As the name implies, the purpose of a Proof-of-Concept (POC) prototype is to prove your product concept. A POC answers if a product is feasible. Whereas, a standard prototype answers how to make your product.
In most cases a POC prototype is only used internally to determine the practicality of a new product. Customers will rarely see a POC prototype. When demonstrating your product to customers you will usually need something much closer to the manufacturable version of your product.
So do you need a POC prototype for your product? The simple answer is it depends, since there are multiple reasons to create a proof-of-concept prototype.
Below I’ve broken down my answer to this question by asking you various pertinent questions:
Do you have fundamental questions about your proposed solution?
If you have fundamental questions about whether your proposed solution will solve the intended problem then you should probably create a POC prototype first in order to help you answer this question.
If you are unsure of the best solution for the problem you are solving then you are probably better off if you can start with a POC prototype for your product.
Before you proceed down the path of developing the manufacturable version of your product you should have most aspects of your solution nailed down.
Creating a custom Printed Circuit Board (PCB) for your product is expensive and very time consuming so this is not the best way to perform early product experimentation.
How much do you know about building electronics projects?
Are you a maker with experience creating DIY projects using development kits such as an Arduino or Raspberry Pi? If so, you are in a much better place to create a POC prototype for your product.
On the other hand, if you’re a non-techie with little knowledge of electronics, and little desire to learn more, then a POC prototype may make less sense. In this case, you may be better off skipping the POC stage, and instead hiring an engineer to create your manufacturable prototype.
However, if you have major fundamental questions about your solution, and feel that a POC prototype is important, then you may want to outsource the creation of your POC prototype.
Keep in mind that the person who creates a POC prototype for you will likely be different than the engineer you hire to develop your final manufacturable product. There are two reasons for this.
First, most engineers that develop custom PCB designs don’t work with development kits.
Second, you should be able to find someone much more affordable than a product design engineer to help you create a POC prototype.
It’s no big surprise that it takes a higher level of experience to design a fully custom product solution than it does to use development kits aimed at makers. More experience usually costs more money.
A POC prototype is great to prove a concept & learn electronics, but not to present to customers.
After all, simplification is the primary reason development kits exist. You should be able to hire a lower-cost maker to develop your POC prototype, and they may or may not even have an electronics engineering degree.
Since developing a POC prototype is much cheaper than developing a custom PCB, you will be much better off financially if you can answer as many questions as possible using a POC prototype.
Do you want to learn electronics?
The other big advantage of creating a proof-of-concept prototype is to learn about electronics. By far the best way to teach yourself electronics is by doing various DIY projects.
If you want to teach yourself electronics, then I urge you to begin creating a POC prototype for your product.
Although you don’t need to be an expert in every aspect of your product, as the founder you should at least have a basic understanding of how your product functions. It becomes difficult to manage a team if you have no comprehension of the tasks being performed.
Are you severely strapped for cash?
Not only will you learn a lot by creating a POC prototype, but the more you do yourself the more money you will save. Of course, almost all entrepreneurs are somewhat strapped for cash.
The more limited your budget, the more you need to learn yourself by creating a POC prototype.
As I stated above, developing a custom PCB is expensive, so you should do everything possible to limit the design risks of a new PCB design. One of the best ways to reduce this risk is by first creating a POC prototype to help you nail down the specifics of your solution.
How big of a rush are you in to get your product to market?
Proof-of-concept prototypes have many advantages, but speed to market is generally not one of them. Most tech companies developing new hardware products begin with a custom PCB solution, not a POC prototype.
This is because the fastest path to market is to begin from day one developing the version of your product that you intend to bring to market.
Big tech companies are always in a rush to get their product to market. Because they have huge development budgets, they usually decide to skip creating a crude prototype based on a development kit.
When you have little time but lots of cash, skip the POC stage. On the other hand, if you have time but little cash, then you may want to start with a POC prototype.
This is why most product design engineers that work for large companies scoff at the idea of development kit based prototypes. To them it’s a waste of time. But for startups and makers working with a severely limited budget, taking the extra time to create a POC prototype makes more sense.
How complex is your product?
If your product is relatively simple, then it makes less sense to take the time to create a proof-of-concept prototype.
For example, if your product requires a relatively simple microcontroller and a couple of sensors, then I’d probably suggest jumping right to developing the custom PCB version. That is, of course, unless you want to teach yourself some electronics.
Example of a PCB design that I would classify as complex.
On the other hand, if your product is really complex with many functions, then starting with a development kit may make more sense.
How complex is your software and can you code?
If your product requires significantly complex software, and you are a good programmer, then a POC prototype can give you a head start on the software development.
That being said, just be sure you are working on a development kit that uses a closely related processor, otherwise much of your work won’t carry over to the manufacturable version of your product.
For example, if you plan on using a 32-bit Arm Cortex-M microcontroller in your final product version, then developing code for an Arduino running an 8-bit Atmel microcontroller won’t be of much benefit. You will likely end up having to rewrite nearly all of your code.
Or even worse, if you create your prototype using a microprocessor-based development kit like a Raspberry Pi, yet your product only needs a simple microcontroller, then almost none of your code can be reused.
Have you defined very precise specifications for your product?
A custom PCB version of your product is usually not the way to experiment in order to finalize your product specifications.
For example, perhaps your product requires a display of some sort, but you have no idea what type of display is best or what display specifications (resolution, color depth, size, etc.) you require.
In this scenario you are much better off creating a development kit prototype that allows you to experiment with the various display options. This is not the type of thing you want to figure out after you’ve developed your custom PCB.
Is small size super critical for your product?
The smaller your product the more difficult it becomes to create a proof-of-concept prototype. For instance, if your product is a wearable tech device it will be very difficult to prototype it using an Arduino or Raspberry Pi.
Sure, you can still use these to test out the basic functionality, but it will never be small enough to make it truly wearable.
The FLORA development kit from AdaFruit is Aduino-compatible and small enough for wearable tech applications. It measures only 1.75” in diameter.
But the smaller your product, and the more features it incorporates, the more difficult it becomes to create a prototype using only off-the-shelf components.
For many wearable size products, it makes more sense to start with a custom PCB design that can be made to fit the desired form factor.
I hope you’ve found my answer to this common question to be helpful. To quickly summarize, a POC prototype can be useful if you have fundamental questions about the feasibility of your product, want to learn electronics, or have very little cash.
On the other hand, if time to market is critical, or your product is relatively simple or exceptionally small, then it’s likely best to start with a manufacturable prototype.
Do you have a question you’d like me to answer as part of my new FAQ series? If so, please post your question in the comment section below.