January 21 2016

How to Start Your Startup (Part 3): Creating a Physical Prototype


Part 3 of our series is brought to us by Jake Brown, Product Manager at Torch. He talks building a physical prototype- providing an inside look at how they did it at Torch.

Critique, iterate, ↻

Torch Router Prototypes

Prototyping is the bread and butter of product development— both software and hardware. This post will use the prototyping and overall development process for my own product, the Torch router, as reference. I’m going to keep things at a birds eye view, but I’ve included some “additional reading” at the bottom of the post if you really need to take a deep dive. We wont talk about software prototyping in this post, but keep an eye out for an accompanying post on that topic :).

1) Staffing
If you’re planning on producing a piece of consumer hardware, you’ll need some professional help. In Torch’s case, we worked with a couple offirms and individuals on a contract basis to fill the needs of these positions while we’re strapped for capital. Here’s an example barebones team:

A. Industrial Designer: Responsible for defining the outside dimensions, qualities, materials choices, and overall ‘feel’ of the product.
B. Mechanical Engineer: Responsible for engineering interior structures and preparing the Industrial Designer’s models for mass production.
C. Electrical Engineer: Responsible for designing and engineering the PCBA(s) and other electronic components included within the product.

These people will spend the next ~12 months developing, prototyping, and preparing for mass production.

2) Ideation + Sketching
With your industrial designer in tow, let you and your teams creativity and your brands identity shine. This is probably the most fun part, as it affords founders a period of “pie in the sky” thinking. There’s so much room for creativity in design, material choices, manufacturing methods, etc. Torch’s pie in the sky moment was deciding to implement real wood, a first for a router, a highlight of the product, and something that required a lot of refinement through prototyping.

3) Basic Forms
Now that you’ve gone through an ideation process with an industrial designer, you should have some decisions to make about the general shape of the product. Your designer will use this feedback to continue iterating. I like to 3D print forms in order to give the entire team a feel for the design at scale. The Torch team printed off the first batch of forms with Shapeways in sandstone. This got expensive pretty quickly, so we purchased a basic 3D printer to keep in the office. We printed a new form derivative every ~3 days, scrutinized each one, had outsiders scrutinize it, and then tried again more times than I can count.

Three original 3D printed forms for Torch
Elements from each of these forms made it into the final design, including the divot visible in form 1

4) Mockups
The forms shown above are 3D prints in a single material, as opposed to mockups, which are materially complete but non-functional models that attempt to reflect how the final product would appear and feel. We contracted with a professional model shop specifically to fabricate our mockups. These mockups only contained electrical components necessary for lighting. Torch went through three mockup iterations of this type— due in part to wonky wood adhesion, but the end result was a more aesthetically refined product on every front.

From left to right: Non-functional mockup, functional mockup without veneer assembly
Torch final engineered model / exploded view

5) Tooling and Validation
With the mockup verified, you can now begin the factory tooling process for creating plastic injection molds, reflow soldering production lines, etc. This is often one of the most expensive elements of development, and also where it’s the most expensive to make changes — hence why mockups are so important. Once samples are produced with the new tooling and validated against the final mockup, your product is ready for mass production!

Some Reading I Recommend:

“So you want to build a hardware company, and you’re a software engineer…” by Sara Chipps

“Will Your Hardware Startup Make Money?” by Ben Einstein

“Hardware by the Numbers Part 1: Team + Prototyping” by Ben Einstein


Thanks for the great post, Jake!

Next up on our “How to Start Your Startup” series: Iterating.  You know. That word that everyone in the startup world uses. We break it down for you. (Btw, what is the difference between iterating and reiterating? Something to think about.)


This post was written by Jake Brown, Product Manager at Torch.

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