Open Innovation

The Best Pre-Prototype Strategies

By Terri Marion
Open Innovation

Following these strategies will change how your company works with its outsourcing partners.

The following article is Part II of “The Power of Pre-Prototype

Although neither a universally acceptable definition nor a dominant framework for the pre-prototype stages of the new product development (NPD) process exists, elements of the best projects—collectively known as “most effective practices” (as distinguished from “best practices”)—are beginning to evolve. Of these strategies, four of them are fundamentally changing the way that companies work together to achieve success by leveraging the collective strength of teamwork between OEM’s and their outsourcing partners.

Collaborative Culture

One of the most important requirements for accelerating innovation during pre-prototype is an open, collaborative culture for knowledge creation. Open collaboration hinges on individuals’ willingness to share their ideas, beliefs, and gut-feelings. The degree in which team members feel “safe” and willing to share is based on five factors of a collaborative culture:

  • Mutual trust. One needs to trust the person with whom you are sharing your ideas, not embarrass you.
  • Active empathy. In this case, empathy is the ability to share the other person’s pain and frailties.
  • Access to help. The experts in the organization must be willing to share and help rather than protect and hoard their knowledge.
  • Lenience in judgment. Harsh, critical judgment or laughter at new ideas discourages sharing openly.
  • Courage. Individuals must be unafraid of experimentation, failure, or of exposing their ideas to others scrutiny.

To further encourage collaborative behavior, many organizations are investing in a variety of collaborative workspaces that encourage a higher degree of people-to-people contact. Collaborative workspaces are interconnected environments in which participants in dispersed locations can access and interact with each other just as they would within a single location or entity. Most models allow individuals to overcome space and time differentials, and encourage not only work progress through creativity and innovation but also social connection and building a sense of community.

Open Innovation

According to professor and author Henry Chesbrough, “Open Innovation is the use of purposive inflows and outflows of knowledge to accelerate internal innovation, and expand the markets for external use of innovation, respectively.”1 The central idea behind open innovation is that companies can no longer afford to rely entirely on their own research for inventions and innovations but should instead collaborate, buy or license them from other companies. Likewise, knowledge not being used for a company’s business should be made available outside of the company. Once adopted, open innovation causes organizational boundaries to become permeable and encourage the combining of company resources with external resources.

Open Innovation and sharing ideas in new product development
Figure 1. Open Innovation involves the sharing of ideas

The concept of open innovation is challenging, and it is changing the way that OEM’s outsource to contract manufacturers. In the past, outsourcing decisions were made on the basis of whether the particular operation was seen as a strategic asset (and thus kept in-house) or as a commodity (and thus subject to outsourcing). While this traditional view took many forms, the outsourcing arrangement was generally seen as a supplier support relationship with the goal being to make the customer organization more focused, efficient and cost effective. This closed innovation paradigm viewed the company as an independent entity, separate and self-sufficient. As such, a company’s research and development activities and proprietary information were strictly internal assets guarded from external influence.

Open-innovation outsourcing relationships however, tend to take the form of collaborative partnerships or alliances with ample cooperation and co-dependency. These outsourcing partnerships are formed in the pursuit of mutually beneficial goals and added business value and are characterized by high levels of mutual trust and low contractual/hierarchal control. Outsourcing partnerships entail common objectives and goal symmetry, and both customer and contract manufacturer are responsible for adding value to the relationship. The open innovation paradigm is based on the notion of using both internal and external knowledge to accelerate innovation.

Communities of Practice (CoPs)

Though an age-old concept, the term “community of practice” is of relatively recent use, as a growing number of organizations and companies focus on this tool of knowledge and learning to accelerate innovation. CoPs are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.2 Examples of CoPs can include a tribe of aborigines trying to survive; a band of musicians exploring new forms of expression; a group of Automotive engineers working on similar problems; a clique of students defining their identity in school; a network of doctors exploring new surgical techniques; or a gathering of first-time managers helping each other learn to delegate responsibility.

