Let he who has never had a brilliant idea, yet didn’t know how to bring it to life, cast the first stone… Let’s assume you are like me, the kind of person who has lots of ideas going through his head. If this is indeed your case, you probably sometimes wonder how to realize them. If so, keep reading! You may find some help in the following lines.
We will talk about the main process we use at our start-up company,, O’SOL, to rapidly shape an idea at a low cost. The emphasis will be put on mechanical prototyping. The methods described are the ones we use on a daily basis to create parts, and are the exact same methods we used to develop our mobile photovoltaic generator.
First of all, let’s go back to the main term of this piece of article : the prototyping. What is it? What is its purpose?
Prototyping is the process which makes an idea or concept into a physical representation which can have multiple objectives:
In some cases, the main goal will be visual. Prototyping is then a way to find the right design, and in some cases it can serve as a demonstration.
On the contrary, in other cases it can be a method used to (in)validate a concept or a functionality, as it can allow you to easily identify flaws in a concept or demonstrate some functionalities (assembly, interlocking…).
Finally, late the in development cycle there is a phase named “technological prototyping”. This terminal phase is as close as possible to the final product (same shapes, materials…) and allows the complete validation of a product (advanced thermal and mechanical studies, real-life tests…).
Identify the needs and try to meet them
The need has to be the heart your product’s development. Brainstorming is a powerful tool for this. Start by writing down a list of all the ideas which meet your needs and your constraints on a sheet of paper, a whiteboard or any support you like. Even though some of them may seem like stupid or far-fetched: write them down! Considering them could lead you to a better idea… The creativity process is long and self-sustained: the more ideas you think, the more new ideas will come to you.
Once your list is drawn-up, take a moment to free up your mind. Play some sports, go for a walk, watch some funny videos on the internet or work on other things. You will go back to your ideas in a few hours or the following day with a more critical spirit. When going through your ideas, ask yourself these important questions: Which ideas seem good at first sight? Which seem complicated / too long or too costly to develop? Which ones seem easy to try?
It is now time to pick 2 or 3 of the best ideas and develop them using some of the tools of the prototyping process in order to get a physical part.
A multitude of tools can help you get from an idea to a prototype. We already talked about brainstorming, and drawing. Listed below are some of the tools we use on a daily basis at O’Sol:
- Brainstorming: they allow your creativity to speak out and help you identify many possible ways to meet a need or tackle a problem.
- Drawing: It often allows the selection of more appropriate ideas. Drawing is also a good way to get a first idea of a product. In some cases, it can also be sufficient to invalidate some ideas. Nevertheless, it is limited in that it doesn’t take into account the kinematics of a product.
- Quick modeling: It lets you get a feel for the object in 3D and can sometimes help testing some functionalities. It is usually performed with very little resources, using materials such as paper, recycled objects or cardboard.
- Dimensioning phase: Used in combination with drawing, it allows you to get the right dimensions of a part or a product and can be used to evaluate part’s fit in an assembly.
- 3D design (CAD) and simulation: A crucial step, 3D modelling is used to get from a drawn version of a product to an accurate 3D model with the real dimensions. Mechanically speaking, it is the best way to virtually consider a part in an assembly. Even better, when combined with a simulation engine, it can also evaluate the kinematics of a part, its reaction to thermal gradients or fluids flows… A true virtual lab!
- 3D printing: Already described in our article How 3D printing changed our design methods, 3D printing is a true revolution in the rapid prototyping world. Based on the concept of additive manufacturing, this technology can create an almost perfect physical plastic-based part from a CAD 3D model in a few hours and for a few euros.
- Others: Depending on your progress along the product development, more precise manufacturing methods may be needed such as mechanical machining, injection molding, stamping… These industrial methods are used to manufacture any type of part but they are costly and often long. However, the parts produced use the exact same methods and materials used on the final product, thus allowing for more complete tests.
The iterative process at the core of product development
Another fundamental notion (if not the most important one) to be introduced is the iterative process. As described in our 3D printing article, this process makes us accept mistakes as an integral part of the development process. The infographic below lists some of the prototyping steps and tools used at O’Sol as part of our iterative process.
Typically, we start with a brainstorming session to get a nice list of ideas. We study them to select the best ones, which we later transpose as a virtual CAD model. When possible, we print the parts in 3D to test its functionalities or its implementation in an assembly. Then we sit around a table again, and if the product isn’t perfect (and it rarely is on the first try), we list the issues and do another brainstorming session to identify potential solutions which we later develop. We repeat this process until we have a finished product.
If you also use prototyping as a fundamental tool for your development, don’t hesitate to contact us to share your experience! We hope you liked this article and if so, share it with your friends and look out for our new articles! 🙂
Ressources: Alekksall – Freepik.com