In recent years, the electronics market has been oriented towards applications with increasingly advanced functionality in ever smaller dimensions. The consequent increase in the density of the components present on the PCB mostly made with SMD technology, today imposes complex challenges to the designer, such as the correct positioning and spacing between the elements, the layout of the tracks and the proper thermal management to dissipate heat. In excess.
These aspects are fundamental to guarantee the correct functioning of the circuit in the operating conditions foreseen by the project requirements, ensuring protection against electromagnetic interference (EMI), inductive or capacitive coupling between the signals and overheating of the components.
The first step on which the development of any electronic device is articulated consists in the design of the PCB, the heart of the circuit on which the operational performance of the specific application, its reliability and its duration depend. Made in small batches, the printed circuit is then subjected to the component assembly phase to perform the initial tests and allow the development of the firmware, now present on most electronic devices. In summary, this approach to developing an electronic product is called Prototyping.
What Does It Mean To Prototype?
To keep up with the market’s needs, which require increasingly advanced products in ever shorter times, companies must be able to quickly create a prototype for each new potential product. The term prototyping refers to the process by which the development team, typically the R&D department of a company, implements product ideas (the so-called ‘concepts’) in a tangible format. Prototyping is, therefore, the passage from an idea to its physical representation, which can be a paper model, a mock-up, a software application or more, depending on the case.
The prototype allows designers to evaluate the feasibility of the product, the new features introduced, and the relative performances, as well as possible improvements and optimizations, to be made to the project before arriving in production. Similarly, the prototype is helpful for the potential customer to evaluate the functionalities and application scenarios of a new product, identify and solve possible technical problems early and facilitate the integration phase with other parts of the system.
NPI: How To Put New Products On The Market
The concept of Prototyping is closely linked to two terms, the importance of which is increasingly relevant today: NPI and HMV. With NPI, an acronym for New Product Introduction, we mean the process capable of transforming an idea from an initial working prototype to a final product, complete and reproducible on a large scale. The NPI process typically involves constant changes and improvements applied to the original idea, which continues until stakeholders agree that the product design is mature enough to create a working prototype.
HMLV, an acronym for High-Mix Low-Volume, indicates an approach to designing new products based on creating a wide variety of products, each produced in small quantities. HMV is therefore opposed to the traditional LMHV (Low-Mix High-Volume) philosophy that has long dominated the production sector, making few products and only in large quantities to favor economies of scale. The HMLV process, commonly used to make unique and more complex products with specific quality requirements, offers some significant benefits, including better product customization, excellent responsiveness to customer requests, and cost reduction through lower inventory.
How Is A Prototype Made?
Any company that wants to bring a new product to market must understand the importance of the prototype development process. For information, it should be borne in mind that James Dyson, founder of the company of the same name, built 5127 prototypes in five years before perfecting his initial idea of a bagless vacuum cleaner. This product subsequently received widespread recognition from the market.
The Functional Prototype
Once the product’s functionality has been demonstrated through the PoC prototype, the next step is generally to create a functional prototype. At this stage, the PCB must be carefully designed, and components selected and positioned on the board to meet the final application’s performance, reliability and thermal management requirements.
Although functional prototypes are still being built in small numbers, their design is already complete, unsolicited components have been eliminated, PCB spaces optimized, track layout defined to meet impedance, and immunity to electromagnetic interference and heat dissipation. Electronic components with equivalent alternatives should also be selected now to simplify the supply chain, ensure product longevity and reduce costs.
The Engineering Prototype And The Beta Prototype
Proceeding with the subsequent refinements, we arrive at what is called the “engineering prototype” (EP), also known as the “alpha” version. In this case, the prototype has the functionality, dimensions, and physical appearance similar to the final product. This prototype is widely used by start-ups, especially in crowdfunding campaigns and organizing trade fairs and specialized events demonstrations. The prototype, however, is not yet ready for large-scale industrial production, as it has to be optimized for manufacturing processes, molding, automated assembly, etc.
It is essential to underline the relevance of this aspect, as it is not uncommon for a crowdfunding project, albeit technically valid, to fail because the time and resources required for DFM (Design for Manufacturing) and DFA optimization have been underestimated. (Design for Assembly). By applying the DFM rules to the prototype, we arrive at the “beta” prototype, whose production process is comparable to that of large volumes. This phase also includes engineering analyzes, such as tolerances, thermal simulations and structural optimizations.
The Advantages Of Prototyping
The main benefit of Prototyping is to reduce the risks involved in introducing a new product while increasing the experience factor. As demonstrated by the Dyson example, product development is an iterative process. The greater the number of prototypes created, the greater the experience gained and the ability to overcome the challenges imposed by the NPI.
Prototyping is an investment that pays for itself over time with a more remarkable ability to continuously improve a project idea, concretizing it into a final product. In the case of start-ups, Prototyping also helps to acquire the funding required to carry out the project. In potential investors, nothing installs more confidence than something tangible that demonstrates the concept behind the project idea. More generally, the advantages offered by Prototyping can be summarized as follows:
- Any design errors can be easily detected already in the early stages of product development;
- The design is more flexible, adapting better to the final needs of the product. The iterative prototyping cycles allow for improvement and optimize the original product concept;
- It will enable the firmware/software group to have a hardware platform very similar to the final product on which to carry out the development of the new features ;
- Prototypes can be reused for future creations, accelerating development times and time to market;
- Customers and users are actively involved, being able to evaluate, verify and test the functionalities implemented on the prototype;
- By applying DFM and DFA analysis, Prototyping allows you to anticipate problems related to large-scale production, simplifying the production and assembly processes of the boards.