When you have a product idea, there are a set of steps you have to follow to bring it to life. One important part of the process is developing a prototype.

There are different ways to approach prototyping, depending on your budget and what your product is. For example, injection-molded products are detailed and precise and work well for prototypes.

3D printer prototype

A prototype is important for many reasons, including:

  • Prototypes let you evaluate your idea. What might seem like a great idea when it’s in the conceptual phase can turn out to be not so great, or not necessarily what you expected when you see it as a prototype. A prototype can also show you where changes need to be made, or what elements could potentially be discarded from the design altogether.
  • If you prototype before you begin an actual production run, it’s going to let you see how much that might cost in reality and what you can expect.
  • A prototype can be a useful tool to show to potential customers as well. It can be a good way to get them to commit to buying, even before you begin production.
  • If you’re looking for investments and funding, you can use the prototype as a way to secure this funding. Investors are going to look at you more favorably if they have something in-hand they can see and touch.
  • Before you file a patent application, you might want a prototype. Otherwise, you could spend time and money applying for patent claims that ultimately aren’t going to work as a product.

So what else should you know about creating a prototype and the process to get a prototype?

Concept Sketches

The earliest stage of creating a prototype is usually doing a sketch. With a concept sketch, you can get the basics on paper.

You can use a digital program to draw a prototype sketch, but people often find that doing it on paper is the best first step as it’s more time and cost-efficient.

Keep in mind that you should have an inventors’ logbook, which will have your hand-drawn sketches too. This will be useful to you if you’re ever in a situation where your intellectual property rights are being challenged.

In a court environment, having hand-drawn sketches can often go further than computer renderings.

Creating Digital Sketches

Once you have a hand-drawn sketch of your concept, you can move to the next phase of prototyping, which is usually the digital sketch.

A lot of engineers use the AutoCAD program so that they can do 2D and 3D sketches.

A 3D digital rendering of your product will let you see it from all angles, and it can then be used in the rapid prototyping process.

You can get a digital sketch from a manufacturer if you already have one in mind, or you can hire someone who specializes in CAD to create this rendering for you.

Rapid prototyping of differential gears
photo credit: John Biehler / Flickr

Have Your Prototype Made

When you have a prototype made using 3D printing, it’s known as rapid prototyping. In many cases, thanks to 3D printing, you can have a prototype made in as little as 24 hours.

When you are getting the actual prototype made, to make the process as fast as possible, you should try to keep the design simple and straightforward. There will be time to make it more complex down the line, but you don’t have to be overly complex with the initial prototype.

You can also make a prototype with less expensive materials than what you will actually be using when you’re in the manufacturing phase.

After the Prototype

Once you’ve had a physical prototype made the real work begins. First, use the physical prototype as a way to look for flaws in your design, and also places where you could make improvements. Once you’ve gone over the prototype and looked for flaws and improvements, you can start to seek a patent.

After you have a product prototype that’s exactly how you want it, you can start looking for manufacturers if you don’t have one already.

Do keep in mind that a lot of manufacturers will offer free 3D printing and samples that you can use during the testing phase.

The prototyping phase is valuable, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. What you need from a prototype is a general idea of what your product will look and feel like before you move further in the development process.