A prototype is an early sample, model or release of a product built to test a concept or process or to act as a thing to be replicated or learned from. It is a term used in a variety of contexts, including semantics, design, electronics, and software programming. A prototype is designed to test and trial a new design to enhance precision by system analysts and users. Prototyping serves to provide specifications for a real, working system rather than a theoretical one.
The word prototype derives from the Greek πρωτότυπον (prototypon), "primitive form", neutral of πρωτότυπος (prototypos), "original, primitive", from πρῶτος (protos), "first" and τύπος (typos), "impression".
- 1 Semantics
- 2 Design and modeling
- 3 Basic prototype categories
- 4 Differences between a prototype and a production design
- 5 Characteristics and limitations of prototypes
- 6 Modern trends
- 7 Mechanical and electrical engineering
- 8 Electronics prototyping
- 9 Computer programming/computer science
- 10 Software release cycle
- 11 Data prototyping
- 12 Scale modeling
- 13 Metrology
- 14 Sciences
- 15 References
In semantics, prototypes or proto instances combine the most representative attributes of a category. Prototypes are typical instances of a category that serve as benchmarks against which the surrounding, less representative members are analysed.
Design and modeling
In many fields, there is great uncertainty as to whether a new design will actually do what is desired. New designs often have unexpected problems. A prototype is often used as part of the product design process to allow engineers and designers the ability to explore design alternatives, test theories and confirm performance prior to starting production of a new product. Engineers use their experience to tailor the prototype according to the specific unknowns still present in the intended design. For example, some prototypes are used to confirm and verify consumer interest in a proposed design whereas other prototypes will attempt to verify the performance or suitability of a specific design approach.
In general, an iterative series of prototypes will be designed, constructed and tested as the final design emerges and is prepared for production. With rare exceptions, multiple iterations of prototypes are used to progressively refine the design. A common strategy is to design, test, evaluate and then modify the design based on analysis of the prototype.
In many products it is common to assign the prototype iterations Greek letters. For example, a first iteration prototype may be called an "Alpha" prototype. Often this iteration is not expected to perform as intended and some amount of failures or issues are anticipated. Subsequent prototyping iterations (Beta, Gamma, etc.) will be expected to resolve issues and perform closer to the final production intent.
In many product development organizations, prototyping specialists are employed - individuals with specialized skills and training in general fabrication techniques that can help bridge between theoretical designs and the fabrication of prototypes.
Basic prototype categories
There is no general agreement on what constitutes a "prototype" and the word is often used interchangeably with the word "model" which can cause confusion. In general, "prototypes" fall into five basic categories:
Proof-of-Principle Prototype (Model) (in electronics sometimes built on a breadboard). A Proof of concept prototype is used to test some aspect of the intended design without attempting to exactly simulate the visual appearance, choice of materials or intended manufacturing process. Such prototypes can be used to "prove" out a potential design approach such as range of motion, mechanics, sensors, architecture, etc. These types of models are often used to identify which design options will not work, or where further development and testing is necessary.
Form Study Prototype (Model). This type of prototype will allow designers to explore the basic size, look and feel of a product without simulating the actual function or exact visual appearance of the product. They can help assess ergonomic factors and provide insight into visual aspects of the product's final form. Form Study Prototypes are often hand-carved or machined models from easily sculpted, inexpensive materials (e.g., urethane foam), without representing the intended color, finish, or texture. Due to the materials used, these models are intended for internal decision making and are generally not durable enough or suitable for use by representative users or consumers.
User Experience Prototype (Model). A User Experience Model invites active human interaction and is primarily used to support user focused research. While intentionally not addressing possible aesthetic treatments, this type of model does more accurately represent the overall size, proportions, interfaces, and articulation of a promising concept. This type of model allows early assessment of how a potential user interacts with various elements, motions, and actions of a concept which define the initial use scenario and overall user experience. As these models are fully intended to be used and handled, more robust construction is key. Materials typically include plywood, REN shape, RP processes and CNC machined components. Construction of user experience models is typically driven by preliminary CAID/CAD which may be constructed from scratch or with methods such as industrial CT scanning.
Visual Prototype (Model) will capture the intended design aesthetic and simulate the appearance, color and surface textures of the intended product but will not actually embody the function(s) of the final product. These models will be suitable for use in market research, executive reviews and approval, packaging mock-ups, and photo shoots for sales literature.
