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A paradigm shift in prototyping: Traditional models

A white paper on a disruptive new model for prototyping and how it is overcoming the limitations of traditional means and methods for turning ideas for products into reality.

From the first light bulb to the first computer, great ideas change the world. When we think back on these inventions though, we often think of the end product and overlook everything that came before it. We forget that at one stage the greatest products we know and use today started as a mere idea with no physical form. A critical part of developing those products from ideas to being fully formed is prototyping.

Over the years, the ways budding inventors have developed prototypes has evolved significantly. Nowadays, inventors have at their disposal a wide range of options for turning their golden idea into a physical item. This white paper looks at the most commonly used, traditional methods available to inventors and explains how a new, more technologically driven model is disrupting the market to cause a paradigm shift that is democratising prototyping and resolving the issues that exist with the traditional methods.

Under the Microscope: Traditional Prototyping Models

Inventors armed with an idea have a number of options to turn that idea into a prototype. One of the most common routes to prototype is to engage an engineering consultancy. Over the years, this model of inventors handing over their ideas to a group of consultants has become one of the most utilised options. There has been a perception that their knowledge and design and engineering fill the gaps in experience and ability of inventors. However, over time it has become increasingly evident among a growing number of inventors that this approach presents a number of barriers and limitations.

For starters, one of the biggest issues that inventors face is the significant cost of collaborating with a consultancy. These high costs are accessible to companies with big R&D budgets but are simply prohibitive to many independent inventors, who may require third party funding to cover them. Frustratingly for many inventors, high cost is no guarantee of quality when it comes to prototypes and, if there is a problem or poor service, inventors don’t have the negotiating power that big companies do to resolve the situation.

Furthermore, what many inventors experience, through no fault of their own, is a range of challenges that come with complexity. At the point at which an idea is discussed with consultancies and budgets drawn up, the full understanding of a product’s complexity is rarely known – so the consultancy quotes even though it doesn’t understand the possible challenges that may appear in the prototyping process. Only once the process begins are difficulties in design and manufacturing identified that could result in excess cost. For
any inventor with a tight budget, this poses a threat, because the consultancy may prepare for this by charging more to accommodate any unforeseen activities and overheads.

There is also a loss of control to contend with. A consultancy often makes executive decisions and drive ideas in directions the inventor may not have chosen had they had more input. This means products can sometimes end up very different to the original concept. In worst case scenarios, there may also be legal issues as to who retains the legal rights to the product, which can occur when an inventor is unhappy with the final prototype and refuses to pay the consultants as a result.

Another common issue is that of slow turnaround times. Many inventors with small or medium sized projects experience being prioritised behind larger projects that are of higher value to the consultants. This means that inventors with lower budgets are delayed, which is especially frustrating when an urgent market opportunity is being missed. Contractual arrangements also make it difficult to end the relationship, which means inventors are locked into the relationship and the slow timeline.

A popular alternative to the prohibitive traditional consultancy approach is for inventors to manage the process themselves and build their own team. This means sourcing and hiring an industrial designer and engineer or a group of industrial designers and engineers to turn the idea into a reality.

On one hand, this approach resolves the issue of losing control of the project. The person with the idea retains responsibility and can be involved in every decision, while keeping the industrial designers and engineers on track to stick to the original idea. However, new problems arise.

The limitations

Firstly, the design and prototyping are limited by the ability, expertise, and skills of the small team. There is a smaller pool of knowledge and problem solving, which can often place limitations on the direction the product is taken in, its quality, and its functionality. At least with a big consultancy there is a bigger pool of knowledge to dip into.

Additionally, the costs of DIY projects such as this can spiral incredibly quickly for less experienced inventors. Those who have gone through the prototyping process before will know the roadmap for designing products and creating prototypes, but the inexperienced will be surprised along the way just how many hurdles they must overcome. There are usually always hidden or unexpected costs, not to mention the already burdensome fees that must be paid to the industrial designers and engineers.

In recent years there has been a growing move to sourcing industrial design and engineering talent and capability through freelancing platforms. In this scenario, inventors will usually select an engineer to manage the entire process or outsource each task to different designers and engineers. The issue with the former of these commonly used options is that it is rare for a single designer or engineer to have the knowledge and skills necessary to complete an entire project. Whereas the issue with the latter is that each of the designers and engineers involved usually won’t have a
holistic view of the project as a whole and are tasked with completing something without understanding the wider objective and aim.

There is also the issue of making a decision on which freelancer to use before knowing if they can do what is being asked. Many inventors select freelancers who seem competent, only to later find out that they cannot do what is needed. This is a costly and time-consuming problem. Costly, because usually the freelancer must still be paid for their work, even if it is not what was required, and it is time-consuming because inventors will need to find an alternative freelancer once they learn their chosen freelancer isn’t able to deliver.

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