Rapid Prototyping — An Enabling Tool for Hardware Product Development

Why big corporations need small companies to drive innovation - and what this has to do with user-centric design thinking.

August 2019
min read
Motius GmbH
The Best Place for Techies
R&D Company since 2013
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Whatever is on my mind, I always try to go to its roots. No matter what it is, no matter what aspect in my life. My name is Toni, I am a Mechanical Engineer at Motius and I mostly work on Hardware Research and Pre-development.

In the last blog post, we talked about Motius’ embedded system prototyping processes and briefly introduced Rapid Prototyping. In this blog post, I wanna focus on hardware, explain what it means to me and how Rapid Prototyping is able to take your prototyping process to the next level.

There Is No Software Without Hardware

To make it short: hardware refers to elements that together form a physical system. So hardware isn’t necessarily a computer. To me, hardware is tangibility.

Nowadays, hardware technologies seem to be out of the loop. Everyone wants to create chatbots, Blockchain applications, Machine Learning algorithms, Android apps and so on — the usual digitalization era and these kinds of things. But as a Hardware Engineer, I do not see why we should forget hardware in the whole set up. Software systems require hardware to happen. For example, an autonomous robot that can drive around and interact with people might not only need mapping, localization, voice recognition features; but also, a battery, motors, sensors, etc. There is no software without hardware. However, there are many differences between hardware and software development, and one of them is the amount of time and money you need to spend to bring your idea to a product level. This is where Rapid Prototyping and hardware product development gather together. So let’s see how Rapid Prototyping helps with hardware prototyping.

Rapid Prototyping Enables Hardware Product Development

In Hardware Product Development, prototyping is an important phase to validate your idea with customers, get funding from VCs, improve your product features, etc. In the early stages of a project, different ideas need to be checked and many iterations performed. It wouldn’t be time- and cost-effective to develop them the way you would do when manufacturing the end-product (see qualitative graph below).

The same happens while constructing your prototype for idea validation with customers, showing to potential investors, etc. Hardware Rapid Prototyping cuts down costs and reduces time in the overall project. That said, we now want to dive into Rapid Prototyping.

Key points in Hardware Rapid Prototyping

At Motius, we are all over Rapid Prototyping. It is the perfect entry point to start with product development. We love to actually do things and Rapid Prototyping is all about doing things.

Based on our experience, we want to share some of the most valuable benefits of this method. Basically, there are some key points that will boost your hardware Rapid Prototyping capabilities.

Know the different tools and technologies. There are many Rapid Prototyping tools out there. 3D printing, laser cutting, and CNC machining; breakout boards, Arduino and breadboards; Autodesk Fusion 360, KiCAD and PSpice; soldering iron, hammer, pen and paper. Having a good overview of all of them will make your life much easier when developing hardware products. Because hardware is a multidisciplinary field. Recently, 3D printers have generated huge awareness. It is not a secret anymore that 3D printing decreases cost, time and effort over conventional manufacturing in small-scale production. Everyday at Motius we 3D-print prototypes that, once the product is brought to a large-scale production, will probably be manufactured with, among others, injection moulding or die casting. This 3D printing process, from design to realization, requires a few hours and costs little. If we used conventional manufacturing, the required time to get the parts would be at least three weeks and the costs too high. The same happens with any other field or component in the rapid prototyping process. Key is to combine those tools and techniques. Once, we built a smart, standing-alone crutch bringing together FDM and SLS 3D printing, CNC machined parts, an Arduino board (Pro Mini) and some breakout boards. Through Rapid Prototyping we were able to complete the project from the conceptual phase to the prototype in less than four months.

Collaborate with external suppliers and manufacturers. To be cost-effective at prototyping you probably cannot have all the tools in-house (e.g. metal 3D printing, PCB fabrication, etc.). Sometimes you must find external vendors such as Materialise for additive manufacturing or PCBWay for PCB manufacturing. Being able to find fast and reliable suppliers will complement your Rapid Prototyping capabilities entirely. Thanks to our unique company structure, Motius is highly-connected to its R&D partners. Above all, we have a strong relationship to the Munich Makerspace. Thanks to them, we have access to all kinds of tools and machines that we otherwise couldn’t use. This also enables us to prototype rapidly. Depending on the prototype, we can usually get it done within hours. All of this is critical to our daily operations.

Iterate fast or go home. Hardware Product Development is about iteration. The faster you are, the more competitive. It is not only about expertise and resources; speed is a key factor in the overall success of the product development process. This is the main reason why innovation is such a pain for big companies. Some months ago, at Motius we worked in a prototyping project for a big aerospace company. It was about bringing automation to aircraft maintenance, the project duration was about four months. Once, we ordered some 3D printed parts through our client´s internal purchasing procedure and guess what, from the parts to enter the client´s main campus to actually get them took almost one week — ONE WEEK! Those are the kind of structures that stop you from prototyping rapidly. Outside-the-box mentality. For me, this is the main key of Rapid Prototyping in hardware product development — it is all about mentality. Especially in the early stages of a product development project, when many different options should be investigated, outside-the-box thinking is the most valuable. Whereas time-to-market pressure while developing a product is increasing more and more nowadays, we should not elude looking for new, crazy ideas. This is something absolutely crucial to every prototyping process. At Motius, we foster this mentality through our company culture itself. By combining engaged, curious, open-minded people with all kinds of different backgrounds, we stay creative and outside the box. With confidence, we can say that this is the very root of our work. These are the key points of Hardware Rapid Prototyping. But there are a few other things that you need to keep in mind.

Should I Always Prefer Rapid Prototyping for Hardware Product Development?

As much as we like Rapid Prototyping, we have to admit that it doesn’t fit every single case. In general, choosing the right method always depends on the kind of product you want to build. There are some points that you would clarify before choosing a method. These include the required materials, fidelity level, accuracy, test user, etc. For example, you would not manufacture a certain mechanical part with FDM 3D printing in case you need very fine tolerances to make the prototype work. And the same happens if you build a high-fidelity prototype which should be ready for mass production in the next step. You might need specialized tools not available while prototyping rapidly. Now you got all the information you need to get started with proper Hardware Rapid Prototyping. It is time to wrap things up.

Final Thoughts on Hardware Rapid Prototyping

All in all, Hardware Rapid Prototyping has the potential to take your product to the next level. So you need to make sure that you have the tools yourself or are connected to reliable R&D companies that you can collaborate with. Otherwise you’re one step behind your competition because you do not have access to state-of-the-art technology. Just make sure that Hardware Rapid Prototyping is the right method for your product. Then start and keep creating until you get what you need. If you need more insights into Hardware Rapid Prototyping, check out our Cheat Sheet! The Hardware Rapid Prototyping process is something we do very well at Motius. It is in our culture and mentality to keep our minds open, to not judge ideas that don’t seem very plausible at the first glance and, of course, to allow us the freedom and courage to bring those new, crazy ideas to pen and paper! If you need more ideas on how to initiate Rapid Prototyping, don’t hesitate to contact us!

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