Q: What exactly is a prototype, and how good does it have to be?
A: There are five main kinds of prototypes: photography dummy, form and fit, proof of function, presentation and the virtual prototype.
1. The photography dummy is similar to a Hollywood set: It looks great, but there may be little substance behind it. It's used for photographs that are released for publicity to test market reaction.
2. The form and fit prototype provides the hands-on and visual perspectives vital to the design process.
3. The proof of function prototype is used by designers and engineers to perfect the operation of the eventual product.
4. The presentation or "show and tell" prototype is used to demonstrate the product to prospective licensees, users and so on.
5. The virtual prototype is a computer-generated image that can be made without any need for a physical prototype.
Large corporations may use all five of these prototypes in their new-product development cycle, but for the inventor or entrepreneur with limited resources, the photo dummy, the presentation and the virtual prototypes are of main interest.
Ideally, your first prototype is the photo dummy, which can be used to "test the waters" or determine the level of interest of the end user, as well as entice appropriate marketers and manufacturers to contact you for potential alliances. (However, if the product is to be patented, there is risk involved in revealing it publicly. Contact a patent attorney for a full understanding of how your U.S. and foreign patent rights could be forfeited due to premature publicity.)
The next prototype you use is the virtual. This is generated as a three-dimensional computer line drawing, which is then filled in to create a solid appearance. Color and texture are added next. Finally, animation takes the subject through movements that contribute to a full understanding of the product's benefits.
The virtual prototype is presented on a CD-ROM. Although the computer composition time generally costs several hundred dollars for a minute of playing time, after the master has been created, the per-CD cost is around a dollar, making it an ideal medium for volume contacts with people that may figure in the product's future. Sending out 100 CDs is less expensive, less time consuming and less frustrating than attempting to demonstrate a physical prototype to the same audience. Computers today are equipped for playing CDs, and a company's vice president of marketing, who may be difficult to meet with for an initial showing of your physical prototype, will usually give you a few minutes of computer viewing time.
Eventually, of course, you must demonstrate your invention or product to the people or company that will pay you for it, and this requires a physical presentation or "show and tell" prototype. This prototype must come as close to "looks like, works like" the eventual product as your budget will allow. Neatness counts. A cosmetically or functionally deficient prototype is often the "kiss of death."
For more information on developing a prototype, visit the United Inventors Association of the USA at http://www.uiausa.orgor call (716) 359-9310.
Jack Lander is currently president of the nonprofit United Inventors Association, an umbrella organization for community inventor groups. He also serves as vice president of the Yankee Invention Exposition, the second-largest nonprofit exposition in the United States, which is held annually in Waterbury, Connecticut. In addition, he is founder and vice president of Innovators Guild, a community nonprofit inventor group in Danbury, Connecticut, where he lives.
In addition to his hands-on mechanical work, Jack writes the prototyping column for Inventors' Digest magazine and is working on a book on prototyping for inventors and engineers. You can reach Jack at (203) 792-1377 or visit The Inventor's Bookstore at www.inventorhelp.com.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.