Wesley Chang

March 14, 2017

4 Reasons Why You Can’t Skip Prototyping Your Hardware

For years now, we’ve seen a massive shift in which verticals people are seeking out. They’ve gone from business and law to engineering and technology. And while it’s great to see the masses shifting this way, it’s not great to see the majority of people fail. But the sad truth is, not everyone understands or follows through with the process of building hardware. To be more specific, not everyone sees the need to build prototypes, but the fact still remains. You can’t skip prototyping your hardware.

At a fundamental level, prototyping benefits you in more than a couple of ways. You don’t just test how your product looks or how it operates. Prototyping should serve as a gateway. Not only to identify critical information about your product but also about your customers.

Whether you’re a product guy who wants to skip all the busy work and see the end goal immediately or an engineer who has been taught to approach building hardware a particular way, I’d like to share 4 reasons why you can’t skip prototyping your hardware.

Believe it or not, it happens too often…

The fundamentals of prototyping

Prototyping can seem like an overly inconvenient hurdle that you have to overcome in order to actually build a successful hardware product. But in reality, that’s just not the case.

The entire prototyping process does so much more for you than enable you to create a winning product. It’s a process that allows you to learn. And not just about how your product should be built–with what materials, colors, textures, features and so on–but also about how your customers would use your product during everyday use which we’ll talk about in our next article.

But to kick things off, let’s just talk about the core functions of a prototype.

1. Testing the form of your design

Most people believe that the sole purpose of prototyping is just a means to see how your design looks. But it’s really not.

It’s one of the reasons why you can’t skip prototyping your hardware.

By building something that’s tangible, something that you can actually hold in your hands and see it in a real world context allows you to see more than just the aesthetics. You can see your product’s dimensions, it’s scale, and you can envision how it should look when it’s completed.

Now that doesn’t mean you should go out and spend thousands of dollars to see how your product looks alongside your figdet gadget.

Instead, get your hands on a 3D printer which, in most cases, is the most cost effective way to build prototypes.

2. Testing the function of your product

Testing the design of your product is important, but right up next to it is testing its function. Right?

And this is where things start to become costly. You may need micro-controllers, sensors, hinges, and gears. But don’t let that stop you.

If you do need that hardware, go for the cheap. You can snag the Arduino starter kit for just one hundred bucks, or you can use a Raspberry Pi.

As for sensors, you can pick up whatever you need online from sites like Adafruit or SparkFun.

But don’t just blindly test your prototypes function.

Ask yourself:

  1. Is this behaving the way it should?
  2. How can I improve it?

The main purpose here is to verify the expected functionality. To many people, this is known as Engineering Verification Testing. We have an article here if you’d like to read more about it.

Don’t let the crazy professional name intimidate you though. EVT can just be broken down into a series of tests, which allow you to test the functionality of your product. Some of these are:

  1. EMC scans
  2. Thermal tests
  3. Mechanical fit tests
  4. Life cycle testing

Of course there’s a lot more, but you get the point. Now for a super in-depth guide on hardware testing, I recommend you check out the article, “Pre-Production Hardware Testing Methods,” written by Sylvia Wu, a manufacturing engineer at Fictiv.

3. Testing the materials you’d like to use

The materials you choose directly impact the amount of money you’ll be spending, the longevity of your product, and how well it operates.

Testing out whether you need PLA, ABS, or VisiClear, means that you need to understand which stage of prototyping you’re at, how much strength of flexibility does your product need, and how much function do you need to add.

Whichever material you choose, you should be ensuring that it lives up to your customers expectations, and that it not only looks good, but feels good in hand.

And since building materials isn’t my expertise, I’d like to share a super in-depth 3D printing materials guide written by Sunny Sahota, a prototyping engineer at Fictiv. You can check out the guide here.

3D materials for prototyping


Here’s a great reference guide. (Credit to: Sunny Sahota, Fictiv)

4. Testing production ready prototypes

So you’ve gone through 3 of the 4 prototyping hurdles, and now you’re at the stage of seeing how well your prototype does with production.

This is where design for manufacturing really counts because the chances of your prototype being manufactured exactly the way it is, is slim to none.

Matthias Wagner, is the founder of Kaktus Lab where he strives to help startups build products that solve real world problems. He’s written countless articles on his Medium blog about topics ranging from team building to building hardware products. But recently in the article, “How to Avoid Common Hardware Product Mistakes Many Teams Make,”

“Many people think finishing a prototype means the hard work is done. Guess again. Many prototype designs aren’t actually manufacturable, or if they are, it may be at a cost that’s impossibly high. Figuring out how to mass manufacture your prototype can be as a complex math proof — sometimes doing so takes even more time than it took to make the actual prototype. To make things work, be prepared to say goodbye to a lot of features and bling-bling.”

But if you do find a manufacturer that is capable of doing so, don’t expect it to be cheap. Your next steps here should really be to identify where your CM can’t build, and then rework or redesign your prototype so that they can continue to manufacture your product at the quality it needs to be.

This doesn’t just mean that you’re likely going to have to redesign your prototype several times over. It also means that you may be able to save some money. Since the DFM process aims to reduce overhead, minimize cost and simplify the production process, any CM will advise you on recommended materials and dimensions.

You Can’t Skip Prototyping Your Hardware

The fundamentals of prototyping is a process. Admittedly, it’s extremely time consuming, but well worth the trouble.

Not only are you able to identify pain points of your product, but you can iterate over several prototypes to improve and ensure that your product is following your definition of quality.

And if you’re sharing your prototype with beta testers, this is the stage where you would want to identify their definition of quality and then tailor your product to solve their problems. Not just yours.


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