Last updated on February 28th, 2023
By Arin Sakayan
If you are seeking to turn a brilliant idea into reality, chances are you will need a prototype to prove its functionality. This crucial step falls between design and production and is an indispensable means to improve your design. Most of all, you build a working model that demonstrates your idea’s worth.
Prototypes can be handmade or created at prototyping companies, machine shops, 3D printing firms, and other places. Regardless of how you choose to build your prototype, it is crucial to understand that you’re definitely going to need one. Whether you’re going to show it to investors, use it to get proof of concept, or improve it to find the ideal version, you’ll need a prototype to move your startup ideas forward.
Read on through to explore what a prototype is, why almost all new ideas need one, and what essential things you should consider when building your own. Plus, we will give you a step-by-step tutorial on how to make a prototype of your invention by yourself.
Before we teach you how to make a prototype, let’s define what it is in the first place. A product prototype is a model or an illustration of a product you plan to manufacture on a much larger volume and scale.
When you create your first prototype, it is going to be far from your final product. You’ll test it and figure out what you can improve. After many, many iterations, you’ll arrive at your final product ready to go to market.
Example: If you want to invent the next best-selling backpack, you can start at home, cutting cloth out yourself, figuring out how to sew all the straps and pockets together. You’ll find yourself often going to the fabric store and trying out new things to see what works. Once you’re a little closer to where you want to be, you can choose the ideal materials you want for it, then hire a professional to sew it together correctly.
As you can already tell, the prototyping process is far from mass production. Lots of things are done by hand, tested, and improved throughout the journey.
One of the main questions that comes up when you’re figuring out how to get a prototype made is its potential cost. Well, depending on your product, you can be looking at $100-$30,000 or even more for tech products. Remember that prototype manufacturing has a higher cost per individual unit than mass production because you won’t buy materials in bulk yet.
But don’t let those numbers scare you. Making a prototype is an investment that improves your chances of succeeding in the future. It simply has to be done, and your final product will be better for it.
Whether you are a startup, a booming business with a new idea, or an international conglomerate, testing out your designs with a prototype is always wise. But if you’re still debating whether it’s worth it for you or not, we put together a list of reasons why you should go for it.
Dealing with a physical product is much easier than dissecting a thought, an idea, or a mere plan on the board. You can’t put yourself in your customer’s shoes and comprehensively evaluate the product design and functionality without a prototype.
A prototype allows you to test your product in real life with real investors or customers. If you have a tangible model of your future product, you can generate authentic reactions and gather relevant info about what to improve.
Sending your product out into the market and waiting for customer reactions can be extremely scary. With a prototype, you get to test, improve, and repeat that process multiple times to create the best design, thus, making sure the market will accept it.
Prototyping can be a source of inspiration. Let’s assume that you are currently creating a remote control refrigerator, but you suddenly realize that your idea would garner more success if it were controlled by a mobile app. Now you’ll want to pivot, and it may ultimately lead you into a more successful path.
One of the main benefits of having a prototype is that you get to validate your idea. Not only do you make sure that it is buildable, but also that the market needs it. Plus, once you have a working prototype, you can use tools like prelaunch.com to dig deeper, test better, and find smarter solutions.
Crafting a prototype does not happen overnight. From sketching your ideas on paper to generating 3D models and getting them built, there are lots of essential steps that go into prototyping. If you want to know how to get an idea made into a prototype, keep reading.
Here is a step-by-step guide on how to manufacture a prototype before launching it:
The first step in creating a prototype is to build a detailed concept sketch. Start from a rough outline, then narrow it down to more precise dimensions. This sketch will be the ultimate visual representation of your main idea, so make it clear and comprehensive.
For clarity, you can generate 2 separate sketches to start with:
Tools to use: You can use a pen and paper to draw it yourself, or use platforms like Figma, Illustrator, or Sketch to create digital sketches.
Although this may be an optional step, it still adds a level of authenticity to your product. You can create your product’s digital 3D model, which will later be used for printing it.
3D printing has become widespread and popular, so you can use them to your advantage. Ultimately, a 3D printed prototype will help you, your customers, and investors visualize the product better.
Tools to use: You can use Vectary or SketchUp to create digital 3D models. As for 3D printers, you should ask around in your network. If you don’t find luck there, you can always talk to prototyping companies about your 3D printing needs.
A 3D printed model is just enough to create your “proof of concept” for simple products. However, if you have a complicated product with many mechanical or electronic parts, you will have to invent deeper features. The proof of concept does not have to be perfect. In fact, it does not even have to resemble the final product. It simply has to work to get your general idea through.
