Accelerating Hardware Prototyping for Startups and Small Companies

By Protolabs

Products are becoming more complex, and startups must find ways to streamline and accelerate development. Rapid hardware prototyping and open-source microcontrollers are changing the industry. This article provides a brief look at the benefits, products, and processes you can use from concept to production that can give smaller businesses the resources to compete in the electronics industry.  

Benefits of Prototyping Your Hardware Product

Electronic product design encompasses many engineering practices including software, power, and mechanical components. Logically, businesses aim to save money, time, their brand image, and increase quality by prototyping products before sending them to production. Prototypes help catch mistakes and reduce cost later in production. They provide a way to fail fast, iterate, and evolve a product.

Hardware product prototyping allows companies to find and fix technical challenges and gives a better understanding of how end-users interact with their product in real environments. It also suggests how a product fits into the market. For example, excessive temperatures are not ideal for operating electronics. A working prototype may find that the hardware is trapping heat, or there is a hot spot on a printed circuit board (PCB). Changing the hardware design to include vents might solve the problem. With access to rapid prototyping and digital manufacturing using CNC machining, injection moulding, and 3D printing, companies can move quickly from one iteration to another with limited production runs.


Products for IoT and Connected Hardware Prototyping

Companies often associate one-offs or low volume with high costs or large minimum quantity requirements. More problematic are the cost and lead times associated with custom PCBs and software. Digital manufacturing and non-traditional processes with cloud services and prototype products that use open-source microcontrollers decrease costs and reduce volume requirements, making prototyping more accessible to all companies, including smaller startups. Here are a few examples of services and hardware platforms:  

Offers a platform-as-a-service into each of its devices for remote management and integration into software applications; modules and gateways provide an out-of-the-box solution for Internet of Things (IoT) prototyping.

Raspberry Pi
A low-cost, credit-card-sized computer that plugs into a computer monitor or TV and uses a standard keyboard and mouse; a capable little device that enables people of all ages to explore how to program in languages like Scratch and Python.

An open-source hardware and software company, project, and user community that designs and manufactures single-board microcontrollers and microcontroller kits for building digital devices.

What to Consider When Choosing a Prototyping Process

Determining which services, processes, or materials to use for prototyping is an activity similar to designing an experiment. Often, multiple prototypes are needed to prove different concepts, although not all prototyping steps may be needed in the development process. To start, you should have a plan for what each prototype is trying to achieve. Along those lines, decide in advance how important material, surface finish, and functionality are for each iteration.

Many prototyping facilities can provide non-traditional processes and digital tools but finding a provider with knowledgeable engineers to guide you through the process ensures that the most valuable—and capable—product gets to market. For example, 3D printed parts can provide fast turnaround times. However, if the production parts will be machined or moulded, can the printer match the specifications of the final process? That’s why prototyping expertise is a must.

Types of Prototypes

Form, fit, and function are qualities often used generically to describe prototypes. The following types of prototypes are divided into specific categories, but prototypes can test for multiple design parameters, all at once.

  1. Concept Prototypes
    Think of these as non-functional representations of the product. Often simple models made from convenient materials and cost-effective processes, concept prototypes show how a part or product looks in a tangible space. This could include anything from a cardboard cutout to a 3D-printed model.
  2. Form Prototypes
    These prototypes are built to scale, or close to the physical size of the product. Often manufactured with processes such as CNC machining or 3D printing, they give designers ideas regarding the location of features, size, dimensions, and geometry to help define design parameters. While often combined as form and fit prototypes, form specifically might not be as concerned with surface finishes and exact GD&T.
  3. Fit Prototypes
    More complicated than concept and form, these use the same or similar process as the final product, which can be critical to making sure it has the right tolerance, clearance, and surface finish to interact with other components. These prototypes will help the designer find the best design for manufacturing and most sensible processes to ensure successful production.   
  4. Functional Prototypes
    These overlap with proof-of-concept prototypes. However, most functional prototypes are grouped in with engineering prototypes, which are often the kind that designers might use in testing and validation before manufacturing the product.


Gaming box hardware with coating and silk screening
Gaming box hardware with coating and silk screening.

Tips for Accelerating Prototyping Process and Getting to Product Faster

With different materials, processes, and types of prototyping, it is important to define the goals for different product development stages. Maintaining flexible practices and having access to multiple resources with fast turnaround times is key. Here are a few tips to think about when considering prototyping:

  • Design for injection moulding when prototyping in 3D printing if final parts will be molded
  • Use aluminium tooling for prototyping, bridge production and end-use parts. Aluminium tooling lets you speed development and support production without investing in more expensive steel tools
  • 3D printing can make sense for prototyping and end-use parts if you understand the value and volumes needed

Technology and a solid, experienced team can change the way companies think about product development. Manufacturers that provide experts, rapid prototyping, and low-volume manufacturing are disrupting hardware design. Today, startups, small companies, and makers have access to the same technology and experience as larger competitors.