How To Build An Inexpensive Prototype: A Comprehensive Guide

How To Build An Inexpensive Prototype

Prototyping is strictly making a look-alike or functioning model of your idea. Both the prototype and sell sheet have the same goal: they make it immediately obvious what your product does. The prototype does this functionally, the sell sheet does it with words.

I have made many prototypes out of plastic, metal, wood and fabric. When I made my prototype for my “Zip-It” drain cleaning tool I used the plastic from an old worn-out sled. I knew the material was durable and flexible enough to work. I cut a thin strip and fashioned some barbed teeth. The prototype was simple enough to prove that it worked. Later I made additional ones using long, flexible cable zip ties, and attached a key tag which I had printed “ZIP-IT: Clean your drains in seconds!” I printed a cardboard strip, attached the Zip-It tool, and then put it in shrink wrap.

This was simple and effective enough to show potential licensees what the finished product would look like for product display.

The biggest mistake inventors make is trying to perfect their prototype. They keep working on it and working on it…but they always find something wrong with it, so they change it again.

The worst thing is to show your prototype to somebody. They’ll say “why don’t you do this?” or “why don’t you change that?” That’s really going to slow you down. If you listen to everyone else, you’ll never get your idea out to market. Here’s what to do instead.

1.) Sketch up your idea.

Just get it down on paper to start.

2.) Go quickly and simply.

Don’t spend much time or money on your prototype. A look alike or proof of concept just needs to demonstrate the item’s function. You have to build it so you have something to show people! 

Get a rough idea what it will look and feel like. What are the materials, dimensions, shapes and colors? You can use clays to mold a shape to look alike. Are there moving parts or electronics? You can make mockups using cardboard, paper, wood, metal or other materials. You can also glue it up and paint it to make it look realistic. That will help you when you get to step 5.

3.) If it’s too complicated to make a prototype, create both 2-D and 3-D digital rendered drawings.

These rendered drawings let you rotate and animate a part so you can look at it from all angles. If you are not skilled in CAD (computer-aided design) you can get professional graphic designers or prototype designers to do this for you. You’ll send 2D sketches with dimensions and then they’ll turn it into a 3D drawing. I have used online designers at Fiverr for fantastic results at a very modest price. 

4.) If it’s too simple to need a prototype, create a good look-alike.

Let’s say your idea is extremely simple: like a new style of a comb with a different material or a rubber ball with a light on the inside. If it’s a simple idea all you may need is a good look alike, a 3-D rendered CAD drawing and a sell sheet. When you describe it, people immediately see what the benefit is. “Gee, that’s so simple. Why didn’t I think of that?” When in doubt, though, create a working prototype.

5.) Get it made.

When it comes to licensing it doesn’t pay to go to a manufacturer for a sample prototype. You can create your prototype by just going to stores and finding materials you can cobble together. One way is to find a technology in the market that is like yours and modify it to fit. Show that the technology exists to produce your product by using products that have already been produced! Your Frankenstein-style prototype may not be perfect or pretty, but it will work. 

Other prototypes can be 3D printed, machined, welded, or fabricated from wood. 

3D models today are quite easy to make if you have the ability to make a CAD drawing and convert it into an STL file. (If you can’t, someone on Fiverr can do it for you). FDM is the most popular 3D printing technology and the most common technology for people starting to practice 3D printing. 3D printed parts are not that expensive.

Another great place to get your prototypes made is in cooperative workshops like MakerSpace. This type of workplace runs much like a fitness gym, where a modest monthly membership pays for shared access to tech tools, 3D printers, C&C machines, laser cutters, electronics, a woodshop, metal shop, tech shop, crafts, classrooms, fabrics, and more. Similar places have been sprouting up all across the country. This is a real asset to inventors driving innovation, education and cooperation. The workshops are run by member-volunteers who manage and improve the building and equipment. The equipment is loaned or donated from businesses and members. It is privately funded to keep it stocked.

In short: don’t overthink it. Create a simple idea and a “good enough” model. And then move forward by creating a sell sheet you can start showing to companies!