A prototype is an initial model of an object built to test a design. The word comes from a Greek word for “primitive form.” Prototypes are widely used in design and engineering to perfect items and processes before implementing them on a large scale. Automobile designers, for example, typically build prototypes of new cars to see if their ideas work in practice. A prototype is a vital part of the design process because it allows designers to see the product in action, so they can see what works and what does not. It is also useful for showing designs to corporate executives or investors to persuade them to support a project.
Designing a new product can be very complicated. A designer does initial research and brainstorming to come up with ideas, and most products go through many stages of computer design and even three-dimensional (3D) rendering. But there are always unknown aspects of a new design, particularly if it implements some new technology or equipment. Often the only way to see if a design actually works is to build it and try it out. If the prototype reveals problems, the designers can modify the design and build another prototype. New products often go through several rounds of prototypes before the design is finalized.
Prototypes are not meant to be perfect versions of the designed products. It is often impossible to use the same materials that will be put in the actual product, and there may be no factory process to build it yet. Prototypes must be built by hand, using materials that are similar to, but not identical to, the intended ones. This results in a prototype that is not exactly what the final design will contain, but that is close enough to let the designers see if it will work or not.
A prototype may replicate just one portion of a design. It may create the look of the object without its functionality, or the functionality without the look. A fully functional prototype is a full-scale working model of the final product.
Improvements in computer modeling have eliminated the need to build prototypes for many products. Three-dimensional printing has also made the process easier; it is now possible to create 3D models of designs without having to build them by hand from different materials. Prototypes are still useful, though, for testing functionality, safety, and commercial potential.