(l-r) Russell Hughes, Paul Minty, Paul Hughes, Steven Parker

Blog – Using prototypes to (really) understand customer needs

In his role as Manufacturing Integration Manager at Integra, Paul Minty works in a truly collaborative way between the design and manufacturing team to make the customer's vision real. He explains the important role prototypes play in this process.

Machines, technologies and devices that make our lives simpler excite us all. Much of the time, what attracts us to them first is their functionality but their simplicity often has us wondering why ‘someone’ hasn’t come up with ‘it’ before. The reality is, for every ‘hit’ that is created, there’s probably a heap of ‘misses’ that failed to see the light of day. An integral part of the procedure in developing the hits and minimising the misses is a process called prototyping.

What we mean when we say ‘prototype’

A prototype is essentially a creation that is as close to the finished product as can be made. It’s an essential part of manufacturing that brings an idea to reality.

At Integra, we find that customers love to see renders from computers, as well as artists’ impressions, but these are often created without the input of a product or industrial engineer. For us, prototyping is a way of getting those final insights – the really in-depth insights from the customer about what they truly want – and getting them early enough in the project so we can add our training and experience as engineers to the design and revise it if required.

Why you should not skimp on prototyping

There are some important benefits that a prototype affords the manufacturing process. Apart from wowing the client, it’s also a way for designers and engineers to nail down an efficient manufacturing method for large-scale production. We try to make the prototype in exactly the same way as we’re going to make the final product. We use the same machine tools and manufacturing techniques, as well as the same materials and, sometimes, even the same colours.

Building the prototype means that all the programming of the machine tools and the manufacturing techniques are proven before committing to the purchase of materials and hardware. The design can be validated and the process of optimising our machine tools through better CNC programming can begin. We can get an idea of the time it's going to take to manufacture the product, as well as other practical details.

For Integra, the prototype is really important for planning the final production run so we can deliver the project in a timely and accurate way. It also demonstrates that all the computers and tools are accurately aligned and, most importantly, it lets us know that we are building something the customer actually wants.

Best-practice prototyping is a matter of design

Before the manufacturing side of things happens, there’s a mountain of work involved in coming up with a design. It’s important for the designers and engineers to get a feel for what the customer wants and needs through the prototype, and it’s often the most challenging stage of the process.

The steps of what we call ‘discovery’ are a really key early stage. The trickiest situation is if a customer with not much practical experience visualises something. They may understand their problem better than anyone else but, unfortunately, they sometimes imagine something that can't actually be built. When this happens, we need to divorce them from the emotions and possibly come up with an alternative.

Thinking about the prototype – and how it works – in-situ

Next, the Integra team takes the time to visualise the final product in its environment, which is one of my favourite parts of the process. You've got to understand the functioning of it before it exists and that takes a big leap of imagination. We go to the place where the product is going to be used and visualise this new thing that no one's ever seen before functioning in that space. That's the big creative leap that designers and engineers are required to make.

Taking a prototype and giving birth to a product

It’s at this stage where the ‘systems’ part of Integra Systems plays a prominent role – a unique difference that sets Integra apart from other design enterprises. Once we’ve got the precise description, and all the nuts and bolts of it have been worked out, we’re now ready to build the actual prototype. That's also when our factory comes to the fore as a complete production facility, offering rapid prototyping, which is something we’ve worked hard to achieve over the last few years.

The whole Integra team – production, engineer, and design – all work as a cohesive unit. It's our integration between design and manufacturing, at both a human and technical level, that's really at our core. That's why we call ourselves Integra Systems – an integrated system of design and manufacture is what we can achieve.

Learn more about how Integra makes your vision real – www.integrasystems.com.au

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Published in Blog
K2_WRITTEN_ON May 01 2018
Written by Erika Hughes