Consider these found materials and simple tools to develop ideas and answer key questions
Most questions we have about a product in development are simple: How big should it be? How does it fit in your hand? Should it be round or square?
BY JEREMY LOSAW
Despite having an engineering shop at Charlotte’s Enventys Partners that is filled with the latest tools, I am not above using soup cans to build a prototype.
Prototyping is a technique to solve problems and learn about a product. It need not be a complicated process that takes special tools and skilled technicians.
Savvy developers know that it is important to iterate quickly, and often simple is best. Found materials and simple tools can often be used to answer a question in minutes instead of having to wait days or weeks for a 3D print or machined part.
Prototypes should be built to answer a question about the product being developed, and the nature of the question should drive the choice of how to prototype.
In some cases, the question can be very technical. We may need to know how a full assembly works together, which requires the build of complex geometry in CAD software and 3D-printed parts.
However, most questions we have about a product in development are simple: How big should it be? How does it fit in your hand? Should it be round or square? For these types of issues, many fast prototyping techniques can be used to good effect. The key is to prototype purposefully.
There are plenty of tools available to the masses that are easy to use, even by the most inexperienced prototyper. Here are some prototyping tools and techniques that can be used to help develop ideas and answer key questions about a product—even for those who have never set foot inside a prototyping shop.
One of the first builder toys that GenX and younger people were exposed to were LEGOs. They are easy to build with and modify, are cheap, ubiquitous, and excellent for quick prototyping. The square bricks limit the fidelity of the surface that can be formed, but this frees our brains to focus on the macro, core questions instead of obsessing with micro details.
LEGOs can be used to build rough prototypes to evaluate size, form factor, or general layout of a product. Within minutes you can build multiple iterations of your concept and think through how users are going to interact with it. With the multitude of motion elements, hinges and special bricks, you may even be able to make rough models of the moving parts of a prototype too.
PVC tubes are great for quick prototyping, with no building skill required. Long lengths of tube are just a few dollars and fittings are usually less than a buck, so it is inexpensive to have a good inventory to play with. The tubes can be cut with PVC scissors or a hand saw, enabling you to build a structure or fluid circuit in minutes.
The obvious use for PVC is for fluid-based products, but it is just as useful for prototyping physical prototypes. The tubing can be used as a hand grip or assembled with fittings to make larger structures. Because it is so modular, it is easy to build and test multiple iterations in minutes.
Sometimes, the purpose of a prototype is to test a user flow. This can be an onboarding process, a logistics map or installation procedure.
Although these can all be flow-charted out or done digitally, manipulating physical objects to simulate the process helps our brains interpret the data differently—and often yields interesting results. Think of the old war room tables where generals move their fighting units around the battlefield to work out their strategy.
For this type of prototyping, parts need not be complicated. Game board pieces, soup cans, a deck of cards—anything fast and available that can be manipulated to simulate the process is key.
Found items can also help build functional prototypes. Old toys have lots of great parts that can be harvested and repurposed, such as motors and gear trains. Products with grips or handles can be scavenged to create your own ergonomic interfaces. Duct taping found items can be a valuable way to explore the physicality of a product.
Moreso than physical prototypes, building electronic prototypes can spike our anxiety. Electricity is hard to visualize, and working with it can be very intimidating.
However, some microcontrollers can be used with block coding to build proof-of-concept electronic prototypes. Block coding is a graphical programming interface in which you drag and drop elements to build working code, without the need for typing anything or having to know any special syntax.
My favorite block coding program is called Make Code. It is a free website from Microsoft that can be used with developer boards such as the Microbit, Adafruit Circuit Playground Express, or LEGO Mindstorms.
The site simulates the code for you before you upload your program to your board; there are lots of tutorials to teach you the basics. Make Code is particularly powerful with the Circuit Playground Express as it has addressable LEDs, sensors and actuators that can be programmed with no circuit design or soldering required.