Recently, I was able to sit down with design engineer Eddie Shearer and discuss prototyping with him. As an engineer who is still new to the profession, it was a great opportunity for me to dive into a very interesting topic with an experienced engineer and learn more about this project phase. Below are some of the highlights that came from that conversation.
The prototyping phase is a lot like going into messy, dark room with a flashlight. You have an idea of what is in there, but who knows what you may step on. Ultimately the goal is to give the customer a product that fits their needs as closely as possible. To keep the process smooth and efficient the best course of action is put in the effort ahead of time to make sure gremlins do not pop up in the dark room down the line.
Even with a building full of engineers, most times we do not know exactly how a prototype will work. That is why all of us take a funnel approach to how we solve problems. Think of a funnel as something that catches potential solutions to a problem. The larger our funnel is at the onset of prototyping, the more ideas and solutions we can experiment with at once rather than testing one idea at a time. This means must combine our experience with our natural curiosity to come up with the best possible solutions. Relying only on experience may expedite the process, but may not allow us to see other potential ideas.
Once we have a few ideas we need to test them. We have encountered projects before where two different ideas that came through the funnel appeared to be the same on paper. In order to determine which idea is the best requires extensive testing.
When we plan our design of experiments we can get a good idea of all of the experiments we will have to run with a set of prototypes. Even a few different variables can lead to multiple prototypes which in-turn leads to even more experiments that will have to be run.
When building various prototypes, being deliberate and purposeful is, again, the best choice. If we build multiple prototypes, we have to keep as many things consistent as possible, from the operator, to the materials and even the piece of equipment used to build the prototypes can all have an outcome on how the prototypes behave. By keeping as many things as consistent as possible, it will allow us to test individual variables and gather better data which ultimately ensures that we deliver the best possible product.
Finally, once an idea is set we need to make sure that prototypes can be manufactured. In a perfect world, the prototypes we send do not need to be modified at all and can move to the next project phase. In some cases though, small adjustments need to be made.
In the end of the prototyping phase, we want to deliver a prototype that meets the customers’ needs as closely as possible. By being thoughtful and deliberate, we can ensure that a project stays on track and on the road to success.