Prototyping is an integral part of the new product development process and plays a key role in turning a good idea into a successful product. James Dyson famously had to undergo 5,127 prototype iterations to perfect his idea of the bagless vacuum cleaner.
As a first time entrepreneur or inventor, the process of turning your idea into a prototype could feel daunting, and rightly so, the world of product development and manufacturing is complex. Therefore, in this article, we go over the steps you need to take in order to turn your idea into an actual physical prototype. Everything from how an idea is turned from a simple sketch into a 3D design concept which is then further engineered into 3D CAD files ready to manufacture your invention prototype.
In this article:
4 Steps to go from idea to prototype
Common Manufacturing processes
Types of Prototypes
Cost of manufacturing a prototype
4 STEPS FROM IDEA TO PROTOTYPE
1. Creating a sketch of your idea
Creating a sketch of your idea helps put your thoughts onto paper and describes how the product would look and work like. Sketching can be really helpful in communicating your vision to other people and for you to further improve upon your original idea.
Sketching helps in communicating your ideas and requirements to our engineers. It ensures that we are on the same page with regards to the product’s function, materials, parts and any other specifications. Even a rough sketch along with a brief description of the idea is sufficient to get the conversation started.
2. To Patent or to not Patent?
Often, inventors rush to get a patent as soon as they have an idea they think has potential to be successful. However, this is not always the right approach. In the initial stages, inventors are faced with the choice on whether to invest the limited funds they have on a patent or a prototype. The answer to that question is a lot more complex.
A patent doesn’t automatically protect your idea from getting copied. Cases of large corporations copying an inventor's patented idea are not unheard of. The inventor usually doesn’t have the funding of a large corporation to carry out a legal battle of protecting his idea despite having a patent.
Apart from that, in the initial stages the idea is not proven to actually work. Therefore, if you find out after patenting, that your idea is not feasible, then the thousands of dollars you spent in patenting go to waste.
The answer to whether you should patent or not in the initial stages differs based on who you ask. In our opinion, (as engineers not legal professionals) in 95% of the ideas that we see, there is no need for patenting in the initial stages. It’s better to invest those resources in prototyping and perfecting the functionality of your idea. Once the idea is proven to be feasible, that’s when you should think about spending thousands on patenting. A provisional patent is a more feasible alternative to complete patent which inventors can consider.
3. Find the right type of engineers or designers
Once you have a sketch or a description of your product idea ready, then it will be turned into a 3D design concept by our product designers. The design concept or virtual prototype showcases exactly how the product would look like, however, it is not yet ready for manufacturing.
Once a design concept is finalized, it is handed over to engineers to turn the concept into 3D CAD files for manufacturing. If it is an electronics product, then a custom PCB is also designed by an electronics engineer. Similarly, in case of textile based products, a tech pack containing the fabric cut and sew patterns is created. Therefore, it is important to know which type of designers and engineers you need to hire for your specific product.
It is important to find designers who also have manufacturing knowledge. This ensures that your product is not only appealing but can also be manufactured in a cost effective way with minimal defects. This is a common pitfall, where entrepreneurs hire artists to design their product resulting in products that are too costly or impractical to manufacture.
There are several ways to find a suitable product designer or engineer such as through online portfolios or freelancing websites, or through online directories, networking via LinkedIn or from local universities( if on a tight budget).
At Outdesign, we have some of the top engineers & designers along with access to world-class manufacturing facilities to turn your ideas into prototypes. Click here to get in touch with us to discuss your project further.
4. Finding a prototype manufacturing company
Once you have the 3D CAD files of your product ready, then it's time to get your prototype manufactured. When it comes to manufacturing a prototype, there are various places that can help you depending on the type of product and its complexity. There are 3D printing shops, machine shops, makerspaces, manufacturers and professional prototyping companies. You need to find the option that best suits your needs. We have a more detailed article about prototype companies here.
If it’s a simple plastic part, then 3D printing shops can help you create its 3D CAD design as well as manufacture it. But if your idea is a bit more complex, like a consumer product and would require professional designers and engineers, then a product development company like ours would be the best suited.
