process uses silicone rubber tools cast over rapid prototype parts to enable urethan castings to be made. In some cases this allows increased volume of parts at lower cost than repeats of the additive manufacturing process. However, some loss of accuracy occurs and this can detrimentally influence their usefulness.

The selection of prototype manufacturing approach must align with the project’s goals, budget, timeline and desired prototype characteristics.

Tips for choosing the right prototyping materials

The selecting of materials for prototypes is a fine art that requires experience and deep process understanding as well as a clear view of the functional, aesthetic and limit/fit needs of the parts.

1. Choose materials that match the functional requirements of the prototype

Cosmetic prototypes must achieve high quality finishes, performance evaluation prototypes must have  sufficient strength, flexibility, heat resistance or wear tolerance. It’s critical that materials are chosen to ensure the prototypes are suited to the intended use and testing conditions. But it’s imperative to note that MATERIAL selection can by default be an act of process selection, so the implications of choices and the potential for compromise must be considered.

2. Balance material/process costs with project budget constraints.

Opt for material cost minimization that meets functional requirements without compromising quality. Lower cost for a generation of prototypes may alleviate budget issue and enable extra generations of prototyping, with huge potential schedule/budget benefits.

3. Select materials compatible with the prototype's design specifications and evaluation functions

Consider all options in machining, molding or printing the material to deliver the requisite parts. Be careful in material options when substituting metal for plastic (and vice-versa) as this can cause misinterpretation of results.

4. Choose readily available materials

It’s generally a good idea to access prototyping services that are more common, as obscure materials and processes are liable to be harder to find, slower and more expensive. Choose ordinary materials (and by extension processes) where you can to avoid bloat in procurement schedule and costs.

5. Iterative testing and evaluation of materials will equip you to assess performance, durability and suitability for the intended application.

Remember the first rule of prototype assessment: if the prototype is close in strength, performance, fit or cosmetics, the real thing will be closer!

Selecting materials for a particular prototyping function is often not straightforward. There are the gross material choices – generally between metal and plastic, but also ceramic, composite, natural materials and more. Among plastics there are many, many  choices.

6. Anisotropy and its management

Most 3D printing processes work by layering material in slices, to build 3D parts out of 2D sections printed sequentially. The layering can have a huge effect on the strength of the part, so pick your process and build orientation with care. In SLS prototypes, inter layer fusion is near perfect, so direction matters less. In FDM/FFF parts, the interlayer bonding is often worse than half the strength of the intra-layer bonding.

 

Balancing strength and build cost in some 3D print methods is a tricky task.

Prototype manufacturing services and companies

Prototyping service providers offer a spectrum of general and specialist solutions to embody innovative ideas into tangible objects. Utilizing 3D printing, CNC machining and injection molding and other technologies, such providers deliver varied types and qualities of prototypes, aiming for rapid and cost-effective outcomes.

They cater to the automotive, aerospace, consumer electronics, industrial, healthcare sectors and others, offering a diversity of materials and manufacturing techniques to serve prototype requirements. With experienced teams of engineers and technicians, they typically collaborate with clients throughout the process, from concept to final pre-production, enabling rapid iteration, design validation, and accelerated time-to-market for products.

The most effective of these suppliers are full spectrum service providers who see their role as right hand assistance from concept through to mass production.  

Factors to consider when selecting a prototype manufacturer

The selection of a prototype manufacturer who aligns with your goals from the start is crucial for reasons that will evolve as a project develops from concept through to mass production:

  • It ensures seamless communication and understanding of project requirements, delivering a more efficient collaboration and fewer misunderstandings.
 
  • A partner supplier who shares the vision of the product and process can offer invaluable insight that enhances the outcome, both in function and market appeal.
 
  • Such a partner is more likely to be invested in the project’s success and prioritize meeting your specific needs. 
 
  • An aligned partner fosters a stronger relationship, greater trust and understanding, essential for successful prototyping.
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Overview of Digital Manufacturing Platforms

Jiga

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Jiga emphasizes building strong, direct relationships with a carefully vetted network of manufacturing partners. This approach enhances trust and quality but results in longer lead times and a lack of instant quoting capabilities. The platform is designed for higher engagement and quality outputs, making it ideal for long-term production needs.

