How to make Invention Prototypes - Prototyping Resources

Introduction to Prototyping

A prototype is a model of your invention that a user can interact with. The prototype could be electronic software or literal hardware. Building a prototype is an essential step in the inventing process. Serious inventors always build prototypes. Until you have built a prototype you will be clueless about the true merits of your invention. A prototype enables you to receive user input and perfect your design. It is virtually impossible to begin a conversation with a potential licensee unless you have something to show. Generally you'll build several prototypes. The crude prototype is a model that enables you to get a better feel for the basic premise of your invention. A working prototype is something that allows users to try out some or all of the features of the invention. A final prototype is a model that looks and functions almost like a manufactured product. More...

Resources

  • Custom Circuit Boards - Prototype PCB manufacturing company that specializes in faster turns for customers who need rapid prototyping capabilities. Quick turn multilayer PCBs (rigid and rigid-flex) are also available. Contact: 888-906-6331 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
  • Creative Edge Products is dedicated to helping inventors build a great product by providing product development, industrial design and rapid prototyping services. Creative Edge can transform a drawing on a napkin or a detailed description of your idea into a fully functional and aesthetically pleasing product prototype. For more information call 512-807-9771 or email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
  • Piper Precision provides a wide range of machining and cutting capabilities - prototype and manufacture high quality parts in all types of materials. Located in Pearland TX. Call: 281-482-8065, email Antonio Gambini: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or Danny Quigley: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
  • Plastic Resource Group provides prototypes for every need including virtual prototypes, early stage concepts, prototypes that demonstrate functionality and final prototypes that are cosmetically accurate and engineered for manufacturing. Contact This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or call 620-230-0180
  • T2 Design Corporation was featured developing two products on ABC's "American Inventor". Services include product design, prototyping, patent searching, development of mechanisms and electronics, engineering drawings for production, manufacturer sourcing and production liaison. T2 Design is "A" rated by the Better Business Bureau. Phone: 310-656-9922
  • For info on company listings click here.

Prototyping Supplies

  • McMaster-Carr - If it's available anywhere, McMaster-Carr probably has it in stock. Fantastic service and an outrageously broad selection of materials, parts and products... modeling clay, gears, chain drives, sheet plastic, grease, electric motors, pumps, tools of all kinds and much, much more.
  • MacRae's Blue Book - Find components and service providers.
  • ThomasNet.com - Find nearly any component that you might need to build a prototype. Lists of local service providers.

Prototyping Overview

A prototype is a model of your invention that a user can interact with. The prototype could be electronic software or literal hardware. Building a prototype is an essential step in the inventing process. Serious inventors always build prototypes.

Until you have built a prototype you will be clueless about the true merits of your invention. A prototype enables you to receive user input and perfect your design. It is virtually impossible to begin a conversation with a potential licensee unless you have something to show

Generally you'll build several prototypes. The crude prototype is a model that enables you to get a better feel for the basic premise of your invention. A working prototype is something that allows users to try out some or all of the features of the invention. A final prototype is a model that looks and functions almost like a manufactured product.

Crude Prototype

You should build a crude prototype on your own to help you gain a better understanding of your invention.

  1. Write a description of what the invention will do.

  2. Make a list of the most important features.

  3. Draw a picture of how it will look.

  4. Build a model any way you can (on the cheap)

Think about products that do similar things and items that have a similar look. Walk the aisles of hardware stores, mass merchants etc. Look for items that incorporate one or more aspects of your invention. Go to arts and craft and hobby stores to find materials. If you need specialty materials or parts you'll have a good chance of finding them online at McMaster-Carr (www.mcmaster.com). McMaster-Carr is an amazing resource.

It doesn't matter what materials you use. You can build the prototype with cardboard, duct tape and bailing wire. You can cut up parts from existing products and glue them together.

The crude prototype does not need to be a working model. Its purpose is simply to help you think deeply about your invention and how it will function. This is not a beauty contest. Ugly is ok.

If there is no way for you to build even a crude prototype then you should do your best to draw detailed pictures and write an extensive description of your invention. Pretend the invention exists and write an instruction manual for it. Describe how someone will use it. Include pictures whenever possible. Don't worry if you can't draw well.