Functional Prototype (Model) (also called a working prototype) will, to the greatest extent practical, attempt to simulate the final design, aesthetics, materials and functionality of the intended design. The functional prototype may be reduced in size (scaled down) in order to reduce costs. The construction of a fully working full-scale prototype and the ultimate test of concept, is the engineers' final check for design flaws and allows last-minute improvements to be made before larger production runs are ordered.
Differences between a prototype and a production design
In general, prototypes will differ from the final production variant in three fundamental ways:
Materials. Production materials may require manufacturing processes involving higher capital costs than what is practical for prototyping. Instead, engineers or prototyping specialists will attempt to substitute materials with properties that simulate the intended final material.
Processes. Often expensive and time consuming unique tooling is required to fabricate a custom design. Prototypes will often compromise by using more variable processes, repeatable or controlled methods; substandard, inefficient, or substandard technology sources; or insufficient testing for technology maturity.
Lower fidelity. Final production designs often require extensive effort to capture high volume manufacturing detail. Such detail is generally unwarranted for prototypes as some refinement to the design is to be expected. Often prototypes are built using very limited engineering detail as compared to final production intent, which often uses statistical process controls and rigorous testing.
Characteristics and limitations of prototypes
Engineers and prototyping specialists seek to understand the limitations of prototypes to exactly simulate the characteristics of their intended design.
It is important to realize that by their very definition, prototypes will represent some compromise from the final production design. Due to differences in materials, processes and design fidelity, it is possible that a prototype may fail to perform acceptably whereas the production design may have been sound. A counter-intuitive idea is that prototypes may actually perform acceptably whereas the production design may be flawed since prototyping materials and processes may occasionally outperform their production counterparts.
In general, it can be expected that individual prototype costs will be substantially greater than the final production costs due to inefficiencies in materials and processes. Prototypes are also used to revise the design for the purposes of reducing costs through optimization and refinement.
It is possible to use prototype testing to reduce the risk that a design may not perform as intended, however prototypes generally cannot eliminate all risk. There are pragmatic and practical limitations to the ability of a prototype to match the intended final performance of the product and some allowances and engineering judgement are often required before moving forward with a production design.
Building the full design is often expensive and can be time-consuming, especially when repeated several times—building the full design, figuring out what the problems are and how to solve them, then building another full design. As an alternative, "rapid-prototyping" or "rapid application development" techniques are used for the initial prototypes, which implement part, but not all, of the complete design. This allows designers and manufacturers to rapidly and inexpensively test the parts of the design that are most likely to have problems, solve those problems, and then build the full design.
With the recent advances in computer modeling it is becoming practical to eliminate the creation of a physical prototype (except possibly at greatly reduced scales for promotional purposes), instead modeling all aspects of the final product as a computer model. An example of such a development can be seen in Boeing 787 Dreamliner, in which the first full sized physical realization is made on the series production line. Computer modeling is now being extensively used in automotive design, both for form (in the styling and aerodynamics of the vehicle) and in function — especially for improving vehicle crashworthiness and in weight reduction to improve mileage.
Mechanical and electrical engineering
The most common use of the word prototype is a functional, although experimental, version of a non-military machine (e.g., automobiles, domestic appliances, consumer electronics) whose designers would like to have built by mass production means, as opposed to a mockup, which is an inert representation of a machine's appearance, often made of some non-durable substance.
However, more and more often the first functional prototype is built on a "prototype PCB" almost identical to the production PCB, as PCB manufacturing prices fall and as many components are not available in DIP packages, but only available in SMT packages optimized for placing on a PCB.
Builders of military machines and aviation prefer the terms "experimental" and "service test".
In electronics, prototyping means building an actual circuit to a theoretical design to verify that it works, and to provide a physical platform for debugging it if it does not. The prototype is often constructed using techniques such as wire wrap or using veroboard or breadboard, that create an electrically correct circuit, but one that is not physically identical to the final product.
A technician can build a prototype (and make additions and modifications) much more quickly with these techniques —however, it is much faster and usually cheaper to mass-produce custom printed circuit boards than these other kinds of prototype boards. This is for the same reasons that writing a poem is fastest by hand for one or two, but faster by printing press if you need several thousand copies.
The proliferation of quick-turn pcb fab companies and quick-turn pcb assembly houses has enabled the concepts of rapid prototyping to be applied to electronic circuit design. It is now possible, even with the smallest passive components and largest fine-pitch packages, to have boards fabbed and parts assembled in a matter of days.
