When many people think about an automotive prototype, they assume it represents a single step in the validation process between the initial design of the product and the final production run.
In actuality, automotive prototyping plays a number of vital roles during the design validation process that culminates in manufacturing. An automotive prototype can be used to ensure that a product can be made, to decide on the types of materials that are best for a product, and to evaluate what types of equipment should be used to manufacture the part.
In other words, prototyping extends far beyond just a single phase in product development in the automotive industry. Automotive prototypes are integral parts of the entire automotive engineering process that allow engineers to figure out how to make new automotive products that appeal to consumers, to convince stakeholders to invest in a new automotive product, and to ensure that a vehicle will be safe for end users.
Let’s take a closer look at how prototyping is used during the phases of automotive product development: design validation, pre-development, production process validation, customer testing, safety testing, and manufacturing validation.
Design Validation Prototypes
During the design validation phase, product engineers can use an automotive prototype not only to gain greater clarity regarding their designs and to validate that they can be made, but also to “sell” their concepts to stakeholders.
A prototype created during the design validation stage is rarely a complete, final model. Instead, rough prototypes made using cost-effective prototyping techniques, such as plastic injection molding, are used to create a simple physical object. This basic prototype can be used to visualize the concept and share information with the entire project team.
Once a design has been validated and there is buy-in from stakeholders and production teams, the early pre-development stage requires a more refined prototype to determine the usability of the product and to smooth over any design challenges.
Automotive engineers sometimes refer to this as the “mule stage.” During this stage, engineers take donor cars, strip the vehicles down, and place the prototype products in the existing automobiles.
This strategy allows them to see how the automotive prototype will fit in the vehicle and interact with the other parts. It also gives them an opportunity to consider design alternatives that may work better.
Production Process Validation Prototypes
After the mule stage, automotive engineering next makes use of automotive prototypes during the production process validation phase at the assembly plant.
These types of automotive prototypes allow engineers to spot possible production problems as well as determine the most cost-effective manufacturing processes. Sometimes during this stage, it might be discovered that a manufacturing technique available at one plant is better suited to handle the production of an automotive product.
Customer Testing Prototypes
Gaining valuable feedback from people who will be using a vehicle helps engineers sell their concept to stakeholders, spot possible issues, and decide on the right materials for the final automotive product.
Customer testing that uses an automotive prototype can occur during any stage of the development and production process. The feedback from these studies is used by engineers to figure out how desirable an automotive product is, if there will be any difficulty using the product during normal activities, and if customers won’t use the product for any reasons.
Safety Testing Prototypes
An automotive prototype is vital for safety testing, which can be performed throughout the pre-production and validation phases to evaluate possible failures of the automotive product during actual use.
This testing is called Failure Mode Effect Analysis (FMEA). During it, automotive prototypes are placed through different scenarios and subjected to extreme conditions to identify any problems that could hamper the use of the product or cause serious safety concerns to consumers.
Manufacturing Validation Build Prototypes
Before an automotive part goes into production, a prototype must be developed for manufacturing validation.
The manufacturing validation build uses the intended equipment and machinery to create the final automotive prototype so that finishing touches can be made before production tooling is engineered. A minimal amount of tweaking is performed during this stage in order to finalize the automotive product.
Verification testing can be performed using prototype parts created at this stage to ensure that all parts work as desired. Some of these test vehicles may even be sold to the public.
The Many Roles Played by an Automotive Prototype
There is never just one automotive prototype made when developing a new automotive product.
Prototypes play vital roles throughout the ongoing process of developing automotive parts and assemblies. They are constantly refined until a consensus is reached regarding both the product design and the manufacturing methods that will be used to create it.
By having prototypes created throughout the automotive product lifecycle, stakeholders, project teams, and manufacturing production staff can all work together to realize a concept efficiently and cost-effectively.
If you need an automotive prototype for any of the stages reviewed above, please contact us at 3-Dimensional Services Group. We have decades of experience creating high-quality automotive prototypes up to 70% faster than industry standards.