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Top Prototyping Pitfalls

Building prototypes is fun, and it’s one of the most rewarding things about engineering. It’s not without its pitfalls, and here are a couple of common mistakes. At Unshockable Engineering, we’ve made a lot of prototypes over the years. They’ve evolved into systems in use all over the world.

1. Spending too much

Your prototype shouldn’t be expensive. Don’t rely on exotic materials. Your first prototype can be made out of cardboard if that’s what’s in your budget. (I’ve made several initial “to-fit” pieces out of cardboard, then remade them in ABS or metal.) Which is easier to adjust – a recycled shipping crate or a custom-milled titanium brace? Will a new technology be on the market in time? I’ve said, “if your best friend, that you trust with your life, promises that you will get the new software tomorrow, believe it when it’s installed.”

Use COTS (commercial, off-the-shelf) parts when you can. Don’t custom order anything, and don’t rely on someone else’s R&D to pan out.

2. Expecting Perfection

Prototypes are not supposed to be perfect. They’re supposed to take your idea and bring it into the real world. They’re a first draft. Parts of the prototype can and will break. You will make bad choices. Performance will be flaky. You’ll learn how to make your product better, or maybe find out that parts of it are totally impractical.

Prototypes aren’t supposed to work all the time. They’re supposed to work the majority of the time. Getting them to work all of the time is a later step.

3. Relying on your prototype

Once you’ve built the prototype, you have to move on. Do you want to refine it? Do you want to make iterative improvements? Learn from what you’ve built.

Your prototype isn’t the entirety of your business. Sure, it’s a cornerstone but one cornerstone doesn’t make a building. How will you get these to market? What’s the ROI for investors? How long is the lead time and supply chain? Can they be made cheaper? Can they be made tougher?

A prototype is a good start, but it’s only a start. There are a lot of prototypes in a lot of basements, earning dust instead of dollars.

4. Emotionally Investing

We get it, it’s your baby. You saw it in your mind years ago, and you finally got to see it in real life. The prototype represents your dreams, your goals, and it’s what you’ve been waiting for for your whole life. It really is just an object, though. You have to be willing to burn it to the ground and start over. What would you do differently? Do that. Maybe you can keep it in a shadow box later and have it as a great story when you’re on the cover of TIME or Wired.

Listen to criticism. You should be able to answer good questions with good answers, and bad questions with better answers. If you don’t know the answer, find someone who does.

“I made this work” feels great but it’s the first step. What can you do to get people to use that product? How can you get it to market?

5. Organic Growth

This is twinned with “emotional investment”. You can’t keep adding on to your prototype. Once you’re happy with it, leave it. If you want to improve on it, it’s a better choice to make a new and improved prototype based on what you learned building the first one. Would it work better with the flange removed? Should this part be stronger? Organic growth means that you’re stuck with all the bad design choices you made before you knew how to build it. It’s a bad choice with code, and it’s even worse with hardware.

Don’t let your design decisions come out of what seemed like a good idea at the time. Figure out the problem you’re trying to solve, and then solve it.

7. It might not work

One last thing is that your design just might not work. Sometimes it’s because you’re trying to break one of the Laws of Thermodynamics. You’d be surprised by how often that happens. Or it will turn out to not work, or not solve your problem, or even to make a harder problem show up. I’ve lost track of the number of non-functioning circuits I’ve had to rebuild or recycle because they didn’t work half as well in real life as it did in my head.

It happens. Go back to the drawing board or pack it in. It’s your choice.  Like the t-shirt says, “fail early, fail often.”

If you’d like Unshockable Engineering to work on your prototype, let us know.

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Magnus is a Professional Electrical Engineer from Victoria, BC. He's worked on projects ranging from new code for embedded radios to inspecting [redacted] government systems. He'll relax and unwind by teaching yoga or Cyclefit, or going out for a dive in the cold ocean.

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