Computer programming/computer science
In many programming languages, a function prototype is the declaration of a subroutine or function. (This term is rather C/C++-specific; other terms for this notion are signature, type and interface.) In prototype-based programming (a form of object-oriented programming), new objects are produced by cloning existing objects, which are called prototypes.
Additionally, the term may refer to the prototype design pattern.
Prototype software is often referred to as alpha grade, meaning it is the first version to run. Often only a few functions are implemented, the primary focus of the alpha is to have a functional base code on to which features may be added. Once alpha grade software has most of the required features integrated into it, it becomes beta software for testing of the entire software and to adjust the program to respond correctly during situations unforeseen during development.
Often the end users may not be able to provide a complete set of application objectives, detailed input, processing, or output requirements in the initial stage. After the user evaluation, another prototype will be built based on feedback from users, and again the cycle returns to customer evaluation. The cycle starts by listening to the user, followed by building or revising a mock-up, and letting the user test the mock-up, then back. There is now a new generation of tools called Application Simulation Software which help quickly simulate application before their development.
Continuous learning approaches within organizations or businesses may also use the concept of business or process prototypes through software models.
Software release cycle
A data prototype is a form of functional or working prototype. The justification for its creation is usually a data migration, data integration or application implementation project and the raw materials used as input are an instance of all the relevant data which exists at the start of the project.
The objectives of data prototyping are to produce:
- A set of data cleansing and transformation rules which have been seen to produce data which is all fit for purpose.
- A dataset which is the result of those rules being applied to an instance of the relevant raw (source) data.
To achieve this, a data architect uses a graphical interface to interactively develop and execute transformation and cleansing rules using raw data. The resultant data is then evaluated and the rules refined. Beyond the obvious visual checking of the data on-screen by the data architect, the usual evaluation and validation approaches are to use Data profiling software and then to insert the resultant data into a test version of the target application and trial its use.
In the field of scale modeling (which includes model railroading, vehicle modeling, airplane modeling, military modeling, etc.), a prototype is the real-world basis or source for a scale model—such as the real EMD GP38-2 locomotive—which is the prototype of Athearn's (among other manufacturers) locomotive model. Technically, any non-living object can serve as a prototype for a model, including structures, equipment, and appliances, and so on, but generally prototypes have come to mean full-size real-world vehicles including automobiles (the prototype 1957 Chevy has spawned many models), military equipment (such as M4 Shermans, a favorite among US Military modelers), railroad equipment, motor trucks, motorcycles, and space-ships (real-world such as Apollo/Saturn Vs, or the ISS).
There is debate whether 'fictional' or imaginary items can be considered prototypes (such as Star Wars or Star Trek starships, since the feature ships themselves are models or CGI-artifacts); however, humans and other living items are never called prototypes, even when they are the basis for models and dolls (especially - action figures).
As of 2005, conventional rapid prototype machines cost around £25,000.
In the science and practice of metrology, a prototype is a human-made object that is used as the standard of measurement of some physical quantity to base all measurement of that physical quantity against. Sometimes this standard object is called an artifact. In the International System of Units (SI), the only prototype remaining in current use is the International Prototype Kilogram, a solid platinum-iridium cylinder kept at the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (International Bureau of Weights and Measures) in Sèvres France (a suburb of Paris) that by definition is the mass of exactly one kilogram. Copies of this prototype are fashioned and issued to many nations to represent the national standard of the kilogram and are periodically compared to the Paris prototype.
Until 1960, the meter was defined by a platinum-iridium prototype bar with two scratch marks on it (that were, by definition, spaced apart by one meter), the International Prototype Metre, and in 1983 the meter was redefined to be the distance in free space covered by light in 1/299,792,458 of a second (thus defining the speed of light to be 299,792,458 meters per second).
It is widely believed that the kilogram prototype standard will be replaced by a definition of the kilogram that will define another physical constant (likely either Planck's constant or the elementary charge) to a defined numerical value, thus obviating the need for the prototype and removing the possibility of the prototype (and thus the standard and definition of the kilogram) changing very slightly over the years because of loss or gain of atoms.
In many sciences, from pathology to taxonomy, prototype refers to a disease, species, etc. which sets a good example for the whole category. In Biology, prototype is the ancestral or primitive form of a species or other group; an archetype. For example, the Senegal bichir is regarded as the prototypes of its genus, Polypterus.
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