As an engineer or scientist, you may be dreaming up product ideas that you think have market value; yet, you may be concerned that you lack the training or skills to fully develop your idea.
Don’t worry. There is a path to success. If you can demonstrate or, better yet, put a prototype into the customer’s hands and get real feedback on the value of your innovation, the probability of business success greatly increases. If you want to be an entrepreneur and move your idea out of your head, develop a prototype and keep the following eight rules in mind.
1 Recognize That Ideas Are Cheap – Given the connected, Internet-savvy world in which we live, ideas have become cheap and they will probably become cheaper with time. The expense lies in testing and verifying what has economic value. A great prototype is often the best way to start a dialogue with potential customers and test your idea’s value.
2 Start With a Paper Design – You may be eager to start coding or designing the electronics too quickly. Fight the urge. Writing code without real consideration for several design factors leads to heartache and a lot of rework. Start with a simple paper design. For a user interface or Web software prototype, a paper design is efficient and effective for quickly working through the functionality. You can get peers and, hopefully, customers to give feedback on where images, text, buttons, graphs, menus, or pull-down selections are located. Paper designs are inexpensive and more valuable than words.
3 Put in Just Enough Work – Know your objectives and stick to them. There are two good reasons to prototype: the first is to test the feasibility of a hardware or software architecture, and the second is to create a demonstration and gain customer feedback so you can price and put a value on your innovation. Keep these objectives in mind and be careful not to fall in love with the process. Prototyping is fun and innovators love to tinker, but you want to invest just enough time and work to meet the objectives.
4 Anticipate for Multiple Options – Design your prototype with modularity in mind. Great prototypes are often modular, which means you can quickly adapt them to meet customers’ unforeseen needs. Customers ultimately decide how to use your product, not you. Design in options for expansion, performance, packaging, and lower cost.
5 Design for Reuse in the Final Product – The ideal situation is to design a prototype you can produce and distribute in high volume. Not many prototyping tools can deliver on this promise. Typically you give up performance for design flexibility. Look for prototyping tools that make it possible for you to scale your prototype from lab to market (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Having a prototype that comes close to matching the final product is ideal.
6 Avoid Focusing on Cost Too Early – For hardware designs, a potential time sink and pitfall is getting caught up in endless cost optimization analysis during the early stages of your prototype design. Cost is always important, but your goal with a prototype is to be within striking distance of a profitable design. Initially, focus on proving the value of your innovation, and design with modularity in mind. While frustrating, your design may follow many paths that do not ultimately lead to value. Focus on securing your first set of customers and then work on cost optimization.
7 Fight “Reversion to the Mean” – When prototyping, the tendency is to develop something easy rather than develop something that has a “wow” factor. Stay true to your vision and make sure your prototype captures the original thought of your innovation.
8 Ensure You Can Demonstrate Your Prototype – Your prototype should be easy to demonstrate. With customers, venture capitalists (VCs), and potential employees, you want to start strong and show the most amazing capabilities first. Do not build up to a crescendo. Most people’s attention spans are limited to less than 60 seconds. In presentations, whether they are for a new employee or a VC, get to the demonstration as fast as possible. If the demonstration is amazing, all else falls into place.
1. Take Advantage of NI Prototyping Tools
The flexibility and productivity of NI tools have proven useful in getting a prototype working quickly – from medical devices to industrial machinery to automated test systems. Figures 2 and 3 show examples of NI customers using NI LabVIEW software and the NI CompactRIO embedded hardware system to prototype their ideas. Figure 2 shows a prototype, developed by Sanarus Medical, of a medical device used to treat patients with breast tumors in a less invasive and nearly painless procedure. With NI tools, a mechanical engineer with little embedded experience quickly developed this full-functioning prototype.
Figure 3 features a prototype, developed by engineers at Boston Engineering, of a photo kiosk that instantly prints digital images. Engineers previously used custom hardware to develop prototypes. With LabVIEW FPGA technology and NI off-the-shelf hardware tools, they were able to develop prototypes quicker.
The NI graphical system design platform, including LabVIEW and flexible off-the-shelf hardware, provides one of the quickest paths to a working prototype for any engineer, scientist, or academician. Consider using fast prototyping tools from NI to transform your idea into reality. The quicker you develop your prototype, the better.
"NI played a fundamental part in achieving our goals. Our product design, prototype, and eventual deployment timelines were met because of the graphical system design platform from NI.’’
– Jeff Stevens, Engineer, formerly of Sanarus Medical
Figure 2. Engineers at Sanarus Medical prototyped and deployed their own design using LabVIEW and CompactRIO.
‘‘With the open, productive graphical system design platform of LabVIEW, we saved a tremendous amount of time from design to prototype to deployment.’’
– Erik Goethert, Program Manager, Boston Engineering
Figure 3. Boston Engineering chose LabVIEW and CompactRIO to quickly prototype its printer kiosk design.
John Hanks is the vice president of product marketing for data acquisition and industrial control at National Instruments. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from Texas A&M University and The University of Texas at Austin, respectively.
Todd Dobberstein is a group manager of industrial and embedded technologies at National Instruments. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Kansas State University.
This article first appeared in the Q4 2008 issue of Instrumentation Newsletter.