Tools to use: If you managed to build what you wanted, you’re close to having proof of concept. The last thing left to do is generate feedback and ensure customers want your product.
After sketching, designing a 3D model, and conception, it’s time to iterate your product and improve. First, you must develop a list of all assembly elements. Even if your prototype isn’t ready yet, you can still gather feedback on preliminary versions. The key is to improve with each iteration. Test our materials, different features, different designs.
Ultimately, this process is iterated until you reach a final model.
Tools to use: The only driving force behind iterations is your product development team. You can choose your own ways of testing products, but in our experience, surveys and discussion groups help tremendously.
Last but not least, here is the final step to take before you start manufacturing in larger quantities. Essentially, you will conduct a cost and feasibility analysis, parse through every prototype stage, and figure out the best possible outcome.
This process is easier to complete with the help of a manufacturer. You’ll be able to determine the impacts of specific elements on your cost and quality. What you’re looking for is the golden middle.
Talk to: Your main goal in this step is to hash out the technical and financial details to fit your creative requirements. To get there, you should work with executives in your company and those in charge of manufacturing.
There are many components and minor details that go into creating a reliable prototype. Each step carries its own weight and cannot be left out. Sketching is the initial step of getting your information out there and visible. Once you have a clear idea, you can turn it into a digital item, then create a 3D model. From there, you aim to get proof of concept.
Now, here’s the most crucial part – iteration. Trial and error is the key to discovering your ideal cost/time/quality triangle. Once you have tested out the major ideas, you are ready for production.
Note: Once you’ve made the most significant improvements, go ahead and launch. You can improve your prototype forever, but it’ll be a waste of your resources. Leave some things to the imagination, aka V2 of your product.
Now that you know the theory of how to make a prototype, let’s talk about real tips that’ll make your prototyping journey more smooth. If you haven’t done it before, you’ll need to do your homework on prototype manufacturing in general. Whether it be the creative side of finding smart solutions to problems or the technical side of minimizing manufacturing costs, you’re going to need some guidance from the pros.
Here are 5 tips to help you actually discover how to make a prototype the right way.
Commonly known as a patent attorney, an intellectual property lawyer can guide you through the process and warn you about the existence of similar products. Aside from patenting, a lawyer can also help you learn about relevant regulations and how to connect with potential investors. Overall, they’ll help mitigate potential legal risks related to your product.
The prototype process is long and tedious. This means that you will have to bring in a helping hand or two to finalize your ideas. If you think you have a million-dollar idea, you should protect it at all costs. Whether you’re building a physical product or software, all those dealing with it should sign an NDA beforehand.
3D printing has become an enormous stepping stone in cutting costs for prototyping. While owning your own 3D printer is the dream, that may be crossing the line for most small and startups companies. Many of today’s design and prototyping companies offer computer-assisted design and a 3D model of your invention — this is a comparatively low-cost alternative to getting your prototypes up and running.
When working on your startup, you’ll want to minimize your costs and be as efficient as possible. Outsourcing is an ideal option to help you get the necessary expertise for getting off the ground at an affordable price. Once you’re big enough, you can move certain functions in-house.
While you may have done all the proper paperwork and signed off on all the right lawyers, some factories may still try to copy your ideas. Make sure that you are working with reputable factories and partners to keep your ideas safe and original.
After you’ve learned how to create a prototype and actually followed through, did multiple iterations, and found the one, it’s time to test it properly. This is an essential part of product development. The principal purpose of prototype testing during the development process is to evaluate whether the idea will work in the real world.
A prototype designer has to find individuals who are ready and willing to test out the model product. Whether it be family, friends, or users from your potential target market, testing the prototype with several audiences is crucial to completing your testing process. It’ll help you learn both about your product and your users.
Try your first few prototypes yourself, and if you wouldn’t buy it, then rearrange your ideas and head back to the brainstorming process.
If the prototype passes the “would I buy it?” test, then it is time to gather constructive criticism from your social circle.
During the process of user testing, ask your testers the following questions:
Once a significant test group properly answers these questions, you can assess the gathered information and make all necessary adjustments. Keep in mind that even though the customer is always right, your ideas still hold value. Don’t simply implement every feasible recommendation.
If you want your invention to succeed, you must know the value of a prototype. It’s no surprise that it’s become so popular. After all, it helps businesses test out and improves their products before launching into the market.
This article discussed how to make a prototype, what it is, what benefits it has, plus tips on how you can get a prototype made the right way. Whether you’re creating your first ever product or you already know a thing or two about building prototypes, you can still benefit from the read. Follow our 5-step journey on how to make a prototype to improve your prototype manufacturing processes.