Molded in Your Image

A crude prototype won't show you off in the best light. You need a cheap way to build a better one.

While inventors would be happy if they could secure orders with just a rough drawing, they soon discover angel and institutional investors, potential licensors, distributors, retailers and manufacturers would like to see a "looks like, works like" prototype before they consider investing time or money in an idea. That's bad news, because those prototypes are a big expense for inventors, requiring that they shell out anywhere from $2,000 to $100,000 to get one made. Fortunately, you may be able to get your prototypes made for a lot less money using the help that's available in your own hometown.

Inspiration Strikes

Joe Robertson, of Fremont, California, was tired of cleaning his swimming pool filter. "My filter, which was a 12-inch circular tube about 3 feet long, had to have each pleat washed with a hose from two directions," says Robertson, 43. "It took me about a half-hour each time to clean it."

Then one day in 1996, Robertson was rinsing a paint roller with a hose when he noticed how quickly the roller was cleaned when the water pressure made the hose spin. "It just hit me that I could clean the [pool] filter in the same way," he says. "All I needed was to rig up a turning spindle to hold the filter in place while it was spun by the water pressure."

Robertson made a prototype that locked the filter onto a thin handle. "It worked like a charm," he says. "I could clean my filter in five minutes." But he knew the prototype was crude and would never go anywhere.

Robertson decided to offer Dave Dudley, a mechanical engineer he knew in the area, a partnership in his product in return for help developing it. Dudley agreed, and Robertson had the help he needed.

The Rough Prototype

Dudley, 52, immediately pinpointed potential problems with the initial prototype and came up with ideas to remedy the glitches. He then made a rough drawing and used equipment he had in his garage to machine rough parts out of plastic. Robertson and Dudley used that prototype to test their concept before they began making "looks like, works like" parts.

By the end of 1996, the partners were comfortable with the design and ready to make a better prototype to show to local stores. If the response was positive, Robertson and Dudley would then do a small production run. Dudley thought machining the parts would be inefficient for a small production run, so the partners sought a way to make an inexpensive temporary mold.

Unsure of exactly how to do it, Robertson and Dudley attended a meeting of a local inventors' club to see whether anyone there could suggest a low-cost solution to their production problem. There they met Ben Ridge, a silicone-mold-making expert. "Silicone molding is a simple technique [that's been] used by model-makers for years," Ridge explains. "It can be easily done at home and doesn't require any special equipment or furnaces." Ridge offered to help them make a temporary mold that could be used for a small run on an injection-molding machine.

Ridge was able to create the temporary mold in his shop, providing Robertson and Dudley with enough parts to sell their product, dubbed the Spin Clean, to six or seven local pool-supply stores. According to Dudley, the mold they made "ended up costing about $1,000 vs. the cost of up to $20,000 that most mold-makers would have charged."

SILICONE INJECTIONS
Looking for ideas on making your own prototypes? Prototype expert Ben Ridge's video/workbook combination, Reproduce Almost Anything, shows beginners how to make inexpensive, two-sided silicone molds of almost any object and then use those molds to make exact copies of the objects in metal, plastic, rubber, ceramic or plaster of Paris. Silicone molds are used extensively by experienced prototypers and are helpful tools even for complicated parts. The workbook includes a resource list for mold-making and casting supplies. The 49-minute videotape and 44-page workbook combination costs $39.95 and can be ordered by calling (510) 471-5770 or by visiting Ridge's Web site.
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This article was originally published in the August 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Molded in Your Image.

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