Instructables
You may have heard it a dozen times, but unless you have done it yourself, you probably do not know just how amazing rapid prototyping can be! Save costs in the long run and walk away with better solutions!

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Step 1: Observe

Before new ideas can be explored, it is important to study the weaknesses of current designs. In most cases, start by asking experienced people about their own observations with a device. What are the current design's shortcomings? What parts of the designs are most likely to break? What features of the current design do you they the most important? A similar line of questioning should also be asked to yourself after each prototype is made. Observing the way current designs work is the springboard off which to conceive new ideas.

Look carefully at the simple tools around you and you are sure to find dozens of subtle design choices that make them more effiecient and intuitive to use. Notice the little ridge on the "J" key to allow the user to re-center their fingers without needing to look down at the keyboard.

Step 2: Brainstorm

Once knowledge of the current solution shortcomings has been gained, it is possible to think in new directions to try to alleviate as many of the problems as possible. It is often not feasible to solve all of the problems you have observed, so I find that ranking them in order of importance helps to keep new ideas on track towards becoming helpful solutions. Think of as many ideas as you can and write down everything. Silly or unreasonable ideas should not be thrown thrown out as they often shift perspective in ways that may open new doors to novel solutions. Brainstorming should be exactly as it sounds; let the ideas pour from your mind.

Sometimes it helps to have some though-provoking buzzwords or scenarios to get the group thinking if they are still warming up. Here are some examples:

collapsable, foldable, stackable, musical, spring-loaded, dry, insulated, secure, thin, locking, memoryless, conducting, durrable, heavy, ratcheting, springy, flexable, easy-open, frictionless, thick, pocket-sized, sliding, moistened, light, rotating, overhung, twistable, fast-acting, networked, connectivity, synergy

Below you can see a drawing made during a brainstorming session used to consider how web content should be delivered to the user. The key here is get many different ideas written down so that later you can take a step back from them and decide which ideas have the greatest chance of working or teaching you the most about the problem/design space.

Step 3: Prototype

Many ideas look good on paper, but few actually survive this step. The purpose of a prototype is to develop a better understanding of a potential idea by exploring its key components and features. A prototype should not be designed as a final product. Rather, a prototype should be designed as an exploratory mock-up with emphasis on the aspects most important to your idea. Prototyping is the key to allowing multiple innovation cycles with the hope that each cycle will offer a level of improvement and insight over the previous cycles.

Do not let your mind get stuck in a rut! Consider using different materials and fabrication/manufacturing techniques to explore your problem from a different perspective.

Here are some materials to consider using:

Piezo, wood, fabric, oil, carpet, cardboard, aerogel, styrofoam, leather, aluminum, tile, paint, adhesive, glue, wax, food, ice, LEDs, spring, rubber, tape, plastic, water, graphite, wire, gel, stone, screws, foam, glass, caulking, concrete, polyurethane, hot-glue, steel, pins, alcohol, putty, paper, motors, cast structures, cork, magnets, velcro, plexi-glass, plaster, brass, chain, aerosol, carbon-fiber, foil, rope, fiberglass, zipper, snow, lens, filters


Below is an image of a crude prototype of an idea for a fan with no rotating parts. It is built from a cheap speaker, some machines acrylic, a latex glove, and some bolts/nuts to hold it all together. This was cheap and easy to build and proved to be a great proof-of-concept of the idea I was exploring. It showed me that I was on the right track, but most importantly, I was able to quickly learn from it and consider ways to make the device work better.

Step 4: Repeat!

Picture of Repeat!
If the prototype does not solve the problem in the way you expected or it sheds light on a new element of the problem or design space, why not start the innovation cycle again? Most prototypes are cheap as compared to a final product and the difference one more rapid prototyping cycle can make is oftentimes quite significant. Only when you are satisfied with your current design or time/cost demands you to make a final design should you take a break from the innovation cycle. But don't worry, you can always pick up where you left off later.

In the picture below you can see the nature of rapid prototyping. These prototypes were all made in less than a couple months, with sometimes as many as 4 different protypes being created each day. The final solution was quite unique and different than anything else we could find. It was the insight gained from dozens of different rapidly created prototypes that allowed us to conceive our final design which included a novel actuation method, the Elacoil.

(Explorations in the field of Compliant Robotic Manipulation, CSAIL, M.I.T., 2005)
von rad4 years ago
Rapid prototyping is a subset of RAD: Rapid Application Development.  This in turn is a subset of any one of a number of AGILE development methodologies. Your diagram needs 4/5 steps which you mention in the body of your text. 

AGILE is a constant state of development (AND audit).  In my world OBSERVE is DISCOVERY or ANALYSIS depending on the rev - BRIANSTORM is DESIGN - PROTOTYPE  is BUILD which does not include specification.  AGILE resource have experience in lieu of specification-based  methodologies, yet there is a full paper/ etrail,  Road Warriers (consultants) of age make the best AGILE developers. They are not kids out of school - they are required to prepare Enterprise solutions (in my case) based on experience facing an audience of multi-disciplinary carnivores, virtually every day.   They are required to understand the details of the projects from field to table and redeign standing up in front of upper management and heads of every operational department (the DANCING BEAR routine). 

After build It requires a RELEASE with a predetermined (or all H*ll breaks loose - picture shotgun blast to twenty diet coke torpedoes fed mentos as an energy release) FEEDBACK mechanism.  

Then it starts again: Analyze-Build/change- release- feedaback (Italian) - start at the beginning.   If a multi-disciplinary team, I can see DESIGN. 

VR
water is that an amp in the picture? sorry about the link my computer did it randomly
That's not an amp. An amp would be much larger. And although this idea is very clever, it's extremely practical (especially if you were to use an amp, lol). here are 2 reasons for impracticality:
1. Noise: moving parts make noise, but this makes more
2. Safety: moving parts can hurt someone, but in order for this to work well it would have to be loud enough to bust your ears

But I must say, very creative. 9 out of 10 satisfactory experiments are trial and error, so keep it up. And rock on... \/, (oo) ,\/
lunarpanel5 years ago
Hey Adam, it could also be nice to add an 'evaluate' step in this process :)

also, about cable driven fingers, this nice cable driven gadget created by prototyping master Marvin Minsky http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sy8mzH-H6tM

and also this nice ultimate hand machine
http://www.boingboing.net/2008/04/24/ultimate-machine-fli.html

cheers!
ivanirons6 years ago
Good instructable. Got me thinking a bit. I want to know more about the cable driven fingers up there.

Ivan
Rapid Prototyping Info
hedgiehog6 years ago
did it work?
Azure_Rose6 years ago
Nice instructable. Now, how about one about how to make that nifty elacoil? I found your MIT page and the instructions there, but couldn't quite decipher the drawings. I myself am involved in a national, competitive robotics organization (www.usfirst.org) and would rather enjoy to understand how those little spiffy actuators worked on the inside. Thanks!
adamkumpf (author)  Azure_Rose6 years ago
The Elongation Actuation coil (Elacoil) is actually pretty simple. It's literally just latex tubing and a spring. The hydraulic line used to drive it is filled with water and actuated by hand with a cheap syringe. By placing a piece of flexible latex tubing down the center of a 1/4" O.D. light-duty extension spring, pressure applied to the latex tubing pushes the sidewalls of the latex into the inner walls of the spring and then proceeds to elongate the spring as more pressure is applied.
Oh I see, similar to an air muscle. Thanks! Oh, one more thing: on your hand manipulator, your elacoil seemed to arc in a rough estimate of the bending-of-a-human-finger. How did you accomplish this curvature?