If you have an idea for an invention or new product, the most important thing you can do to see if it works is bring that product into fully realized, three-dimensional life. In its simplest form, this is what a prototype is: a physical representation of an idea, invention or product.
But how do you take something you’ve only imagined, or maybe sketched, and make it a reality. There are many steps to developing a prototype that, while not complicated, are time-consuming. However, remember that the end result is a physical realization of your invention, so the process is worth it.
Here is a comprehensive list of steps for how to develop and manufacture your prototype:
1. Make a clean line drawing of your invention
Make sure you’ve already developed your idea past the scribbled doodle on the back of a napkin or a list of features. Draw it out, imagine how it will look, how many surfaces it will have. If possible, keep all of your early drafts and drawings together in a single sketchbook.
If you have the knowledge and computer-aided design (CAD) software, you might want to make a CAD drawing as well.
Don’t forget: Date all of your drawings and first attempts. These dates may aid you in the future when declaring patent ownership.
2. Build a non-working version of your invention
Using foam, wood, metal or whatever materials you are most comfortable with, make a 3D, non-working version of your invention. This will enable you to gauge the size and form better than a simple line drawing. It doesn’t have to be perfect or look pretty, but it should resemble and function like your product as much as possible.
3. Develop a plan for how to make a working model of your invention
Spend some time thinking about how you will bring it to life. Take into account its size, function and utility. Will it be made from plastic, metal or another material? What physical traits are important? Strength, flexibility or tactile feelings such as smoothness? Will you need to make casts in order to form the pieces?
Make a comprehensive list of all of the materials you’ll need. Go over it multiple times to be sure you haven’t left anything out. When and if you decide to get quotes from a prototype vendor, they will use this list as a guide for estimating costs and labor hours.
4. Outline the functional pieces of your invention
Does your invention involve electronics of any kind? Robotic movement or repetitive motion? If so, you’ll also need to spend time outlining how these processes work. You might want to invest in a simple, over-the-counter electronic or robotic kit that can be found at most hobby stores, or you can try one like this to understand the basics of electrical engineering before proceeding.
Manufacturing Your Prototype
Depending on your access to production equipment, you might need to reach out to a prototype vendor to have your invention made. If so, here are some things to keep in mind.
When working with a vendor:
1. Have them sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA)
Before you discuss anything relating to your project or share any drawings, make sure you have the vendor sign an NDA. If you’re really concerned about protecting your idea, you might want to reach out to lawyer and ask him or her to draft a specific NDA just for you and your invention.
2. Describe your idea thoroughly
Take the time upfront to discuss your invention: what it looks like, how it works, who will use it, etc. Not only will this help the vendor provide an accurate quote; it will also help to ensure they fully understand what you want and will help them capture any details.
3. Fully review and understand the quote
Before work begins, be sure you fully understand what was quoted, including each of materials the vendor will use, the amount of time they estimate it will take to make (and the cost per hour) and if there are any revisions they expect will be included in the cost. Also, make sure there is a plan in place for when and if the vendor goes over their allotted time quote due to an unforeseen circumstance and what your options are if that happens. Don’t forget the value of shopping around; if you really want to work with a particular prototype designer or engineer who’s out of your budget, you’ll have more leverage negotiating if you can compare their quotes to others.
Making the Prototype on Your Own
Thanks to the availability and decreasing cost of 3D printers, you might be able to make a working prototype yourself. This may or may not be a viable option for you, but if you can get access to a 3D printer, it is definitely worth exploring. Here are a few things to remember:
1. Size matters
In general, 3D printers are smaller in scale and scope and, therefore, a terrific way to make smaller, handheld objects.
If your invention is bigger, you probably won’t be able to manufacture it on your own. A majority of larger prototypes are developed using a Rapid Prototyping (RP) machine. These are the kinds of machines used by the automotive and aeronautics industry.
2. You will need specific software
In order to accurately design and create your object using a 3D printer, you will need to use CAD software. The file you create should have an .STL (Standard Tessellation Language) extension. This file type breaks up the design into easily digestible elements that the 3D printer can understand.
In some cases, it may not be financially feasible for you to create a real-working prototype of your invention. Singular manufacturing as well as the manpower and materials needed are oftentimes cost-prohibitive for small-time inventors and entrepreneurs. However, an accurate and detailed line or CAD drawing (and a thoughtful business plan with the promise of significant revenue) may enable you to secure funding for the creation of a prototype.