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A prototype is an original type, form, or instance of something serving as a typical example, basis, or standard for other things of the same category. The word derives from the Greek πρωτότυπον (prototypon), "primitive form", neutral of πρωτότυπος (prototypos), "original, primitive", from πρῶτος (protos), "first" and τύπος (typos), "impression".


In semantics, prototypes or proto instances combine the most representative attributes of a category. Prototypes are typical instances of a category that serve as benchmarks against which the surrounding, less representative instances are categorized (see Prototype Theory).

In many fields, there is great uncertainty as to whether a new design will actually do what is desired. New designs often have unexpected problems. A prototype is often used as part of the product design process to allow engineers and designers the ability to explore design alternatives, test theories and confirm performance prior to starting production of a new product. Engineers use their experience to tailor the prototype according to the specific unknowns still present in the intended design. For example, some prototypes are used to confirm and verify consumer interest in a proposed design whereas other prototypes will attempt to verify the performance or suitability of a specific design approach.

In general, an iterative series of prototypes will be designed, constructed and tested as the final design emerges and is prepared for production. With rare exceptions, multiple iterations of prototypes are used to progressively refine the design. A common strategy is to design, test, evaluate and then modify the design based on analysis of the prototype.

In many products it is common to assign the prototype iterations Greek letters. For example, a first iteration prototype may be called an "Alpha" prototype. Often this iteration is not expected to perform as intended and some amount of failures or issues are anticipated. Subsequent prototyping iterations (Beta, Gamma, etc.) will be expected to resolve issues and perform closer to the final production intent.

In many product development organizations, prototyping specialists are employed - individuals with specialized skills and training in general fabrication techniques that can help bridge between theoretical designs and the fabrication of prototypes.

Basic prototype categories

There is no general agreement on what constitutes a "prototype" and the word is often used interchangeably with the word "model" which can cause confusion. In general, “prototypes” fall into four basic categories:

Proof-of-Principle Prototype (Model) (also called a breadboard). This type of prototype is used to test some aspect of the intended design without attempting to exactly simulate the visual appearance, choice of materials or intended manufacturing process. Such prototypes can be used to “prove” out a potential design approach such as range of motion, mechanics, sensors, architecture, etc. These types of models are often used to identify which design options will not work, or where further development and testing is necessary.

Form Study Prototype (Model). This type of prototype will allow designers to explore the basic size, look and feel of a product without simulating the actual function or exact visual appearance of the product. They can help assess ergonomic factors and provide insight into visual aspects of the product's final form. Form Study Prototypes are often hand-carved or machined models from easily sculpted, inexpensive materials (e.g., urethane foam), without representing the intended color, finish, or texture. Due to the materials used, these models are intended for internal decision making and are generally not durable enough or suitable for use by representative users or consumers.

Visual Prototype (Model) will capture the intended design aesthetic and simulate the appearance, color and surface textures of the intended product but will not actually embody the function(s) of the final product. These models will be suitable for use in market research, executive reviews and approval, packaging mock-ups, and photo shoots for sales literature.

Functional Prototype (Model) (also called a working prototype) will, to the greatest extent practical, attempt to simulate the final design, aesthetics, materials and functionality of the intended design. The functional prototype may be reduced in size (scaled down) in order to reduce costs. The construction of a fully working full-scale prototype and the ultimate test of concept, is the engineers' final check for design flaws and allows last-minute improvements to be made before larger production runs are ordered.

Differences between a prototype and a production design

In general, prototypes will differ from the final production variant in three fundamental ways:

Materials. Production materials may require manufacturing processes involving higher capital costs than what is practical for prototyping. Instead, engineers or prototyping specialists will attempt to substitute materials with properties that simulate the intended final material.

Processes. Often expensive and time consuming unique tooling is required to fabricate a custom design. Prototypes will often compromise by using more flexible processes.

Lower fidelity. Final production designs often require extensive effort to capture high volume manufacturing detail. Such detail is generally unwarranted for prototypes as some refinement to the design is to be expected. Often prototypes are built using very limited engineering detail as compared to final production intent.

Characteristics and limitations of prototypes

Engineers and prototyping specialists seek to understand the limitations of prototypes to exactly simulate the characteristics of their intended design. A degree of skill and experience is necessary to effectively use prototyping as a design verification tool.

It is important to realize that by their very definition, prototypes will represent some compromise from the final production design. Due to differences in materials, processes and design fidelity, it is possible that a prototype may fail to perform acceptably whereas the production design may have been sound. A counter-intuitive idea is that prototypes may actually perform acceptably whereas the production design may be flawed since prototyping materials and processes may occasionally outperform their production counterparts.

In general, it can be expected that individual prototype costs will be substantially greater than the final production costs due to inefficiencies in materials and processes. Prototypes are also used to revise the design for the purposes of reducing costs through optimization and refinement.

It is possible to use prototype testing to reduce the risk that a design may not perform acceptably, however prototypes generally cannot eliminate all risk. There are pragmatic and practical limitations to the ability of a prototype to match the intended final performance of the product and some allowances and engineering judgement are often required before moving forward with a production design.

