Rapid Prototyping - Design ThinkingStaff Engineering Designer John Burke writes about how rapid prototyping can be leveraged as an essential element of a Design Thinking process, with input from colleagues Bob Roth, Jerry Schafer and Mark Ortiz.

In my 30 years of new product development experience, the old way to develop products was to plan extensively and then create objects. Today we use Design Thinking methods to start with users, quickly design and build concepts and put them into the users’ hands for feedback. Rapid prototyping, the process of quickly creating these early physical models, has been said to be the biggest difference between “business thinking” and Design Thinking. In other words, rapid prototyping is the rocket fuel that powers Design Thinking processes.

In this article we’ll look at ways rapid prototyping can be used to iterate more quickly and cheaply, reduce risks and speed products to market. Here’s how rapid prototyping can be used to:

1. Create a more informed and relevant design direction.

Rapid Prototyping - Design ThinkingA rapidly created prototype can take many forms, from cardboard to foam core to Bondo to metal, but there’s no question CAD modeling and 3D printing dominate rapid prototyping today. Advances in 3D printing have revolutionized the way design happens by providing flexibility during early stages of innovation.

Rapid prototyping allows for a more thorough evaluation of design direction earlier, which helps reduce direction shifts later (when they can be much more expensive). For example, a client may feel they have the product conceptualized, but when the design and engineering team present a prototype, more often than not the client will mention an important factor that was previously not conveyed, covered nor considered.

Prototyping also allows designers and engineers to bring the prototypes to a wider variety of stakeholders in the product ecosystem, such as technicians who would service the product or warehouse staff who would transport the product. We have seen these technicians provide really helpful feedback such as, “If you did X or added Y feature, it would make it easier to service this unit and get it back into circulation more quickly.” Prototyping allows designers and engineers to receive this feedback early and adjust the design direction accordingly.

2. Fail faster. (Which is a good thing)

Rapid Prototyping - Design ThinkingKaleidoscope Senior Design Engineer Jerry Schafer explains how rapid prototyping, as part of a Design Thinking process, can radically change the direction of a product or way of thinking:

“Low fidelity rapid prototypes (such as those created on 3D printers) allow both designers and engineers to take more risks in the initial design/concept phase. Using 3D printers, we are able to check the function of a “high risk, high reward” design with minimal time and cost. Without the ability to make this quick “gut check,” many great ideas would be abandoned because feasibility was unsure.

I was recently developing a medical device which required a very controlled two-step movement. Instead of going immediately down the path of the “known” design (which all of the competitors use), we were able to make four or five new mechanism designs and try them out using 3D printed parts. The result was a new mechanism which should greatly improve usability of the device and a high degree of confidence in the success of the design.”

“Rapid prototyping allows us to reduce risk faster, because we can have an idea, try it out with low-fidelity models and revise it in early stages,” says Kaleidoscope Engineering Fellow Mark Ortiz. “It allows us to iterate faster and to dismiss bad concepts faster. It also allows us to consider more possibilities.”

3. Communicate more clearly with stakeholders.

Rapid Prototyping - Design ThinkingA prototype helps boil down to the essential elements of the product’s design for communication. “We can very easily bring scale models to the client,” says Mark Ortiz. “This makes the conversation more robust when we talk over a functioning scale model with clients. Less is left to the imagination and we get more relevant feedback than we would with just a drawing.”

Risk of miscommunication or misunderstanding is also reduced. “If I try to describe it, there is a risk that people are visualizing different things,” says Ortiz. “If I show it to a client as a prototype, then we’re both talking about the same thing.” Even when everything looks good and works well in CAD, it needs to be made real to see more accurately how it functions.

4. Get in front of user groups earlier.

Rapid Prototyping - Design ThinkingIn the past, user testing with focus groups took place at a late stage in the design process – when design changes were very costly. Rapid prototyping and Design Thinking methods with 3D printing allow design firms to put multiple prototypes into users’ hands and ask which option they prefer much earlier in a project. Testing with real users earlier helps fuel design success.

For instance, Kaleidoscope Principal Human Factors and Industrial Designer Bob Roth shares insights from the Swiffer Wet Jet design project. “We created many different general designs and handles for the Swiffer Wet Jet, and printed off about 3-5 different versions of each,” says Roth. “Based on user feedback from people of different heights and arm lengths, we iterated and converged on a universal height and angle for the Swiffer Wet Jet, as well as a handle that users found most ergonomic.”

User testing can reveal unexpected preferences, and desires that greatly impact design. For example, a fastening manufacturer didn’t do user research and created a new product focused on safety. However, in user testing, it was revealed that the users wanted speed and power primarily, not safety. Months of design and development time (not to mention money) were wasted on a product that rapid prototyping (and a good user-focused consumer research plan) would have revealed as a misfit before any significant investment was made.

How Rapid Prototyping Saves Time and Money

Before current rapid prototyping methods, concepts took days, if not weeks, to evolve from sketches to a tangible prototype. Today that time is reduced to just hours. This leads to significant savings. Some stats from to The Economist:

  • Rapid prototyping with 3D printing uses as little as one-tenth of the amount of material used with traditional manufacturing methods.
  • A basic 3D printer is cheaper to run than a laser printer was in 1985.
  • Rapid prototyping is price-competitive with plastic injection molding for runs of about 1,000 units.

In summary, rapid prototyping, as an essential element of a Design Thinking processes, can be used to iterate more quickly and efficiently to create products that will delight users and fuel your products to stellar success.

Resources on Rapid Prototyping

The Economist: Print Me a Stradivarius
Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Toolkit for Mangers: Design Thinking for Growth


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