Prototype

Definition: A replica of a product as it will be manufactured, which may include such details as color, graphics, packaging and instructions

One of the essential early steps in the inventing process is creating a prototype--which, simply defined, is a three-dimensional version of your vision. But what exactly should a prototype look like? First, it depends on your idea. Second, it depends on your budget and your goals. If possible, it's great to start with a handmade prototype, no matter how rudimentary. We've seen prototypes made from the simplest of household items: socks, diaper tabs, household glue, empty milk containers--you name it. If it works for your initial demonstration purposes, it's as good as the most expensive materials.

Eventually, if you decide to move forward with your invention, you'll probably need what's known as a "pre-production" prototype--especially if you plan to manufacture it yourself rather than license it. But as a first step, a homemade "presentation" prototype can give you a good running start.

A prototype provides other advantages, as well:

1. It enables you to test and refine the functionality of your design. Sure, your idea works perfectly in theory. It's not until you start physically creating it that you'll encounter flaws in your thinking. That's why another great reason to develop a prototype is to test the functionality of your idea. You'll never know the design issues and challenges until you begin actually taking your idea from theory to reality.

2. It makes it possible to test the performance of various materials. For example, your heart may be set on using metal--until you test it and realize that, say, plastic performs better at a lower cost for your particular application. The prototype stage will help you determine the best materials.

3. It'll help you describe your product more effectively with your team, including your attorney, packaging or marketing expert, engineers and potential business partners.

4. It will encourage others to take you more seriously. When you arrive with a prototype in hand to meet any professional--from your own attorney to a potential licensing company--you separate yourself from the dozens of others who've approached them with only vague ideas in mind. Instead, you'll be viewed as a professional with a purpose, as opposed to just an inventor with a potentially good idea.

So now that you know that creating a prototype is a vital step in your invention process, how exactly do you move forward and actually do it? This stage in the inventing process is possibly the period of greatest learning. This is where your words and thoughts change from "Can I?" to "How will I?"

Making a prototype by hand is a great way to start bringing your product to life. Remember, there are no rules! Give yourself permission to experiment. Look around the house and select materials that you can use to test to see if your idea works.

If you anticipate your product will be made from plastic, there's a great product out there that's ideal for creating plastic prototypes. It's called Shapelock. When heated in the microwave or with your hair dryer, it becomes pliable, kind of like clay, so you can mold it any way you'd like. When dry, it becomes a hard plastic. The best part? It's inexpensive, and you can reheat it and reuse it again and again. Find it at www.shapelock.com.

Of course, your product could also be made from any number of materials, ranging from metals to chemicals to textiles. When using any material, try to be open to alternatives you may not have originally considered. For example, you may be convinced that you want to use cotton. If this is the case, challenge yourself by asking "Why?" Perhaps another material might work better, such as a stretch material like Lycra. Or how about using mesh, canvas, nylon or leather? What about taking a leap and trying Neoprene? This is the time to say "What if" and allow yourself the freedom to explore. Put aside your original thoughts--you may end up coming back to them, but at least then you'll know you've made the best decision.

Once you've developed your prototype as far as you reasonably can, it's time to consider hiring a professional to help you with the next steps. There are many avenues you can take at this stage. You may wish to hire professional prototype developers, engineers and designers, but others may be able to help you as well, including a handyman, a machinist or a student from a local industrial design college. The complexity and materials to be used in your specific product will help drive this decision. Your budget may also be a consideration--a handyman or machinist, for example, will probably charge much less per hour than an engineer, and their services may be perfectly sufficient if your design is relatively straightforward.

If you do decide to go with a professional prototype developer, there are a few ways to find them. You could try the Yellow Pages first, or you could try searching on www.thomasnet.com (formerly known as www.thomasregister.com), a one-stop resource with all the information you need. It offers a database of 650,000 manufacturers, distributors and service providers--including prototype developers--to choose from, broken down by state. In a matter of minutes, you can find the expertise you're looking for.

You should also do your research and consider new and emerging technologies. For example, there's a relatively new method of prototype production out there called rapid prototyping, which uses a technology called stereolithography. It enables you to have plastic prototypes made quickly from computer-aided drawings (CAD) by a large tooling machine, rather than from an expensive injection mold. Rapid prototypes can cost as little as a few hundred dollars each (depending on complexity), but they're often a bargain considering the alternatives. For example, creating an injection mold for a product in the Unites States can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000.

The prototyping stage is a great time to use all your untapped creative ability and to explore all the possibilities that are on the market. Don't limit yourself to any preconceived notions--whether it comes to material use or the types of professionals you can consult--and explore as much as you can as you begin bringing your product idea to life.

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