Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Importance of Prototyping & Conceptual Design Validation

Rafael Guerrero

Towards the end of the senior design project is the Senior Design Conference, where your team will be responsible for presenting on the progress, achievements, iterations, and qualitative/quantitative data of your design solution as it has evolved over the year. At the Senior Design Conference, your project will be evaluated by your team’s efforts to produce visual and physical representations that demonstrate the appearance, function, robustness, and ingenuity of your engineering design solution. Moreover, your design solution will be assessed based on quantitative results gathered by your team from simulations and testing, and on ways in which your team uses this data to validate the design. For an academic engineering audience, this is best achieved through the testing and demonstration of a prototype of your product/design solution. While this is not the case for all projects, as some require more time and resources beyond the scope of senior design to realize, the prototyping phase is crucial in physically verifying your design concepts.

Constraints to have a qualitatively and quantitatively validated conceptual design model or prototype ready for review at the Senior Design Conference are immensely difficult to satisfy for most projects to the degree expected from professional engineering teams. Because of this, Utilitarian considerations are often crucial to project progress and prototype success toward the end of the senior design project. As defined by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, a Utilitarian Approach to design requires engineers to evaluate possible design changes and act upon the option that “provides the greatest benefits after the costs have been taken into account.”(Markkula Center, 1989) [1]. From an engineering standpoint, Utilitarianism emphasizes a deep and thorough analysis of possible harms or “costs” that could compromise the safety and effectiveness of the design solution if not acted upon.

Why prototype before the Senior Design conference?

The phase of, quite literally, piecing everything together in your design process achieves much more for your design than simply having a standing prototype. Prototype construction gives insight on the actual physical interactions between systems and can communicate potential “bugs” and necessary revisions much more tangibly and clearly than on paper. Once constructed, a prototype allows your team to gather data on the performance and functionality of your design. It also provides valuable opportunities for field testing and feedback from potential customers that cannot be determined in the lab. Finally, a prototype makes it possible for you and your team to make the proper design changes necessary to potentially deploy your design solution in your target community. Prototype construction and validation provide essential qualitative and quantitative data necessary to convey an impactful design project at the Senior Design Conference, as well as in your team’s senior thesis.

What if our team cannot feasibly construct and test a functional prototype of our design?

While many teams will not end their senior design project with a functional prototype, the senior design conference requires all design teams to visually communicate their conceptual designs. Your courses in computer aided design modeling (CAD, Solidworks), graphic design, or other forms of graphical communication should be used to sufficiently convey the form and function of your design to both technical and non-technical audiences. Even if a prototype may not be feasible to construct given the time and financial constraints of the senior design project, virtual modeling of your concepts is essential to the success of your design teams as a significant factor in team evaluations is the extent to which your team has experimentally validated your design. These quantitative validations include comprehensive finite element analysis (FEA), computational fluid dynamics (CFD), instrumentation and controls system simulation software (LabView, Simulink), building information modeling (BIM), and CAD stress analysis. Using engineering software tools is a powerful way to communicate your design concepts and produce quantitative results on simulations that help verify the potential for your design to be realized.

Additionally, there are other prototyping methods that can be used. Aesthetic prototypes, proof-of-concept mock-ups of the design solution, foam-core modeling, and additive manufacturing (3D printing) are all ways that your team may still be able to have a physical representation of your conceptual designs. While these might not necessarily be adequate models for testing, they are still helpful in giving your audience at the senior design conference a clearer idea of your design solution.

As technically-minded as prototyping and conceptual design validation may be, ethics is pronounced in the thought processes and efforts of engineers to produce as close to a final product as possible in these phases. Because these phases of the senior design project bring together all aspects and systems of your design, a single approach from “A Framework for Ethical Decision Making” may not be adequate in thinking about design decisions in this phase [2]. Instead, we will discuss here what dilemmas may arise in the prototyping and conceptual design validation phases, and what approaches were helpful for my senior design team in determining how to navigate these issues in producing and testing a functional prototype before the Senior Design Conference.



[1] “Calculating Consequences: The Utilitarian Approach to Ethics.” Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, 1 Aug. 2014.

[2] Velasquez, Manuel, et al. “A Framework for Ethical Decision Making.” Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, 1 Aug. 2015.

Jun 29, 2018