Product Development Roadmap

The product roadmap can be broken down into three distinct phases, each one containing its own set of milestones and goals. From the bare-bones proof of concept models to first off the line finished products, the prototyping process represents a progression from idea to reality. 

PHASE ONE: CONCEPT 

This phase represents the first iteration of prototypes and is primarily concerned with answering two questions:

  • Will the product concept work?
  • How will it look & feel?

Answering these questions usually necessitates two separate prototypes, each one specifically created to address basic functionality and user experience respectively. We can refer to these first two as the proof of concept and the appearance prototypes.

  • PROOF OF CONCEPT PROTOTYPE — The first physical model created along the product roadmap is the proof of concept prototype. Designed to answer the question “will it work?” it is strictly concerned with function over form and will likely bear little if any resemblance to the final product. This functionally representative prototype takes advantage of readily accessible materials to simulate its physical form while employing off the shelf technology to create its constituent components. These materials can include cardboard, tape, foam, and wood to represent the physical attributes and  such hardware things as pumps, motors, and heaters to simulate mechanical functionality. Programmables might include switches and OTS (Off-the-shelf) switches, sensors and graphic displays to control the product’s functions, to provide user input methods and output feedback. Ultimately, this prototype is suitable for validating the viability of the product’s functionality and for being tested in a variety of controlled settings. They’re usually functional, not really aesthetic. It could be a bunch of chips and wires and it looks like something you ripped out of the back of your washing machine. It’s a formative stage in the product development process where the product viability is quickly determined and a rapid succession of systematic testing occurs to check assumptions, flush out potential failures, and  understand if there really is a market for the product also referred to as product/market fit.
  • APPEARANCE PROTOTYPE — Typically, after a confident result is achieved in the proof of concept stage, next comes the appearance prototype. This model answers the question “how will it look and feel?” and offers a taste of the final design. The appearance prototype is visually representative while lacking actual functionality. It’s a static model without working features, wholly concerned with providing a sense of the look and feel. Increased effort is taken through the use of CNC machined parts and 3D printing to create a prototype that is similar to the appearance of the final product, and this stage will employ higher quality materials to simulate the user experience. The materials used may typically include 3D printed plastics, medium density fiberboard (MDF), solid wood, foam and clay CNC machined or laser/punched sheet metal. Engineers at this stage attempt to strike a balance between the use of viable materials and ones that aren’t prohibitively expensive, since prototypes can cost between 50-100x to create than the final mass- produced production products. This stage asks: What does it communicate; What can it be used for?” An appearance prototype is more like a model. It looks like the real product but it could be made out of a solid chunk of foam or wood. This prototype is also frequently used for sales and marketing purposes as well as for the solicitation of funding and investment. Since it’s physically representative of the final product it allows potential buyers and other stakeholders to properly visualize it. 

In some situations, proof of concept prototypes can also be appearance ready. It depends on the product and situation. 

PHASE TWO: ENGINEERING 

This phase of the product roadmap seeks to refine and improve upon the product design, taking testing feedback and lessons learned from earlier iterations and incorporating them as the process inches toward a final product. It’s also an opportunity to create prototypes that more closely resemble the final product in terms of both appearance and functionality, providing avenues for more robust and intensive testing. This phase relies on two new versions: the engineering prototype and the production prototype. This level of detail typically requires a team with significant prior experience in product design and manufacturing and is typically the stage where Inertia is  relied upon the most. 