COMMON PROTOTYPE MANUFACTURING PROCESSES
There are a large number of manufacturing processes for various materials, finishes and quantities. It is not practical for an average inventor to learn about all of them. Therefore, we have listed some of the most common ones used for prototyping and low volume manufacturing, especially for plastic parts.
Since a lot of prototypes can be used in making products perfect, the manufacturing process chosen should be cost-efficient and have a rapid turnaround time.
Here are some of the commonly used rapid prototype manufacturing technologies:
1. 3D Printing
3D printing is essentially a process where material is deposited layer by layer to form the complete object. To have a design 3D printed, you need STL files. 3D printing is a great process for quick turnaround of functional prototypes but the surface finish is not as good as production grade parts. Though the parts can undergo post processing to provide a great surface finish. There are various types of 3D printing techniques suited for various applications.
Stereolithography(SLA)- A high accuracy prototyping technique capable of producing products with tight tolerances and relatively smooth surface finish. SLA is especially suited for prototyping of small detailed parts as well as creating appearance models after post processing.
Selective laser sintering( SLS)- SLS is competent in producing strong functional parts with accuracy. SLS can help produce complex designs with no need of an additional support structure. It can be used for functional prototyping as well as custom or short run manufacturing. Although the surface finish of the part is usually rough.
Fused deposition modelling( FDM)- A cheap and fast way of producing prototypes. With the low cost of machine and material, it can be used to produce low cost, basic proof of concept prototypes. But, the parts produced are of low quality and accuracy compared to other techniques.
Digital light processing( DLP)- A very similar technique to SLA, it is a fast and an accurate way of producing complicated design prototypes. But, the parts cannot be left out in the sun or they will degrade. Moreover, it is a very expensive method of producing prototypes.
2. CNC machining
CNC machining creates parts by selectively removing material from a block, just the opposite of 3D printing. CNC machining can produce parts with high precision and low tolerances over the wide range of materials like metal, wood, plastic etc. The surface finish produced is better as compared to 3D printing. However, the cost is higher for manufacturing single or few units, it is more cost effective beyond 20-40 parts.
3. Vacuum Casting/Silicone Molding
Vacuum casting can help produce units faster and at a low cost. Versatile mold shape and sizes help in producing a variety of shape and design with exceptional surface finish. Although, additional cost and resource might be required to produce the final product. It is suited for creating production grade prototypes in small batches.
4. Laser Cutting
Laser cutting technology that uses a high-powered laser( CO2 laser) to cut through a sheet of material to achieve the desired shape. The laser cutting process is highly accurate and yields excellent cut quality in a variety of materials like metals, fabrics, wood and some plastics. Due to being cut from a sheet of material, there is an inherent limitation to the complexity of parts that can be made using laser cutting. Unlike CNC machining, laser cutting is cost effective at low as well as higher volume.
TYPES OF PROTOTYPES
In the process of going from idea to mass production, there are various types of prototypes that you will have to build at the different stages of the product development process. Each prototype has a purpose and it is important to understand which prototype needs to be built at which stage.
Some of the types of prototypes are:
Proof of concept prototype: This is one of the first prototypes you will build and is used to assess the feasibility of your idea. A POC is not high quality or very refined, it’s just the bare minimum required to prove that an idea actually works. It can be made using household materials, hand tools or low cost 3D printing.
Looks-like prototype: Looks-like or Appearance prototypes are non-functional and are used when you are trying to assess the appearance/aesthetics of the product. They are helpful in studying the market response, demonstrating the vision and gaining feedback about the product design.
Works-like prototype: Works-like or Functional prototypes as the name suggests are used to test and refine the functionality of a product. They may not have the aesthetics of the final product but provide the full functionality.
Engineering prototype: it is this prototype in which both functionality and appearance come together. This close representation of the final product helps in getting investors as well as getting customer feedback on the product.
HOW MUCH DOES A PROTOTYPE COST
If you are making a very rough proof of concept prototype from household materials, the prototype can cost next to nothing. If you engage the services of a large product development firm, the prototype can cost as much as $500k. There is no simple answer to the question of how much a prototype costs. It depends on the purpose of your prototype, product complexity, materials and more. To get an estimate of how much your prototype would cost, shoot us a message and describe your requirements, we’ll get back to you.