Once you've gone though this exercise the odds are good that you'll think of a number of ways to improve your invention. Be sure to keep a record of everything you're doing in your inventor's journal.

Working Prototype

As the name implies a working prototype actually works. A user can turn its knobs, squeeze its handles and so on. The working prototype doesn't need to perform as well as a production product – however, it should be able to perform some real world functions. This prototype will help you further improve the design of the invention. Even more important, you can use a working prototype in surveys to confirm the market.

You may need help in building a working prototype. Finding the right kind of help (inexpensive and good) requires a little creative thinking. What kinds of technologies and materials does your working prototype require? These technologies and materials do not need to be the same as those that will be used in the final product. For example, wood or metal or fiberglass or cloth can substitute for different kinds of plastic. A hard-wired actuation switch might be used to represent a wireless one.

Now consider the kinds of people and businesses that work with the materials and technologies your working prototype will require.

Ask friends, family and acquaintances if they know anyone who could build a working model of something like a _________. The something you name should use the same materials and technology as your invention. If your invention is a cordless radial saw you might say, "something like a cordless drill." The term "cordless drill" is a cover for your real invention, a cordless radial saw.

Using a cover will enable you to talk to a lot of people openly, without the need for confidentiality agreements. Confidentiality agreements slow down the development process tremendously. A good cover will enable you to identify the right sources quickly. Once you've found the right source you should have them sign a confidentiality agreement before discussing the details of your invention.

Ideally you'll find someone who has a lot of technical expertise appropriate to your invention and… enjoys taking on prototyping projects as a sideline. Keep in mind that at this stage you do not need to make something that represents how your invention will actually be made. You simply want something that will come close to working like your invention. Like the crude prototype the working prototype does not need to win a beauty contest.

A good starting place to look for help is with a "pattern maker" or "model maker". Pattern or model makers make prototypes that eventually end up as injection molded or cast parts. Sometimes they'll take on more complex projects. Search for these people in business to business yellow pages or at Thomasnet online. Thomasnet.

If you can't find that special low-cost someone then you'll need to take a more expensive and traditional approach. The steps are to:

1 Find an engineer/designer with a background in the field of your invention. The Thomasnet is a good place to start.

2. Sign a disclosure agreement and show your crude prototype and other information. Explain that you are not yet looking to have a final design for manufacturing - you only want a working model. Discuss the options of prototyping methods and materials. Get quotes (3 different sources) on how much it will cost for a set of basic drawings you can take to prototype makers. If appropriate the drawings should be in a 2D format (3D drawings cost a lot more). Be very clear that you do not need a final design, simply a working model.

3. With your drawings in hand go and visit prototype makers. Have the makers sign disclosure agreements before discussing the details of your invention. Again you should try to get 3 quotes whenever possible.

The people you are meeting to develop your working prototype can also help you build a final prototype that's ready for manufacturing. If you're short on cash you should find ways to raise the money to pay for the services you need. Design engineers and prototype makers meet hundreds of inventors each year and every inventor thinks he or she is sitting on a gold mine. Despite your fervent belief that the prototype maker would feel lucky if you offered a piece of the action, the odds are 200:1 that he'll feel just the opposite.

You might also consider working with an industrial designer. Industrial designers are to product design what architects are to buildings. Industrial design is the difference between a Dell PC and an Apple iMac, the difference between a Buick and a Jaguar. An industrial designer can manage the entire development process for you. So why not use one? Money.

Right now you simply need something that will do the job. If you were looking for a car you'd buy a used beat-up one that's advertised as "good transportation".

Industrial design makes a huge difference when your product is being offered to consumers in a retail environment. But at this stage of the game it's overkill, like using a sledgehammer as a fly swatter. With that understood, if you want to find an industrial designer, a good place to start is with "ID" magazine of industrial design (available at most bookstores) and online at IDSA.org. You can also find industrial designers at Thomasnet.

If you can't afford to hire others and you can't raise the money, then you'll need to do the job yourself.