Protolabs

Hexagonal logo with abstract blue, green, and black design elements inspired by xometry competitors.

Protolabs excels in rapid prototyping and on-demand manufacturing with quick lead times and a user-friendly online platform that offers instant quotes and design analysis tools. However, it is not as well-suited for scaling to full production and generally has higher pricing. The platform’s reliance on its own equipment limits the variety of jobs it can accept.

Xometry

best xometry competitors and altenatives

Xometry operates a vast network of manufacturing partners with an automated quoting system to offer competitive pricing. While it provides broad capabilities and quick feedback on designs, its ‘black box’ model limits direct interaction with suppliers, potentially affecting customization and quality. Concerns also exist regarding the impact of Xometry’s platform on the operations and profitability of manufacturing shops.

Fictiv

Logo of fictiv, one of the xometry competitors, on a teal background.

Fictiv is known for its agile manufacturing support, providing rapid prototyping and on-demand manufacturing with a strong focus on quality control. Its global network facilitates localized production, although its services are generally more expensive for larger production volumes. Recently, Fictiv has expanded into new areas like sheet metal and die casting, where it faces stiff competition from more established players like Xometry.

Prototype Manufacturing to Mass Production

The transition from development to mass production is how product development comes of age. It requires scaling up production processes from the prototype to larger scale, building and sustaining quality and cost-control.

Key steps in this transition include the steady refining of product design for improved manufacturability and optimizing processes, materials and components for increased scale.

Close collaboration between design and manufacture teams, conducting informative pilot runs and continuously iterating (on a reducing scale) deliver a smooth transition. This aims to deliver consistent, cost-effective manufacturing of products to meet market demand and customer expectations.

From prototyping to production

The transition from the development and prototyping to mass production marks the highest risk phase in product development. It is an iterative process of refinement and optimization that can become drawn out, when the design refinement that should occur in prototype becomes, instead, a disruption of the production transfer.

Early prototypes serve to test and validate design concepts. Feedback from this should inform iterative improvements that address functional and production issues. If these stages are insufficient then alignment with user needs and market requirements can become tangled in early production and even result in product recalls. Recent examples such as the Tesla Cybertruck throttle (gas) pedal becoming stuck at full power is a typical example of an early stage evaluation that was insufficient, leading to an early product recall for a life or death issue.

As the product development process matures, prototypes should evolve into pilot build and pre-production models. Ideally they will begin to closely resemble the final product, undergoing progressively diminishing  iterative adjustments based on ongoing and increasingly stringent testing and validation. The iterative process often continues as production tools and processes are refined and bedded in, materials are optimized, and quality assurance measures are implemented. If the design phase prototyping was successful and sufficient, then the production phase adjustments will be minor and of low disruption.

The iterative journey from prototype to production involves multiple cycles of testing, refinement and validation, each iteration bringing the product closer to its final form and ideally each generation/cycle being less profound than the prior one. This ensures that the final product is robust, reliable, manufacturable, cost-effective and market-ready. Done right, this cyclic process ensures the product meets or exceeds customer expectations while maximizing efficiency and optimizing costs in the manufacturing process.

Challenges and considerations in scaling up production

The process entailed in scaling up production from development to mass production brings a range of new challenges and considerations. In a well planned process, these have been part of the design thinking from the start:

  • Maintaining product quality and consistency as scale grows requires stringent quality control measures and standardized processes. These are typically part of a broader quality management process across the whole operation.
 
  • Optimizing workflows and supply chain logistics to meet increased demand while minimizing costs and lead times is the route to profitability.
 
  • Sourcing raw materials and components in bulk, negotiating favorable pricing, and ensuring timely deliveries becomes a major operation on its own, as volumes grow.
 
  • Staffing, training and integrating a growing production workforce, while implementing efficient production scheduling and inventory management systems are necessary for seamless scaling.
 
  • Compliance with workplace safety requirements, regulatory standards and industry certifications are productive challenges that must be addressed. 
 

Navigating these challenges demands an effective operation that includes a broad range of skills and specializations, strong strategic decision-making in leadership and a continuous improvement mindset that consolidates the gains of growth and adaptively delivers volume production.

