In technology, a prototype represents a functional test model of a planned product or component for the respective purposes, but often also simplified. It can only correspond to the end product from a purely external point of view or also from a technical point of view. A prototype often serves as a preparation for serial production, but can also be planned as a one-off piece that is only intended to illustrate a specific concept. The prototype is used to test its suitability on the one hand and its acceptance on the other. Accordingly, the prototype is also an essential development step in the design process and is not only used in technical contexts.
Prototyping refers to various modern processes of prototype production.
Features of Prototype
In technical prototyping, depending on the level of detail, a distinction is made between:
- Design Prototype: Concept model for checking aesthetic and ergonomic features
- Geometric Prototype: Dimensionally accurate model for initial assembly and use tests and for the specification of the (material) requirement profile
- Functional prototype: Prototype that already has decisive functional properties of a component that will later be mass-produced
- Technical Prototype: Largely identical test model to the final product
In the case of small series of prototypes (e.g. pre-series vehicles in the automotive industry), this is also referred to as “industrial prototyping”.
Prototypes do not necessarily have to consist of physical objects – a prototype, for example, can also be a simple implementation of software or a three-dimensional CAD model. Services and certain communication measures can also be tested in the form of prototypes, e.g. as part of a service design project.
A prototype in the automotive industry already has all the essential features of the future production vehicle. It is usually altered by covers and disguises so that the exact appearance does not become public prematurely.
In order to differentiate between research and development activities, prototypes of functional models and test vehicles are differentiated in the scientific environment, especially with regard to funding measures. A prototype is understood to be a device that is close to series production and that already largely resembles the end product in terms of shape, shape, operation and production. A functional model is only used to carry out experiments and to test individual sub-functions of the projected series device. A test vehicle is still very different from the projected series device. The design, construction and execution of tests in connection with functional models and test vehicles are often regarded as research activities.
Since the rational production possibilities of mass production or market launch (with all associated process steps) are not yet available for the production of prototypes, they are often significantly more expensive than the later series models. Modern processes are available for the fast and cost-effective production of physical prototypes, which make the entire product development process efficient:
- Rapid prototyping as a manufacturing process
- Virtual prototyping or digital prototyping as a computer-based simulation
- Rapid Control Prototyping (RCP) as a design method for regulation development