Not all communities may be considered CoPs. Three distinguishing characteristics are crucial:

  1. Domain. The identity of the CoP is defined by a shared domain of interest, an implied commitment to the domain, and a shared competency that distinguishes its members from other people.
  2. Community. Members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information in pursuit of their interest in the domain. The interaction of the members of the group is essential in forming a CoP.
  3. Practice. Members of the CoP are practitioners who share a repertoire of resources—experiences, stories, tools, problem solving methodology, etc.—and through sharing, the community experiences grow.

The benefits of CoPs are as strongly correlated to the acceleration of innovation at the front end of the NPD process as effective internal innovation teams.3 CoPs help bring together people who might not encounter each other in regular work life.

Benefits include:

  • Peer-to-pear help in problem solving
  • Developing and verifying best practices
  • Creating new knowledge within the community
  • Upgrading and distributing knowledge in daily use
  • Fostering unexpected new ideas through the process of building upon existing knowledge

“Front-Loading” Problem Solving and Concept Testing

“Front-loading” problem solving is defined as “a strategy that seeks to improve development performance by shifting the identification and solving of problems to earlier phases of a product development process.”4 The focus of this approach is on lead-time reduction through rapid problem solving.

Contract manufacturers who invest in internal three-dimensional rapid prototyping capabilities enable their customers to proceed quickly though the iterative problem solving that occurs during pre-prototype. Rapid prototyping radically accelerates the opportunity-idea-concept engine of front-end innovation by allowing design engineers to obtain in a few hours or days what would have taken weeks to produce by traditional, tooled means.

Rapid prototypes help all team members—from design engineers and managers to marketers, investors and even customers—understand the design concept and how it works. Seeing and feeling the concept as it evolves, especially when executed as closely as possible to the final product, serves many purposes:

  • Helps identify design opportunities and flaws. Development teams are more apt to comprehend problem areas with a prototype than with a drawing. Companies that include a focus group of end users in this early product evaluation also gather valuable customer feedback early enough to incorporate it in their preliminary designs.
  • Allows for comparison of multiple design alternatives. Rapid prototyping allows teams to gain the speed advantages of proceeding on multiple activities and/or paths in parallel. If design engineers think of alternate ways to solve a problem, rapid prototypes can be made of each option rather than presupposing the best solutions and modeling only one.
  • Clarifies communication across miles and disciplines. Companies often use prototypes to tie together remote design and production facilities or to ensure that sister facilities are equally informed. In some cases, the various parties involved in the design process may disagree on the direction a product should take. Prototypes help to bring debates regarding relative advantages and disadvantages to light in a practical way before serious roadblocks develop.
  • Assists in project management activities. Rapid prototypes are often produced after each early design iteration and sent to remote stakeholders for evaluation and feedback. This practice allows for rapid decision making at the earliest stages of the NPD process— sometimes before a company has officially acknowledged the project.

In addition to rapid prototyping, most contract manufacturers employ manufacturing simulation and analysis tools to assist their customers in rapid, front-end problem solving. For injection molded products, mold simulation software and the application of scientific molding principles are used to validate the manufacturability of design concepts well before investment in production tooling is made. For metal forming, finite element analysis (FEA) is the most common method of simulating forming operations to ensure that a proposed design will produce defect-free parts.


  1. Chesbrough, H. W. (2003). Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating And Profiting from Technology. Harvard Business Review Press.
  2. Wenger-Trayner, E. A. (April 15, 2015). Communities of practice – a brief introduction. Wenger-Trayner. Retrieved from
  3. Peter A. Koen, H. M. (May-June, 2014). Managing the Front End of Innovation—Part II. Research-Technology Management .
  4. Fujimoto, S. T. (2000). The Effect of “Front-Loading” Problem-Solving on Product. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 17, 128-142.

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About The Author

Terri Marion, medical segment marketing manager, Bi-Link, medtech