Rock West Composites is a Salt Lake City company that, among other things, provides carbon fiber prototypes for customers looking to build new parts or complete products. Prototyping serves the vital purpose of allowing engineers to test their ideas before committing to them. It is a practice that manufacturers and fabricators have been engaged in for hundreds of years.
The interesting thing about prototyping is that different engineers will want to look at different things. As a general rule, prototyping is utilized to:
- test performance
- determine tolerance limits
- estimate production costs
- implement experimental ideas and features.
Beyond the generic guidelines, engineers use prototypes to test very specific parameters. The best way to understand the whole thing is to look at a real-life scenario. A good example is a project detailed by the Power Electronics website in a July 2018 post.
Building a High-Altitude UAV
Scientists have spent the better part of the last 40 years trying to develop high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that can fly perpetually. There has been no shortage of limitations that have kept them from realizing their dreams. However, they are getting closer. A case in point is a prototype vehicle known as the High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite (HAPS) built by UAVOS Inc.
HAPS is intended to be a UAV that can occupy space in altitudes too low for satellites but too high for the practical use of manned aircraft. Should the company succeed in achieving its goals, HAPS could eventually be used for a wide range of civil and military applications.
Their most recent prototype performed just as expected. The solar-powered vehicle took to the skies in an extended mission intended to push its capabilities to the limits. Engineers hoped to learn several things about the prototype:
- Battery Capacity – HAPS is primarily a solar-powered vehicle. However, there are times it must rely on batteries to stay aloft. Engineers wanted to test battery capacity and range to better understand how long they can keep the vehicle in the air.
- Vehicle Performance – Aircraft of all kinds have to be able to perform in a variety of weather conditions. Engineers were not quite sure how HAPS would do in high wind conditions, so that is something they paid close attention to.
- Electronic Performance – If HAPS is to be useful in the future, it must carry payloads consisting of technologically advanced electronics that can collect and send back vital data. So in addition to testing the aircraft itself, engineers also wanted to test data gathering electronics.
- Scalability – an important part of prototyping is looking at the scalability of the project at hand. This was something that concerned the HAPS engineers. Now they believe that they have overcome the scalability limits observed in previous prototypes.
- Financial Viability – Right now, the costs of building an entire fleet of UAVs is rather prohibitive. One of the goals of HAPS is to see if the vehicle can pay for itself through a combination of lower construction costs and commercial marketability. Project leaders believe they are on the right track, especially since the cost of high-capacity batteries has been coming down in recent years.
It should be obvious that the HAPS project would never get off the ground (no pun intended) without a solid prototyping plan in place. A project of this magnitude absolutely relies on prototypes to direct research and development. But prototyping is not reserved only for those high-tech projects like HAPS. Prototyping is equally valuable to companies of all sizes looking to test new designs leading up to full production.