Engineering House Learning Life

On The Importance of Prototyping

Sometimes I dive head first into problems and it gets me in trouble. Other times, this is called “prototyping”, which is encouraged in many engineering circles, and sometimes even required! The best case scenario is when you can flesh out the details and downfalls of a project before you make costly design decisions. You can realize not to use a particular op amp or even decide if a project is feasible at all.

I’m not shy to say that Google SketchUp is one of my recent favorite prototyping tools. While it’s not the SPICE simulation or the rapid circuit prototyping that most people might think of for analog system designers, it is useful in myriad projects. Even just knowing what form factor a future analog board might need to take (by making a quick drawing of what you envision your product to be) can save lots of time, money and headaches.

My experiences with Google SketchUp  prototyping (drawing, really) has been to help me realize what kinds of components I’m looking for when making design decisions. And it could help you too, at least in a mechanical perspective. Perhaps you know that a certain connector shape and size will be better than another. Or that you’re space constrained and can’t use a particularly large inductor.

My most recent (home) project has been building myself a home theater PC (or HTPC). I use it to watch shows on and surf the internet in my living room; in the future I might also task it with home automation type functions as well (turning on lights, closing blinds, etc). Quite convenient and the first PC I have ever built. But I wanted to mount the HTPC in a nearby stairwell to keep it out of sight. I first did a mockup drawing in Google Sketchup:

As you can see, the models are 3D; they’re darn easy to make too. I can’t speak highly enough of the program itself.

Aside from the program though, the results allowed me to figure out what I would need for my build. The first requirements were easy. I wanted to make sure my HTPC didn’t fall down the stairwell. I know, I’m a stickler for protecting my investments. But figuring out the shelf and strap idea was a breakthrough in my design. It would be low cost and sturdy. Here’s how it ended up looking:

Notice I ended up buying cheap off the shelf wall mounting brackets instead of trying to create my own out of 2x4s cut at funky angles. This was an iteration on the original design idea I had in the SketchUp drawing.

And a picture of the component that the model pointed to as critical for the design:

So would I have been able to design all of this without the “prototype” I made? Yeah, probably. I would have figured something out or used duct tape or something to get it all together and working in some capacity. In the situation shown here though, I was able to determine troublesome components and think of a workaround before they became an issue (i.e. it only took me one trip to the hardware store, pretty good given my past record).

So next time you’re doing a home or work project, try prototyping, even if it isn’t necessarily electrical (hey, maybe that’s even more reason to try it, right?). It could save you time, money and frustration.