How Edison Nation takes a product from concept model to final packaging
Just as anthropologist Franz Boas claimed the Eskimos have 50 different words to describe snow, the Edison Nation team has a language of its own to describe the different types of prototypes it makes during the course of a project.
To bring a product to the marketplace, you’ll invariably need some prototypes first. It’s necessary for validating a product’s form and function. In the same way that the needs of children change as
they get older, the goals and style of prototyping evolve, too. In the early stages, prototypes are made to test the core technical concepts that create the product’s DNA. Later-stage prototypes
test functional features and integration of the whole product, as well as aesthetic elements. Here are the different types of prototypes Edison Nation makes, and how that helps get a product to market.
1. Concept model
Concept models are early-stage prototypes that test the product’s core functionality. It’s where most of the discovery and new technology is developed—one of my favorite phases of product development. Our tagline about concept models is that they are “too big, too heavy and too ugly.” However, they work, and most of the patentable features are based on learnings from these prototypes.
Concept models are often “Frankensteined” together from parts harvested from existing products and easy-to-form materials. Plywood, PVC, empty soda bottles and other scrap materials
are some of our favorites. The goal is to quickly combine the elements of the idea to see whether it will work, without factoring in aesthetics. We often don’t make any computer models of the parts
unless we need to cut a part on a laser or water jet cutter, so that we don’t get too time-invested in computer-aided design (CAD). We make as many concept models as necessary to answer as many
questions as we can before proceeding with development.
2. Form model
Form models are used to test the aesthetics, size or touchpoints of a product. They are usually made in the early and middle stages of development if it’s necessary to get a read on how the outer surfaces of a design function before devoting time to working out details of the interior features. This is especially important for products that have a need for good ergonomics, such as handheld devices.
Our favorite way to make form models is to print them on our powder-based 3D printer, the 3D Systems ProJet 660. It prints fast; the material is inexpensive; and it can print colors, which can be helpful for some prototypes. The prints are usually heavier than the final product, but it is useful to test how a product fits in your hand and get an early sense of color choice. Or they can be made by carving high-density foam to the desired shape, which can save time at the CAD terminal.
3. Looks like/works like
As the product matures, looks like/works like (LLWL) prototypes become important. These are used to test the total package of the product in a form that’s ready to manufacture. As the name suggests, they have both the aesthetics of a final product and working internal components.
LLWLs provide valuable data to the engineering team that can catch design flaws before manufacturing. They can also be used for marketing in the form of focus groups, or can be used to launch a crowdfunding campaign. Most products require at least two rounds of LLWL prototypes before the transfer to manufacturing to work out all of the bugs.
An LLWL model takes a lot of time and work. It requires the creation of a fully detailed CAD model, with all of the components and circuit boards. This allows the design to be evaluated and tweaked in a virtual environment and is a great way to catch mistakes before making parts. Once the CAD files have been reviewed and approved, parts are made using the fastest and most inexpensive method, and from a material that’s as close as possible to what will be used in manufacturing. Though it’s common to have 3D-printed parts, machined parts are also used. If the product has electronics inside, a quick-turn printed circuit board (PCB) house can design and fabricate a circuit board that can be hand assembled in the lab.
The completed LLWL prototype is evaluated for function and assembly—the first chance for the product’s performance to be measured and compared to the desired performance metrics
at the project’s outset. The prototypes are tested in a representative environment to ensure they perform well, and are also assessed for ease of assembly and parts fitting. This can be
tricky with 3D-printed parts, which are built in layers and can’t always be built to a tight tolerance.
Once the prototype has been evaluated for the “works like” part of the equation, it’s made to “look like” a final product. This usually involves paint and decals. Painting can be time consuming,
but the results are worth it. 3D-printed parts have to be sanded smooth, using fine-grit sandpaper, before being painted with primer and then the desired color. Lacquer-based automotive
paint is preferred because it dries quickly and bonds well to plastics and metal. Depending on the desired surface finish, a gloss or matte clear coat is applied over the colored base to protect the
finish. If the final product has graphics such as a pad-printed logo, these are printed on waterslide decal paper because it’s very thin and is a good simulation of the process.
4. Factory sample
The final prototyping stage is the factory sample. These are the first attempts by the factory to create the product, using the same processes and materials as the mass-produced product. The potentially numerous rounds of factory samples are often denoted with a prefix “T” and the round of sampling. The first samples are called “T1” samples, and so on. Sampling rounds continue until all of the issues are worked out and the factory and the customer are happy with the final specification.
Because the first factory samples are the first step in mass production, completing them can be time consuming and costly. The factory has to create the tooling, order the material, create
fixtures and set up the assembly area to produce the product. A deposit must be made for all tooling and setup costs before work can begin. Depending on the number and complexity of the components, it can take 6-12 weeks or more to get the first samples.
The T1 samples often aren’t aesthetically pleasing, but it’s the first chance to evaluate the product in its molded form with all of the right materials and components. Plastic molded parts are usually shot with a raw color plastic, the mold surfaces are left unpolished and the machining marks show up in the parts. Molded parts are evaluated for their fit and integrity and examined
for any mold irregularities such as sink marks, flashing or odd flow marks. A document is created that notes all of the issues with photos and callouts, and the sample is sent back to the factory for evaluation. Each sample improves in quality as the issues are fixed. The final samples are molded in the correct colors and finishes, and shipped in their final packaging.