Reasons to Build a Prototype

Reasons to Build a Prototype

About 70 campers showed up today at the offices of OATV for Hardware Summer Camp, organized by Nick Pinkston, Renee DiResta and Adam Ellsworth. I kicked off the Saturday session with a short talk, remarking that the maker movement has been built around a prototyping revolution more than a manufacturing revolution. One can see that changes in manufacturing are coming but what has become easier is the building of prototypes.

Even though prototyping is easier, both Glenn Reid, a Bay Area product designer and founder of Inventor Labs, and Ben Einstein of Bolt, which is located in Boston, emphasized that you should ask yourself why you are building a prototype and what you expect to get out of it. Here are some of their thoughts based on my notes.


Glenn said there were four reasons to build a prototype:

  • To convey your idea — a product concept
  • To see if an idea will actually work — functional prototype
  • To explore industrial/product designs — model
  • To explore or simulate manufacturability – true prototype for pre-manufacturing research.

Ben said that you might create a prototype to explore or learn more about the market, the design of a product or how that product might be manufactured. You might be trying to understand materials, fidelity and process.

Both Glenn Reid and Ben Einstein cautioned that building a prototype could be a waste of time, although you might think it’s cool to do so. It can also be a waste of money if a digital prototype is sufficient or if the work you’re doing doesn’t actually relate to how the product will be manufactured. Ben says he loves to build things and that he doesn’t understand a product unless he can hold it in his hands.

Ben’s categories for prototypes were:

  • POC — Proof of Concept
  • Looks like/Works Like — verification of idea
  • DFM/DFA — design for manufacturability/assembly
  • Functional — final

One might think of each prototype as an experiment, and one should think about what you expect to learn from the experiment. One should also stop experimenting when there’s no more to learn from yet another prototype. I might summarize the advice as: “Think Before You Prototype.”

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DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

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