Research Papers: Design Theory and Methodology

What is a Prototype? What are the Roles of Prototypes in Companies?

[+] Author and Article Information
Carlye A. Lauff

Department of Mechanical Engineering,
University of Colorado Boulder,
Idea Forge, 2445 Kittredge Loop Road,
Fleming Building, FLEM 77,
Boulder, CO 80309
e-mail: Carlye.Lauff@colorado.edu

Daria Kotys-Schwartz

Department of Mechanical Engineering,
University of Colorado Boulder,
Idea Forge, 2445 Kittredge Loop Road,
Fleming Building, FLEM 130F,
Boulder, CO 80309
e-mail: Daria.Kotys@colorado.edu

Mark E. Rentschler

Department of Mechanical Engineering,
Engineering Center,
University of Colorado Boulder,
ECES 150 1111 Engineering Drive,
Boulder, CO 80309
e-mail: Mark.Rentschler@colorado.edu

Contributed by the Design Theory and Methodology Committee of ASME for publication in the JOURNAL OF MECHANICAL DESIGN. Manuscript received September 24, 2017; final manuscript received February 2, 2018; published online March 23, 2018. Assoc. Editor: Katja Holtta-Otto.

J. Mech. Des 140(6), 061102 (Mar 23, 2018) (12 pages) Paper No: MD-17-1650; doi: 10.1115/1.4039340 History: Received September 24, 2017; Revised February 02, 2018

Prototyping is an essential part of product development in companies, and yet it is one of the least explored areas of design practice. There are limited ethnographic studies conducted within companies, specifically around the topic of prototyping. This is an empirical and industrial-based study using inductive ethnographic observations to further our understanding of the various roles prototypes play in organizations. This research observed the entire product development cycle within three companies in the fields of consumer electronics (CE), footwear (FW), and medical devices (MD). Our guiding research questions are: What is a prototype? What are the roles of prototypes across these three companies? Through our analysis, we uncovered that prototypes are tools for enhanced communication, increased learning, and informed decision-making. Specifically, we further refine these categories to display the types of communication, learning, and decision-making that occur. These insights are significant because they validate many prior prototyping theories and claims, while also adding new perspectives through further exploiting each role. Finally, we provide newly modified definitions of a prototype and prototyping based on this empirical work, which we hope expands designers' mental models for the terms.

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Grahic Jump Location
Fig. 1

Research methods process

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Fig. 2

Prototypes of the kid's winter boots from the footwear company: early iterations of different materials, boot heights, and closure systems

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Fig. 3

Prototypes from the audio board project at the CE company: sample IC for breadboard prototypes (top left), notes for improvement on IC schematic from prototyping (top right), and full-system prototypes (bottom)

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Fig. 4

Prototypes of the benchmarked surgical device components (top) and two different material handle halves created in parallel (bottom) from the medical device company

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Fig. 5

Three emergent roles of prototypes: communication and learning to support decision-making



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