Building the full design is often expensive and can be time-consuming, especially when repeated several times—building the full design, figuring out what the problems are and how to solve them, then building another full design. As an alternative, "rapid-prototyping" or "rapid application development" techniques are used for the initial prototypes, which implement part, but not all, of the complete design. This allows designers and manufacturers to rapidly and inexpensively test the parts of the design that are most likely to have problems, solve those problems, and then build the full design.

This counter-intuitive idea—that the quickest way to build something is, first to build something else—is shared by scaffolding and the telescope rule.

Modern trends

With the recent advances in computer modeling it is becoming practical to eliminate the creation of a physical prototype (except possibly at greatly reduced scales for promotional purposes), instead modeling all aspects of the final product as a computer model. An example of such a development can be seen in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, in which the first full sized physical realization is made on the series production line. Computer modeling is now being extensively used in automotive design, both for form (in the styling and aerodynamics of the vehicle) and in function — especially for improving vehicle crashworthiness and in weight reduction to improve mileage.

Mechanical and electrical engineering

The most common use of the word prototype is a functional, although experimental, version of a non-military machine (e.g., automobiles, domestic appliances, consumer electronics) whose designers would like to have built by mass production means, as opposed to a mockup, which is an inert representation of a machine's appearance, often made of some non-durable substance.

An electronics designer often builds the first prototype from breadboard or stripboard or perfboard, typically using "DIP" packages.

However, more and more often the first functional prototype is built on a "prototype PCB" almost identical to the production PCB, as PCB manufacturing prices fall and as many components are not available in DIP packages, but only available in SMT packages optimized for placing on a PCB.

Builders of military machines and aviation prefer the terms "experimental" and "service test".

Electronics prototyping

In electronics, prototyping means building an actual circuit to a theoretical design to verify that it works, and to provide a physical platform for debugging it if it does not. The prototype is often constructed using techniques such as wire wrap or using veroboard or breadboard, that create an electrically correct circuit, but one that is not physically identical to the final product.

A useful tool to document electronic prototypes (especially the breadboard-based ones) and to move forward to the actual product is the open-source software Fritzing.

A technician can build a prototype (and make additions and modifications) much quicker with these techniques — however, it is much faster and usually cheaper to mass produce custom printed circuit boards than these other kinds of prototype boards. This is for the same reasons that writing a poem is fastest by hand for one or two, but faster by printing press if you need several thousand copies.

The proliferation of quick-turn pcb fab companies and quick-turn pcb assembly houses has enabled the concepts of rapid prototyping to be applied to electronic circuit design. It is now possible, even with the smallest passive components and largest fine-pitch packages, to have boards fabbed and parts assembled in a matter of days.

Computer programming/computer science

In many programming languages, a function prototype is the declaration of a subroutine or function. (This term is rather C/C++-specific; other terms for this notion are signature, type and interface.) In prototype-based programming (a form of object-oriented programming), new objects are produced by cloning existing objects, which are called prototypes.

The term may also refer to the Prototype Javascript Framework.

Additionally, the term may refer to the prototype design pattern.

Prototype software is often referred to as alpha grade, meaning it is the first version to run. Often only a few functions are implemented, the primary focus of the alpha is to have a functional base code on to which features may be added. Once alpha grade software has most of the required features integrated into it, it becomes beta software for testing of the entire software and to adjust the program to respond correctly during situations unforeseen during development.

Often the end users may not be able to provide a complete set of application objectives, detailed input, processing, or output requirements in the initial stage. After the user evaluation, another prototype will be built based on feedback from users, and again the cycle returns to customer evaluation. The cycle starts by listening to the user, followed by building or revising a mock-up, and letting the user test the mock-up, then back. There is now a new generation of tools called Application Simulation Software which help quickly simulate application before their development.

Extreme programming uses iterative design to gradually add one feature at a time to the initial prototype.

Continuous learning approaches within organizations or businesses may also use the concept of business or process prototypes through software models.

Prototype, software prototyping and alpha software

Many argue over the fact that prototype software and alpha software is not the same things, due to the fact that they more or less are the same thing. The only differences between them are in general that prototype software is referred to as alpha software since the word and the meaning of the word prototype is in general used when one is talking about a physical showreel, or in some cases a simulation whereas the cost of making a full scale or a random size scale of the concept that was initially introduced in the start of the project.

For further more clarification on the subject of what a prototype is we can look at this comparisons since every project has different stages as to what or where they are in development.(take in consideration that these might not be 100% accurate)

