Rapid prototyping – Quick (customer) tests become everyday life
The last weeks have shown that individuals as well as companies have met the challenges of the Corona crisis with a multitude of creative ideas and at a remarkable speed. In an effort to stem the spread of the virus and produce (help) aid, numerous approaches have been developed that would have been un-thinkable just a few weeks ago and could never have been implemented at this pace. A plea for rapid prototyping.
Exceptional times require exceptional measures – and above all speed. This can be seen in various examples: from "smaller", incremental innovations – such as the further development of protective masks that can now be produced in the 3D printer – to "bigger", disruptive ideas such as robots that automatically disinfect Hong Kong's subways. But how do you test ideas that could be solutions to challenges that did not exist a short time ago? The answer is rapid prototyping. This is a method from design thinking, which is used to test ideas, design features and other aspects of the conceptualization of a product quickly, cheaply and directly, and to validate them in customer tests.
As a company, you too can benefit from this method. Not only as a quick answer to the special challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, but also for the more "everyday" problem of tailoring your products and services to the needs of your customers. After all, in times of ever new customer needs, it makes sense to fuel product development with flexible processes and fast customer tests.
What a door opener and diving masks have in common
In crises and exceptional situations, quick thinking, courageous action and the rapid implementation of new ideas are essential. To deal with new challenges in the short term, individuals and companies in many places are working under high pressure to prove their creativity and problem-solving abilities. They develop creative solutions for new problems with completely new technologies, but also by misappropriating already tried and tested methods. There's a long list of examples and developments that have literally come out of nowhere in recent times, often using 3D printing technologies:
In Belgium, a company called Materialise has developed a door opener that can be operated with an elliptical arch to prevent viruses from being spread and absorbed through the palms of the hands. In keeping with the open source mentality, Materialise has published the file free of charge as a 3D print template on the Internet - available to everyone and freely developable.
In Hong Kong's subways, robots have recently been deployed to disinfect the seats and floors to contain the corona virus. The robot was developed in cooperation with the biotech company Avalon Biomedical.
The Italian research institute Isinnova, in cooperation with Decathlon, has modified diving masks so that they can be used as respirators in hospitals. Isinnova has used the latest 3D printing technologies to produce valves that can be mounted on the diving masks, thus ensuring that the number of ventilators can be quickly increased.
The product and feature sketch of the Italians clearly shows the development process of an initially simple idea, which nevertheless takes all relevant aspects into account. The sketch illustrates the advantages of rapid prototyping:
Focus on the core functions
Fast testing and early collection of direct feedback
Time and cost savings by reusing existing components
Theory excursion: Prototyping as acceleration of time-to-market
(Rapid) prototyping is originally a component of the design process in the mechanical engineering environment. By definition, a prototype is a preliminary version of the final product. The purpose of a prototype is to evaluate the design, test the technology or analyze the functional principle in order to provide and "test" the product specification for the final product.
(Rapid) Prototyping can be used in every phase of the product development cycle, for every component and every feature, no matter how small, and can be repeated as often as required. Prototypes do not necessarily consist of material objects. Prototypes of services or systems can also be tested.
Although the term prototype is used in many contexts such as software programming, semantics and application development, the purpose is always the same: The fast and practical testing of ideas, concepts, services or products and the fastest possible confrontation with "real" users or customers. The rapid transformation of product and service ideas into concrete customer and user tests saves resources and shortens the time-to-market. In addition, the early involvement of the users allows to quickly correct errors and determine the actual pain points of the customers. Rapid prototyping also makes it possible to become aware of new customer needs or even new application areas (called user innovation) that have not yet been taken into account during early testing.
A prototype is the first version or working model of a new product or invention. A prototype is constructed and tested to assess the feasibility of a design and to identify problems that need to be corrected. The construction of a prototype is a key stage in the development of new products.
Rethinking in record time – using the crisis to change familiar procedures
The challenges posed by the COVID-19 virus and the associated prevention measures have led to significant changes in all industries, the majority of which would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago. For years, many companies have been discussing – sometimes heatedly – whether home offices should be allowed. With the outbreak of Corona, the question of "if" no longer arises; every company is now striving to address the "how" and to make working from home efficient. Processes that until recently had to be implemented exclusively offline are now naturally mapped digitally. Just as home offices were unthinkable in many companies, product development processes were or are often set in stone and are subject to a strict stage-gate process with a multitude of involved stakeholders. For fear of time-consuming and cost-intensive product adaptations caused by negative customer feedback, lengthy decision-making bodies are convened within the company to anticipate all eventualities. As a result, customers are often only involved in the last step and are presented with an almost finished product. Nearly all product features have long since been fixed and changes can only be made with a massive expenditure of resources – an effort that all those involved shy away from. Not to mention the risk that start-ups, due to their agile processes, may have long since launched a very similar product on the market. The usefulness of involving customers in the development process at a very late stage is very strikingly questioned by the many rapid developments in practice in current circumstances.
How to develop disruptive ideas and test them as quickly as possible
In the first step it is elementary to really know the needs of your customers and to identify the "right" problem. To do this, you need to observe the influences from various environmental contexts – such as the spread of the COVID-19 virus – and developments from other industries and incorporate them into the idea generation process. The aim is to understand the central challenges and requirements of the user and to outline them in detail in order to derive a clear target picture of the problem to be solved.
The second step is the concretization of ideas: Ideas are enriched and worked out as rough concepts. This results in an idea portfolio with untested approaches. Subsequently, the market reference is established by including customers in the conception through quick tests. The visualizations and concepts used here can take on very different forms – depending on the product / service and the maturity of the idea: quick drawings, rudimentary "pretotypes" – a preliminary stage of prototypes – to more detailed prototypes with a similar look and feel to the later end product. Such a prototype could be an app or website click dummy, for example. Modern technical and graphic possibilities allow the target product to be made "tangible" in the shortest possible time and with a minimum expenditure of resources, and to demonstrate it to first users. The customer feedback obtained in this way flows immediately into the iterative improvement of the idea. The aim of the second step is to create a basis for deciding whether a concept should be pursued commercially or whether further adjustments are required.
The above examples show how rapid prototyping has proven itself in the crisis. But it does not need a crisis to benefit from the method. Rapid prototyping rather needs a mentality: "Just do it!" is the motto. The saying "fail fast, fail often", which inevitably goes hand in hand with quick adjustments and improvements, has become a familiar word. But as banal as this way of thinking may sound, it stands for a new approach: Involve your users and customers in the development process right from the start! You will be amazed at the insights that lead to fundamental changes at an early stage. With rapid prototyping, from designer to engineer, changes can be made directly to the concept as quickly as never before, based on tests under real conditions and bringing new insights.
Today more than ever, agility and flexibility are essential. Corona shows that product development cycles can be dramatically accelerated. Nevertheless, and perhaps even for this very reason, real problems are effectively identified and solved much faster. The strengths of rapid prototyping are more important than ever in these uncertain times: speed, flexibility and agile action.