Prototype to Production series: Part 1

By Stephen Dyson

Prototyping considerations for a design’s early stages


The early stages of the project development process include concept development, initial design and product validation, and some product testing in terms of aesthetic appeal or functionality.

During these initial stages, the design function aims to combine the Voice of the Customer (VOC) requirements; the Voice of the Process (VOP), which specifies current manufacturing and sourcing capabilities, together with any known investment requirements; and the Voice of the Business (VOB), which details the business’s demands and hurdles in terms of return on investment, sales, marketing and operations.

Rapid prototyping at Protolabs


Why choose Rapid prototyping?

Prototypes are a significant investment for R&D teams, and where possible, manufacturers are increasingly turning to rapid prototyping techniques to shorten development times and reduce risk, using technologies such as:

  • 3D printing
  • MultiJet Fusion (MJF)
  • Selective Laser Sintering (SLS).
  • Stereolithography (SL)
  • Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)
  • CNC machining
  • Injection moulding


How many Prototypes do I need?

Prototype quantities can range from as few as one per prototype iteration, to as many as hundreds or even thousands, depending on the product and the project’s requirements. That said, the usual range is between one and five for initial concept prototyping using CNC machining or 3D printing, to hundreds when using rapid injection moulding. However, we should be mindful not to restrict or categorize these technologies to prototyping only.

Indeed, where only a few production parts or components are required, 3D printing, CNC machining or injection moulding are commonly used to manufacture production-ready parts.

Which manufacturing process should I use?

Each manufacturing technology produces compromises. Speed, cost and the level of useful information that a prototype can provide, are all considered at the initiate stage of the project. Prototypes are often manufactured using different materials and processes than would be used during actual production (3D printed plastics for example), with parts produced largely in order to provide information about fit, function, and aesthetics. For some projects, particularly in later prototyping iterations, manufacturers require pre-production prototypes that are representative of parts used in the final product, made from the same material and manufacturing process.