In these uncertain economic times, I remind myself to “measure twice; cut once,” a lesson my father taught me as a boy.
In the R&D arena, that translates to “prototype often” before cutting a production tool. Prototyping offers the confidence that there will be only one tool cut and no rework. For very little financial gain, companies take a big risk by ignoring the wisdom of prototyping early and often.
In a tough economy, an early casualty for many companies is the number of prototypes built. Faced with budget cuts, prototyping is incorrectly viewed as an optional expense. I have seen companies take this route, and I have seen them suffer the consequences. Over the years, we have suffered the same fate when we assumed the design was perfected, and another prototype wasn't needed.
No one is immune to the struggle to cut costs and increase productivity. And even though our company manufactures prototyping systems, we too feel the temptation to cut back on prototyping to save a few bucks and a little time.
In part, this happens because there is no direct correlation, no cause-and-effect relationship between the prototype and the success of the product. Building prototypes does not guarantee problem-free designs, market demand or profitable sales. Eliminating a prototype does not mean there will be rework and manufacturing problems. The only sure-thing is that the prototype will cost you some time and money.
So, the prototyping decision is a gamble. As with an insurance policy, you are betting on the outcome. If a prototype is eliminated and you don't run into any problems, the gamble pays off. But if a design flaw is discovered when tooling is being cut, a $1,000 prototype savings can turn into a $10,000 tooling mistake that derails production schedules. I guess the question comes down to “Do you feel lucky?”
Before answering this question, reflect on your past design projects. How many prototypes have you made that didn't reveal the need for any revisions … 10 percent, 5 percent, 1 percent? For most, it is rare that a prototype doesn't lead to at least one discovery. The truth is that the odds of having a flawless design are against you. In this light, prototyping isn't an option; it is a necessity.
While a recession demands change in the way we do business, we have to be smart about the alterations we make. If budgets must be cut, it must be done wisely. This means being frugal, not cheap. It means cutting back, not cutting corners. It means being conservative, not timid. And it means being progressive, not stagnant.
To be frugal, conservative and progressive — all at the same time — we have to work smarter. We have to use the tools that are available to make the most of our time and money. From my experience, prototyping is one of those tools.
In my mind, prototypes are absolutely essential. Yet, being a realist, I know the economic climate will have an impact on when and how often they are used. I know some sacrifices have to be made. But I am convinced the only reason not to prototype is when there is no R&D activity, which is another gamble with very poor odds.