Compressed at your peril

Rapid prototyping brings enormous benefits to the product development process but this technology must be put firmly into perspective argues Paul Turner of Team Consulting.

Time-compression technologies can help turn the handle faster when processes are time-consuming, but they are only design tools. They have no vision, no innovative powers, and no intelligence.

Above all, they do not have the human skill to consider the softer issues from a user’s perspective. For, example, will a product be easy to use if I have arthritis or I am blind? CAD is enormously helpful in comparing and contrasting the iterations, but it does not create them by itself.

Ninety per cent of product development time comprises processes that are compressed at everyone’s peril: product definition, concept creation, market analysis, proof of principle, testing and user trials. CAD can, of course, help here: producing images, models and components more profusely and earlier in the process. But it is the product development team who will ultimately make the decisions that determine the product’s success. And the development team is not just the designer but the marketing department, the sales team, the service engineer, the production manager, the regulatory department, and – even – the end user.

In fact, everyone who has an influence on the design is part of the development team. In the rush-to-develop it is all too easy to leave somebody out (because the more people and disciplines involved, the more complex and time-consuming the decision-making process).

Rapid prototyping can bring a state of readiness with a product, but user trials are also key. Moreover, the universal law that states that `People will use products in ways that manufacturers never intended’ should not be overlooked.

These critical take-the-time processes include: reviewing market requirements, involving the potential user throughout development, brainstorming potential solutions, assessment and management of cost implications, testing and reviewing at every stage of development, ensuring manufacturing capability, and choosing suppliers. Thought-based processes like these cannot be rapid-prototyped. Judgement, experience, and time, are all.

In addition, components produced by rapid prototyping techniques such as stereolithography will not perform in the same way as moulded parts. Even machined and polished plastic components behave differently from the moulded equivalent. It may, therefore, be necessary to produce soft injection mould tools to evaluate critical mechanisms as part of the POP process. This takes time but minimises the risk of having to take corrective action later.

At the end of the prototype development phase, production manufacture, assembly and test must be assessed in an analytical and systematic way.