Testing and Iteration

  • Functionality testing assures that the product performs as specified and meets functional requirements.
 
  • Durability testing assesses the product’s tolerance of expected and outlier stressors and environmental conditions over its lifecycle. This should integrate product life testing and HALT (highly accelerated life testing). HALT testing is often used as a design driver, inducing and designing out failure modes quickly.
 
  • User experience testing uses advanced prototypes to gather feedback from end-users as to product utility.
 

By undertaking thorough and repeated testing, designers and manufacturers can expose and address issues before hitting production. This enhances product performance, builds-in customer satisfaction and minimizes the risk of in-market failures and recalls, resulting in products that deliver on their promise.

Strategies for efficient iteration

Effective prototype/design iteration relies on a knowledge-driven approach,to reduce uncertainty. The knowledge comes from both functional and user testing.

After any form of testing it’s critical to undertake analysis that identifies and prioritizes areas for improvement. Iterative design changes focusing on highest-impact issues first, driven by testing outcomes and user feedback.

Employing rapid cycle prototyping drives quick design validation/iterations. Clear and non-hierarchical communication channels among team members facilitate agile decision-making that optimizes the iteration process. The integration of testing outcomes and feedback into these iterative design cycles helps the team to meet project goals and user requirements.

Overcoming common challenges in prototyping

Prototyping is never cheap, when it is effective.

  • Budget constraints always restrict the process, but they can be addressed by prioritizing the essential and key aspects in the early stages, with partial and sub-assembly prototypes.
 
  • Adding complexity and aiming for completeness in subsequent iterations will bring in the less critical details later in the iterative cycle.
 
  • Choosing the right prototyping technology demands evaluation of various approaches, to give the most effective simulation of the outcomes of the real production method.
 
  • Close cooperation with broadly experienced and equipped prototype outsources can help in managing technical and budget challenges. 
 
  • Exploiting non-standard materials or manufacturing techniques that adequately represent the intended production can offer cost restraints, though it’s critical to understand the effect on test outcomes.
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Looking Ahead: Future Trends

Emergent approaches in prototyping include:

  • Advances in plastic, metal, composite and ceramic additive manufacturing, delivering faster, higher resolution prototypes in closer-to-real production materials.
 
  • AI-driven design tools may offer options to streamline the prototyping process by automating tasks within design and increasing the efficacy of simulation as an accessible design tool.
 
  • The integration of sensor based data, testing and analytics may enhance prototype functionality and performance evaluation.
 

These developments suggest more efficient, cost-effective and agile prototype processes,  shortening product design cycles and improving manufacturing handover processes/outcomes.

Conclusion

Prototype manufacturing is the keystone of product development, enabling braver innovation and enhancing efficiency in, and reducing the number of design cycles.

 

Designers and engineers generally embrace prototyping’s iterative nature, but they are often budget limited in fully exploiting the opportunity to optimize the process. Timely and aggressive prototyping enables them to rapidly refine and tune designs for functionality and user experience.

 

Outsourcing to services such as Jiga smoothes the prototyping and transfer to production process. It provides access to advanced technologies and expertise that can otherwise be hard to engage with and impossible to fully maintain in-house.

 

Leveraging the fact that prototyping is central to effective and agile design, engineers can shorten development timelines, reduce overall costs and bring product to market faster. Fully embracing prototyping as a strategic design tool at all design stages equips engineers to iterate more rapidly, validate earlier and more completely and ultimately deliver impactful solutions faster.

Jon
Jon
Jon is a dynamic and accomplished professional with a rich and diverse background. He is an engineer, scientist, team leader, and writer with expertise in several fields. His educational background includes degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Smart Materials. With a career spanning over 30 years, Jon has worked in various sectors such as robotics, audio technology, marine instruments, machine tools, advanced sensors, and medical devices. His professional journey also includes experiences in oil and gas exploration and a stint as a high school teacher. Jon is actively involved in the growth of technology businesses and currently leads a family investment office. In addition to his business pursuits, he is a writer who shares his knowledge on engineering topics. Balancing his professional achievements, Jon is also a dedicated father to a young child. His story is a remarkable blend of passion, versatility, and a constant pursuit of new challenges.

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