Be careful when searching for help using the term "prototype." You will find many services that offer "rapid prototyping." This is not what you want. While rapid prototyping is a very cool technology, it is expensive and unwarranted for most independent inventors. Rapid prototyping takes a 3-dimensional CAD (Computer Aided Design) drawing and turns it into a 3-D part that you can hold in your hands. The cost for a 3-D drawing and part might typically range between $10,000 and $50,000.

Following are descriptions of some common prototyping technologies. Sources for these technologies and services can also be found at Thomasnet.com.

Casting – Casting creates a part from a liquid material that subsequently hardens. Casting is done in both plastic and metal. All casting begins with an exact model of the part to be produced.

Silicone Mold Casting – Silicone rubber is poured over a model and cured. The model is cut out of the hardened silicone rubber, leaving behind an exact impression - a mold. The mold can then be filled with plastic resins or wax to create final plastic parts or wax forms for investment casting. Model makers and pattern makers make silicone molds.

Investment Casting – A wax form is covered in plaster. The wax is baked out of the plaster and molten metal – aluminum, bronze, stainless steel, zinc or other alloy – is poured in.

Machining – Machining creates a part by removing material. The material may be rigid foam, metal, plastic or wood. Lathes, milling machines and grinders are all used in machining operations. This work is done by a machine shop.

Metal Fabricating – Bending, cutting and folding of metal is performed a short-run job shop. The shop will also perform simple assembly operations

Plastic Fabricating – Sheets of plastic can be cut, bent and vacuum formed by plastic fabricators. Fabricators will also perform simple assembly operations.

Sculpting – Old world techniques are alive and well. This is the best way to create ergonomic shapes.

Computer Aided Prototyping:

Laser Cutting – Cutting precise shapes from sheets of metal is done by laser cutting. 2D CAD (Computer Aided Design) drawings are necessary.

Wire EDM (Electrical Discharge Machining) – A block of steel can be cut in a precise shape via wire EDM. 2D CAD (Computer Aided Design) drawings are necessary.

Solid Modeling – Solid modeling uses 3D CAD to create a virtual prototype that can be viewed on a computer screen from any angle, including from inside out. The 3D CAD file created for solid modeling can be used to generate an actual part you can hold in your hands via rapid prototyping.

Photorealistic Modeling – If you want to imagine what a final product would look like then you'll use photorealistic modeling to create a photographic quality skin for your design.

Rapid Prototyping aka 3D Printing – While rapid prototyping technologies differ greatly, all of them require a 3D CAD file to create a 3D part. Read intro to 3D printing here.

Stereolithography (SLA) – A model is created one layer at a time as a laser beam moves across a bath of liquid resin. The laser's movements are guided by a 3D CAD program. SLA enables a model to be made with high resolution because each layer can be very thin. This means that handwork to finish the part is less than with other rapid prototyping technologies. SLA parts are not used directly as working prototypes because SLA resins are relatively brittle and weak. To make a working prototype a silicone mold is made from the SLA model and then plastic or metal copies (investment casting) are produced.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) – Instead of using liquid resin SLS uses powdered material - plastics, ceramics, waxes and certain metals – to create a prototype part. After the laser beam melts one layer of powder the residual powder is removed and a fresh layer is spread to create the next layer. Layer after layer is fused, one on top of the other. A prototype part created with SLS can be made stronger since materials closer to actual production materials can be used. If made of wax (or ceramic) an SLS part could be used directly for investment casting; if made of metal it could be used as a mold to create multiple plastic or wax parts.

Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM) – LOM uses sheets of material rather than resin or powder. The material, called "foil", could be plastic, paper or metal. Once the laser cuts a sheet another sheet is laid on top and bonded to the previously cut sheet.

Direct Shell Production Casting (DSPC) Soligen's unique and proprietary DSPC prototyping method creates a ceramic mold for cast metal parts. Ceramic powder is "printed" and bonded one layer at a time.

Final Prototype

A final prototype or manufacturing prototype is a replica of the product that will be introduced to the market. The final prototype may use different materials and be made with different machines and processes, but it looks and functions exactly like a production unit. It conforms to drawings that will be used to manufacture the product in mass quantities. A primary reason to create a final prototype is to insure that all of the parts fit together as planned prior to finalizing production tooling.

