Prototyping: new methodology reduces risk and drives value

prototypingDominic Tribe explains how production-oriented prototyping can help reduce costs and risks for manufacturers by integrating design resources

Until now, the upfront costs associated with the production of prototypes and the lack of an industry-wide approach to their development, has limited their potential as a cost-reduction strategy. However, this could all change with the rise of production-oriented prototyping (POP).

Involving the same team of component and full assembly designers responsible for product development, this advanced prototyping method could help manufacturers to reduce risk and minimise costs, while accelerating a product’s route to market. So what exactly does the technique involve and how could it be used to optimise profit margins and improve productivity?

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3D printing is becoming the most popular method of actually producing rapid prototypes, but POP integrates the whole process into existing design procedures. Image by Renato Sabatini 

Giving businesses greater confidence around the production of a new product or component, prototyping has potential as a valuable cost-reduction tool for many different areas of manufacturing. Subjecting parts to thorough testing and validation procedures at an early stage in the production process allows any issues to be discovered and addressed early, helping to avoid costly design changes and delays to production schedules.

“Subjecting parts to thorough testing and validation procedures at an early stage in the production process allows any issues to be discovered and addressed early”

By providing reliable data insights and feedback across key areas, such as raw materials and production methods, prototyping can also increase the reliability of cost estimates for the mass production of the end product, enabling accurate budgeting. In the longer term, this could help to improve customers’ confidence that a product will meet its functional, quality and cost requirements, making the manufacturer a more attractive prospect in the eyes of would-be investors.

While on the face of things this production strategy offers manufacturers a number of clear advantages, there are some important considerations. As well as the high up-front costs associated with this method of design and development, there has been significant confusion surrounding the lack of an industry-wide approach to prototyping.

As a result, some companies have opted to make use of computer-aided design (CAD) software – removing the need to produce physical parts, and bypass the prototyping phase altogether.

Allowing greater production intent to be brought into the prototyping phase, POP signals the start of a new era for this technique. Involving collaboration between individual component and full assembly designers and procurement professionals from the application development phase, POP allows issues to be identified and fixed more rapidly, enabling programme time savings of around 25 per cent. Making use of technology such as virtual builds, simulation and CAD, this method also ensures the component’s compatibility once assembled. Reducing the number and length of prototype phases allows manufacturers to keep costs down and optimise profit margins.

In order to drive value from POP, a cost-focused approach and close collaboration with the supply chain are key. By bringing production, manufacturing and procurement teams together at an early stage in the design and development phase, businesses can improve their chances of identifying and addressing issues before the expensive prototyping phase, helping to increase cost-reduction opportunities. During this resource-intensive period, careful planning is required and failing to do this could have a negative impact on production outputs, as well as the cash position of the business.

Manufacturers should also consider the use of rapid prototyping methods, such as additive manufacturing, to speed up turnaround times and improve efficiency levels. Currently around 80 per cent of high-value manufacturers rely on 3D printing for their prototyping processes.

Other means of strengthening a component’s production intent, shouldn’t be overlooked. For example, has sufficient thought been given to areas such as product handling, packaging and logistics? Manufacturers should also seek supplier feedback to help inform product refinements during the prototyping phase.

When adopted as part of a robust engineering process, POP can help manufacturers to reduce risk, delays and costs on their way to market. Allowing manufacturers to maintain a strong focus on cost through the early stages of development, the industry can make the most of this innovative prototyping methodology to reduce costs and improve profitability.

Dom Tribe is a manufacturing sector specialist at management consultancy, Vendigital.