 Hardware              Software               Explanation
 *Concept              *Concept               *Idea
 *Proof of Concept     *Proof of Concept      *Possible ways to show that the theory behind the concept is functional.
                                               May not even work at all, but just show whether or not it is possible to create.
 *Prototype            *Alpha                 *First version of product meant for showreels and testing purposes ONLY.
                                               Also here it might not work as a program or unit, but it is to give the visual presentation
                                               of a possibly real product.
 *Work In Progress     *Work In Progress      *Several different stages of development.
 *??? *Beta                  *As for Beta, it is used for software that is almost complete, but still needs some fixing
                                               and is often done by feed back from a random selection of people(or you can sign up for as a
                                               beta tester), but in general a testing product that is to be treated as NOT DONE.
                                               (no data on equal term for Hardware)
 *??? *Release Candidate     *More commonly known of and used by Microsoft under development of new Operating System
                                               (ex. Windows Longhorn, Vista, Blackcombe, Seven) to show the masses that the product is within
                                               the last stages before it is released as "Finale Product". Known to have been several RC's.
                                               (Look up Windows ME and comparisons to Windows Vista on unfinished and rushed OS's.)
 *Final Product        *Final Product         *Product that has been tested both within closed test groups and open test groups. May still
                                               contain a few small issues, but in general it is a complete working product that will work as
                                               it is made for, for the majority of the users. If the issues gradually become an increasing
                                               problem measures like "patches" and "bug fixes" are created for software products, and
                                               "repair", "swaps" and/or "recall and destruction" of hardware is set in motion to save
                                               the reputation of the companies.

But remember that new, updated versions of the products may also be distributed, ex. videogames will get bug fixes and possibly extra content which will be packed as a new, same, but "fixed" product, under a slightly different name like "Game of the Year" or "Special Edition"(not to be confused with an eventual "Special Edition" that may have been released when the game first launched, containing extra stuff from or for the game as promotion), and hardware might be modified and released under the name of the company that modifies it. Like Shelby is to Mustang, AMG is to Mercedes and Top Secret is to other cars.

This is just a more commonly used way of the word prototype(as to not being software), but in general alpha and prototype is the same thing.

Nowadays, the difference between Software Prototype and Alpha versions increase when the prototypes are built with an Agile prototyping tool and the final software is developed with any coding language.

Scale modeling

In the field of scale modeling (which includes model railroading, vehicle modeling, airplane modeling, military modeling, etc.), a prototype is the real-world basis or source for a scale model—such as the real EMD GP38-2 locomotive—which is the prototype of Athearn's (among other manufacturers) locomotive model. Technically, any non-living object can serve as a prototype for a model, including structures, equipment, and appliances, and so on, but generally prototypes have come to mean full-size real-world vehicles including automobiles (the prototype 1957 Chevy has spawned many models), military equipment (such as M4 Shermans, a favorite among US Military modelers), railroad equipment, motor trucks, motorcim a doodie facenes, and space-ships (real-world such as Apollo/Saturn Vs, or the ISS).

There is debate whether 'fictional' or imaginary items can be considered prototypes (such as Star Wars or Star Trek starships, since the feature ships themselves are models or CGI-artifacts); however, humans and other living items are never called prototypes, even when they are the basis for models and dolls (especially - action figures).

As of 2005, conventional rapid prototype machines cost around £25,000.[11170]


In the science and practice of metrology, a prototype is a human-made object that is used as the standard of measurement of some physical quantity to base all measurement of that physical quantity against. Sometimes this standard object is called an artifact. In the International System of Units (SI), the only prototype remaining in current use is the International Prototype Kilogram, a solid platinum-iridium cylinder kept at the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (International Bureau of Weights and Measures) in Sèvres Francemarker (a suburb of Parismarker) that by definition is the mass of exactly one kilogram. Copies of this prototype are fashioned and issued to many nations to represent the national standard of the kilogram and are periodically compared to the Paris prototype.

Until 1960, the meter was defined by a platinum-iridium prototype bar with two scratch marks on it (that were, by definition, spaced apart by one meter), the International Prototype Metre, and in 1983 the meter was redefined to be the distance in free space covered by light in 1/299,792,458 of a second (thus defining the speed of light to be 299,792,458 meters per second).

It is widely believed that the kilogram prototype standard will be replaced by a definition of the kilogram that will define another physical constant (likely either Planck's constant or the elementary charge) to a defined constant, thus obviating the need for the prototype and removing the possibility of the prototype (and thus the standard and definition of the kilogram) changing very slightly over the years because of loss or gain of atoms.


In pathology, prototype refers to a disease, virus, etc which sets a good example for the whole category. For example, the vaccina virus is regarded as the virus prototype of poxviridae.

Advantages and disadvantages

Advantages of prototyping

  • May provide the proof of concept necessary to attract funding
  • Early visibility of the prototype gives users an idea of what the final system looks like
  • Encourages active participation among users and producer
  • Enables a higher output for user
  • Cost effective (Development costs reduced)
  • Increases system development speed
  • Assists to identify any problems with the efficacy of earlier design, requirements analysis and coding activities
  • Helps to refine the potential risks associated with the delivery of the system being developed
  • Various aspects can be tested and quicker feedback can be got from the user
  • Helps to deliver the product in quality easily
  • User interaction available in during development cycle of prototype

Disadvantages of prototyping

  • Producer might produce a system inadequate for overall organization needs
  • User can get too involved whereas the program can not be to a high standard
  • Structure of system can be damaged since many changes could be made
  • Producer might get too attached to it (might cause legal involvement)
  • Not suitable for large applications
  • Over long periods, can cause loss in consumer interest and subsequent cancellation due to a lack of a market (for commercial products)

See also


  1. Online Etymology Dictionary
  2. List of Agile Prototyping tools

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