A last step prior to full-scale production is called pilot production. This step may also be called prototype manufacturing. Products made in pilot production may be used for extensive field testing. Pilot production uses short run manufacturing technologies and assembly methods.

The additional expense of refining the design for manufacturing and commercial appeal can be substantial. However, the investment in professional engineering and product design is well worth it. Cost savings from a properly designed product are significant and manufacturers will not tell you how to design your product for lowest cost manufacturing (read the chapter on manufacturing to learn more about this). Industrial design gives a product shelf appeal and can mean commercial success or failure. The right time to hire a manufacturing engineer and an industrial designer is prior to committing to a final design.

If you plan to license your invention then you will probably never create a final prototype. In some ways you benefit by creating a prototype that is somewhat crude and that cannot be mistaken for a final product. Most companies have a "look" that they like to achieve for their products and will want your invention to conform to that look. Also, the expectations for a prototype are not as high as for a final product – with a prototype you can explain away problems that would be unacceptable in a final product.

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Comments (13)add comment
0
Sitting on the proto-type sideline.
written by Gregory Baker , June 04, 2014

As an artist and a tinkerer, I have had many great ideas in my life and like many others, have thought I was sitting on a goldmine. While sitting on the sidelines "thinking" of these great ideas other people eventually brought these ideas to life and some are still selling very strongly. Most have been products for targeted industries. Now that I'm actually taking a few of my newer ideas to the proto-typing stage I am finding it extremely difficult to even spend money with some suppliers that all claim they work with people in the proto-typing area. Even trying to purchase something they already make and supply such as a spring. I could use some existing products to build around a particular item and I find it almost impossible to get simple items like that. Very frustrating, short and rude suppliers offering no help at all even if I'm trying to spend money. Hopefully some of your leads here may change that. Good article.
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Need a Prototype or Engineering Services?
written by TechGuru12 , May 16, 2014

Check out Talos X (www.talosx.com). They are an engineering services company that works closely with entrepreneurs and start-ups to help build prototypes and IP strategies. Best group of guys that I have ever worked with... very personable and accommodating too!
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...
written by ammara , March 26, 2014

your ideas are very good.thanks for sharing.some resources are new for me.i like it.
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To: Tom
written by Malik , January 14, 2014

They can't take your idea if it is patented. If they want to benefit from your product then who ever you are presenting it to has to accept it as your idea.
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Great info here
written by Julian , January 14, 2014

Thanks for sharing the resources. Some of them I haven't seen before. i will try some out before the next time I'm prototyping something. Thanks!
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...
written by led light from china , November 11, 2013

In addition, from a user standpoint a tradeoff can be made between efficiency and color rendering by adjusting the monochromatic to PC-LED driving ratio.
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Good
written by Saurabh , February 28, 2013

Exhaustive information on the subject. Thanks.
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can i trust them not to take my idea
written by Tom , January 19, 2013

I have 3 things I want proto types for, how do I know they will not dump it and then come back and make it them self?
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prototype manufacturer
written by tina , December 26, 2012

we are a prototype manufacturer in china,such as CNC plastic and metal prototype,metal sheet prototype,SLS/SLA prototype,turning,milling,design service.
With good quality and fast delivery time 3-5days.
If any one need help,pls feel free to contact me.

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don't get it
written by andrew johnson , September 20, 2012

I don't get it, what's your point?
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CPG(close power Generator), Low-rated comment [Show]
0
But do you need a prototype?
written by Lisa , December 03, 2011

great list of prototype building resources! but a lot of people overlook the first step of understanding whether you need a prototype and what you are looking to achieve with it. different intentions will lead to different types of prototypes. Also don't under estimate your ability to create a prototype yourself, or with the help of local tradesman. In many cases, this would be enough. Check out Invention prototype, http://www.inventions-handbook...otype.html
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New Prototype
written by Gary Neal , May 19, 2011

I was talking to some buddies of mine who helped design the prototype for lock washers. It's pretty cool stuff, and super interesting how prototypes are designed, and then finally come to fruition into a product.
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