  • ENGINEERING PROTOTYPEThe engineering prototype is the first iteration that marries visual, functional and manufacturing representation. It is a direct successor to the proof of concept prototype with an attempt made to mimic the appearance as well. This prototype will usually resemble the final product in form, albeit in a rougher or unfinished state. Designers may incorporate additional components to support the development process, so these models may carry minor to significant differences in appearance. It’s meant to be deployed for controlled customer and field trials in order to validate the design, its main purpose being to demonstrate systems viability in an operational environment. The goal is to test the functionality of the product before a further investment into higher-grade materials is made. However, new components will be created for the electronics and hardware, including custom printed circuit boards (PCBs) as well as specialized wiring, customized hardware specifically designed or selected for the product application, software will have full functionality so the product can be tested with limited guidance from the design team. Therefore, the electronic and hardware components created for the proof of concept prototype using off the shelf and DIY materials are replaced with customized, purpose built ones. It’s during this iteration that the viability of these specialized components are tested under real-world conditions and will ultimately demonstrate whether the engineering has been successful. 
  • PRODUCTION PROTOTYPE —  After the engineering prototype has been successfully tested, a production prototype is created. This is the last confirmation before designs are released for mass-production tooling. The key difference lies in the quality of materials used, as it is designed to be both fully functional and virtually indistinguishable in appearance from the final product. At this point, the prototype still does not have the cost benefit of mass-produced components, meaning the use of the final materials may be prohibitively expensive. Therefore, alternative materials are used to approximate the finished ones. Sometimes decisions are made to skip the production prototype depending on the combination of confidence level and remaining risk in the product design. In most cases, manufacturing methods between the engineering and production prototypes are essentially identical. The production prototype is used for advanced testing, acting to validate the final system design. While not yet totally ready for certification testing, this prototype serves as the final assessment of aesthetics, colors, textures, functionality, manufacturing readiness, customer field trials and overall design verification. It’s also used as a final prototype for sales and marketing purposes, allowing stakeholders to test the user experience and evaluate its performance before production tooling is created. Once the final tests have been run, viability assessed and a successful business case review made, it’s time to begin ramping up production. 

PHASE THREE: MANUFACTURING 

When the stage has been set for manufacturing, it’s important that the product designer is prepared in advance in order to prevent problems. Preparation is an area that’s frequently overlooked yet it’s vital to the smooth rollout of a new product.

To avoid complications ensure that you have prepared the following in advance: 

  • Audit the quality systems of your contract manufacturer (CM) to ensure that they have the management systems in place to detect a good or a bad product before you engage them 
  • Create detailed documentation in terms of manufacturing drawings, assembly drawings, assembly sequences as these will form the basis of your contract with the CM 
  • Create a final prototype of the design you are about to manufacture 
  • Create a quality plan to communicate to the CM what is acceptable and what is not. If you don’t do
    this in advance, you can’t be upset if you don’t get what you want! 
  • Carry out a pre-production approval step which checks first-off components and systems (25 to 50
    pieces) against the design and quality plan to ensure that they meet the design intent and desired quality before building your first batch of 10,000 parts

Finally, some advice for those hardware startups considering a Contract Manufacturer (CM) , especially a CM located in a foreign country: 

  • Get the help of an expert who has both experience in manufacturing and can perform a quality audit of the facilities, who is intimately familiar with the culture and can help you navigate it 
  • Look for a CM that is the most appropriate for your project and can benefit from your business. As a start-up, you will most likely want to avoid trying to entice large CM’s to manufacture your product – even if they take you on as a customer you will likely be a low priority to them because of your low volume of business.

PILOT
The final prototype is really the start of mass production and is called the pilot – essentially the first unit to roll off the assembly line. Yet, it’s still considered a prototype because of the need for product quality reviews and approvals, final product testing and product certification (if required). Electronic components and hardware are typically unchanged from the engineering or production prototype. However, mechanical component materials and construction methods can change significantly. These changes may include: plastic components constructed from injection molding; blow molding and thermoforming methods; metallic components manufactured from methods including die casting and metal stamping. A pilot prototype will traditionally be provided to independent testing labs responsible for issuing product certifications. Once these final certifications have been received, the product can be considered ready for commercial deployment.

The product roadmap can be broken down into three distinct phases, each one containing its own set of milestones and goals. From the bare-bones proof of concept models to first off the line finished products, the prototyping process represents a progression from idea to reality.

For more on product development, schedule a free mentoring session.

Copyright ©John Trenary 2021

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