How to Make a Prototype: A Guide for Inventors And Product Designers

how to make a prototype product development patent design

It seems human innovation will never run out of ideas.

The U.S Patent Office routinely receives over half a million patent applications every year, and the number of submissions isn't slowing down any time soon.

While the USPO doesn't insist on a prototype when processing an application, it certainly helps your cause. 

So, if you're serious about bringing your unique idea to market, here's your guide on why and how to make a prototype.

What Is a Prototype Exactly?

In the simplest terms, a product prototype is a single example of something you want to produce en masse in the long run. 

It's a tangible three-dimensional representation of an idea. Building a prototype is one of the most exciting and creative parts of the product design process. It’s highly rewarding to see your concept come to life and is the first step towards testing it out in real situations.

There’s a good chance that your first working prototype will differ vastly from the final product. This could be due to material constraints and practicalities, but it’s usually because your idea simply got better as you went along.

Keep reading for more advice on how to get an idea made into a prototype product.

Why You Should Build a Prototype

This evolutionary process is one of the main reasons why building a prototype is so important. 

These are some more of the advantages you'll reap when you create prototype samples early on in the design process:

You Can Get an Idea of the User Experience

When you have a tangible product in front of you, it’s easier to see how it works. You can more easily anticipate user difficulties or objections when your idea isn’t just a theory on a page.

You may encounter some flaws in your reasoning along the way and combat these before presenting your ideas to prospective investors or manufacturers.

Early Detection of Production Issues

While designing your prototype, you may encounter some flaws in your reasoning along the way.

Your innovations may look fantastic on paper, but are they practical in the real world? A prototype will soon reveal possible production hiccups along the way.

In this way, a prototype helps you iron out any design issues before you spend unnecessary funds sending a faulty concept into production.

Discovery of Better Materials

During the creation of your prototype, you could discover some cost-saving alternatives in the materials needed.

For example, you may have been set on using metal to create your product, only to find out that plastic works just as well - at a lower cost. 

It's a Type of Market Research

When you show a prototype of your product to a prospective customer, you can use their comments and suggestions to fine-tune your design before launching into full production. 

You can also gauge their reactions upon first seeing it as an indication of how well other customers are likely to view it.

A Prototype Can Spark New Ideas

Building your prototype is a creative process that often leads to improvements in your original concepts or bigger and better ideas.

You may discover that your idea is better served by two complementary products instead of one, or come across ways to add new functionality to it along the way.

It Can Sell Itself

It's very difficult to convince people that you're serious about something when it's all in your head or notebook. A prototype assures people that you mean business.

Professionals and licensing companies take you more seriously when you've put in the time to bring them a carefully designed prototype. 

The Benefits Spill Over to Other Areas

You can easily explain your product to people like packaging, production, and marketing experts when you've got an example to show them.

Prospective business partners are more likely to get on board with a tangible product than an idea with potential.

In short, a prototype sets you up for success down the line. So, where do you start?

Making a Prototype Step by Step

Now that you know why to create a prototype, it's time to focus on the 'how'. 

Here are some basic guidelines on how to create a prototype broken down in four steps:

1. Draw a Concept Sketch

Getting an idea down on paper is always the first step in planning. Drawing your ideas helps you visualize the prototype in greater detail. 

You can go straight to drawing this initial concept sketch digitally, but it’s more efficient to get everything straight in your head before you go this route. At first, you’ll have so many ideas popping into your mind that a rapid-fire drawing session will prove more fruitful in the end.

Keep your sketch notebook handy, it can come in useful as supporting documentation when you submit your patent. It also serves as proof if there’s ever any dispute over your intellectual property.

2. Create a Digital Prototype

Two- and three-dimensional renderings are invaluable for viewing your design from every angle.

If you’re not au fait with programs, like AutoCAD, get a graphic designer to create digital renderings from your sketches.

3. Build It

If possible, design the very first draft of your prototype from anything you can find. This way, you won’t be out of pocket when you start making endless refinements.

Depending on your product you could even use everyday materials like cardboard or modeling clay to get an idea of shape and dimensions. 

When you’ve got a good idea of what goes where and how everything works together, hire a professional prototype designer to put together your final sample. If you can’t afford one of these highly skilled professionals, consider hiring an industrial design student or a handyman instead. 

Opt for less expensive materials to start off, when you’ve finished tweaking the results, you can eventually make a prototype that replicates the exact final product.

4. Hire a Pro to Finish the Job

When you've got a working prototype that's as perfect as it can be, you can apply for your patent. 

However, it's a good idea to work out your production costs first.  If these are unfeasibly high, you may have to go back to the drawing board. 

Approach multiple manufacturers and suppliers to get estimates and ask for their cost-saving recommendations too.

It's only when you come to highly technical products that you'll have to adhere to stringent and specific guidelines when designing your prototype. So, keep an open mind about alternative methods and materials.

Testing a Prototype

No matter how great your product looks, it's worthless unless it can do the job it's meant to do better than any other. Testing the functionality of the product isn't enough, it also needs to appeal to its target market on several other levels.

The best way to investigate whether it makes the grade is to seek objective opinions about your product. You can ask acquaintances to help you with this or arrange a focus group with random strangers. 

You need answers to questions like the following:

  • What are some things you like about this product?
  • Name three things about it you'd like to change
  • Would you use this and when would you use it?
  • Would you recommend it to your friends?
  • Would this be your first choice or do you prefer an existing product?
  • Do you think there's a need for this product? 

Constructive criticism is key at this stage of your prototype development but you shouldn't try to please everyone. Go with the suggestions offered by the majority instead of worrying about one or two naysayers. 

Extra Tips on How to Make a Prototype

Creating a prototype gives you unlimited opportunities to tap into your abilities and explore possibilities. Try some of these ideas to get the show on the road:

Mix and Match

Don't be afraid to mix the best aspects of existing designs into a cohesive whole when designing your prototype. A good example is how smartphones merged the best of telephone and camera tech with the internet to create something new and desirable.

Don't Overthink It

There's a point where your product is the best it's going to be. Don't let it sit around in design for years while you pick endlessly at inconsequential flaws.

If it's at the stage where you would buy it, it's ready.

Always Keep Improving

Once your product is in production and selling, you can start to implement improvements. 

Keep an open mind about possible materials that may be more suitable, get advice from professionals, and take as much time as you need to perfect your product at every stage.

Building a prototype one of the most important steps in bringing your ideas to life - make the most of it.  

Become the Entrepreneur You're Meant to Be

Learning how to make a prototype is just one of the many aspects of forging ahead in the world of entrepreneurship. Keep reading our web pages for more insights into how you can achieve success in product development and business overall. 

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