Real Experience shared: 6 Reasons for building a Prototype. Which is yours?

We receive a lot of questions about prototyping at Zekeng. When a customer contacts us, the first thing I usually hear, is:

My team and I have an idea and would like to ask you whether you can build a prototype for us?

followed by:

We would also like to know how much it is going to cost?

It is hard to find a quick and simple answer to these questions. The reason is the lack of understanding of what a prototype is, despite the ton of information on the Internet. Therefore I decided to cover the basics of hardware prototyping in this article.

However, without knowing much about your project, I cannot not be sure whether it is 100% applicable to your situation. Despite that, I will share information from experience about how we do it and how it works for us. So, let’s start!

What is a prototype?

To give a definition of the word prototype I will use some help from Wikipedia.

A prototype is an early sample, model, or release of a product built to test a concept or process or to act as a thing to be replicated or learned from.

Also, the prototype can be used to collect additional information about:

  • the functionality
  • the possible realization
  • technology to be used
  • feedback from potential customers
  • investment opportunities

Remember this is a description from Wikipedia and it is too general. Therefore, let me use the context of what we do — physical products that contain electronics and make things more specific.

Clarification: The stated ideas cannot be applied at 100% to software or mechanical products, although they are quite similar.

Unfortunately, there is no general definition that can be applied to all products. I’m sorry, but I cannot give you the super formula. However, I can help you clarify your own definition. To do this, you first have to answer the most important question:

What is the purpose of the prototype I want to make?

Once again, I will share my observations of working with clients and their purposes. I extracted and analyzed the answers I received on the question:
“Why do you want to make a prototype?”

Reason #1: The team wants to proceed to the next stage of product development

This is one of the most common case of people who need our services. Usually, our clients are software engineers who use hardware devices as part of a more complex service they develop, like:

  • Tracking devices
  • Smart devices
  • Health care devices
  • Weather stations
  • Sensors and actuators
  • Wireless solutions & IoT
  • Instrumentation
  • Industrial controllers

Using development kits and platforms like Arduino, Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone Black, people from the team usually had already verified the concept and the feasibility of the project. They also had analyzed the difficulties and challenges. Using the information they learned in the process, they can easily set objective requirements for the final version of the product.

The mentioned above platforms are great for the initial phase of the project, but there are some restrictions that appear, when used further. Usually, it is NOT practical, NOT stable as a solution and NOT economically viable to use them in the final product.

This (according to me) is the right approach to build that type of business. In this case, the team have gathered experience and clarified exactly what they need in terms of functionality. What they only need is a bit of help on the new hardware and then they can proceed further with customer interviews and fundraising.

Reason #2: The team wants to show their device to investors in order to raise capital

I say this with pain in heart, but these are mostly young people or students who watch excessive Hollywood productions. They have idea, but no money, no experience and the worst — no patience. They want to be the next Steve Jobs, but have no idea about making products and what it takes. Their only goal is to go for funding and to experience the startup euphoria by talking to conventions and spending all the money on meaningless things.

The interesting part of the story is that investors usually support such initiatives. I still have no reasonable answer why and I hope you tell me in the comments below.

This type of people almost never use our services. According to them we are rude bastards and our price is too high. They hardly understand that we charge high not because we are greedy but we have to do almost all the work instead :).

Reason #3: The team wants to start a crowdfunding campaign based on the idea

These are people that want to visualize their idea and want to make money with shiny images and video production. This can happen through a successful campaign on Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Since we live in a visual world this strategy will always work (at least the fundraising).

People will always buy fiction s**t easily.

Products like SKARP raise millions without having a working prototype, but only vision and promises.

Reason #4: The team wants to interview potential customers and to get feedback

This one is hard. The goal is to make analysis and proof of market. The team has to clarify what is important to the market — the appearance or the functionality of the product. Usually, they want both which is not as important as they believe.

In an early stage of development, without having cash, it is difficult to achieve nice looking product. The way to succeed is having enough risk money or making visual and functional compromises.

The last has to be communicated properly with potential customers and investors. If they are selected properly this approach will work great. In the beginning you don’t have to be perfect. People will understand that.

Reason #5: The team wants to test the idea and to verify whether the product will work as expected

This includes specific products, which functionality is largely dependent on the shape and the materials.

I have the opportunity to share an example of such a product. This is the dry herb evaporator. Evaporation is a specific process that depends on the heating temperature, the heating speed, the chamber’s material and the flow of air.

After many experiments we found which is the most important thing that determines the pleasure of the product use. It is how cooled the air is after the evaporation. It depends mainly on the material and the shape of the cooling chamber. It can be only measured until proper prototype is built.

This approach is not time and cost wise, but is the only possible.

Reason #6: The team wants to check whether they can do it

These are again new products that use innovative concepts or combination of old concepts with new perspective.

In this case the team is sure that the concept is doable but not sure that the device will work as expected. This issue is solved by making several prototypes or adding variation capabilities in the design of the initial prototype. The last is our preference.

A good example is one of our own products — the modular guitar effect SnapDrive. This product combines relatively old technology but in new perspective. Since the concept is changed, we were not sure that the device circuit will work properly. What’s more, the aim of this device is “amazing sound” which can be achieved after many experiments, comparisons, circuit tweaks and fine tuning.

We already did several revisions of the prototype and we are still experimenting, testing and tuning. And this is only the beginning.

The next we have to do is production wise enclosure design and convenient user interface. We should not forget that the user experience is as much important as the circuit, the used components and technologies.

Conclusion

How you make you prototype is not important. It is even not clear until you have a reason why you want to make it. You may have several reasons and you may need several prototypes or variations. It is completely up to you and will define your how much time and money you will spend.

What we can do for you is to help you with prototyping. If you are a startup you may consider our fixed cost prototyping services or if you are not sure where to start from, consider our consulting services.

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Emil Kirilov

My name is Emil and I’m engineer in electronics. The past 10 years I used to work as a firmware and software developer in established companies. About 8 years ago I found the entrepreneurial spirit in me and I decided to start my own business in parallel. After several unsuccessful approaches during the financial crisis, I settled down and spent several years in learning how to develop business. Assuming the limited resources, I focused on the lean approach and customer driven business models. 3 years ago I found out that I’m in love with the physical products and I joined the company of friend of mine called Zekeng. We finished several products together and I finally decided it is time to leave my job and dedicate to this company and its growth.

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