UK entrepreneur James Dyson, the guy who brought us the bag free vacuum cleaner that carries his name, spent years working on the design of his machine and is reputed to have built well over 5,000 prototypes while doing so.
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So did that mean he created the perfect vacuum cleaner? Before we go any further, it's important to emphasis that this article isn't focused on James Dyson per se, but his story makes for a good example. Many consumer reviews would indicate that his earlier models were far from perfection. While they eliminated the need for a bag and more importantly eliminated the loss of suction caused by a clogged bag, they had problems of their own – some of which resulted in, yes you've guessed it, loss of suction. Customers' statements would suggest that this was primarily to do with the rubbers seals wearing and the plate that held the roller brush being less than robust. Still that's only a set of personal opinions. Even so, you'd think that after making so many prototypes the product might have been better equipped to do the job.
After all, isn't that what the purpose of building a prototype is? To an extent yes, but, is there a little bit of entrepreneurial jiggery-pokery going on in such circumstances? What can we possibly mean by that? Well let's put it this way: what if the purpose of initial prototypes was to ascertain functionality and safety. A product that does what it says it will and is safe to use is a saleable item. But if it's so perfect that the customer need never replace it then companies risk losing repeat business.
Often the model that is produced based on the first set of prototypes is the one that whets the appetite of the consumer. The later models, the new improved versions ensure that the customer comes back. After all, everyone wants the latest model, the one with more bells and lights and features.
This might be thought to be a cynic's view of prototyping and its purpose but we all hear tales of how things in the old days were built to last. The opinion these days being that products aren't, and that it makes sense business wise to build things so that they need to be updated as this results in greater sales.
So, how many prototypes should you build? This is the old piece of string question. It really depends what your product is, but if you are building them with a view to getting a first stage functional and safe model on the market then you'd build less than you would if you are aiming to give your all straight away. In most cases you'll probably want to save the best till last. Keep your deluxe new improved bigger and better blueprints up your sleeve. Then, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat you can produce it at a point when your existing customers are ready to upgrade.