If you want to invent, you have to, you must prototype. Like they say in Chicago, “vote early and vote often”. To be successful with inventing you need to prototype early and prototype often.

Prototype Early

Early means that you prototype as soon as you can so you can prototype as often as you can. When you start to prototype your invention, you give your idea life, a form that you can look at, touch, and try out. This enables you to learn about the design of your invention. You may find that it won’t work. You may come up with a better design by accident because you figure out how to fix what did not work. I call these happy accidents. Learning by doing, by seeing, and by touching uses more of your brain. You end up with a better invention that has more functionality or better benefits

You Have to Iterate

Design is an iterative process. In school, did you ever just jam out a 2,000 word term paper? No, you have to write and re-write. What did you do with the rough draft paper? You crumble it up and start again and the second draft is better. Prototypes get better and better with each draft. You may shift from a rough material like wood to a more refined plastic. You start with the cheap and easy alternative to work out the kinks so that when it comes time for the more expensive refined design it has a better chance of working.

The word prototype derives from a Greek word that is translated “primitive form”. Not all prototypes are primitive. There are several stages of prototypes and not all prototypes are physical. Not all prototypes are visualizations of physical items.

Virtual Prototypes

Virtual prototypes are CAD (computer aided design) models of the invention. They exist in the computer but can easily be made into physical representations with a few clicks if done properly. I like to work with 3-D CAD models because it gives me great freedom to show different views, to animate mechanisms, or to save components for use in other projects. I like to reuse a part rather than drawing it every time. 2-D drawings may be quicker but they are somewhat limited and take me more time in the long run.

I’ve made virtual prototypes of Websites and Smartphone apps. It lets me get the flow correct before I start coding and getting things nailed down. It’s like you start building a house and after the foundation and first floor is done you decide you want a three car garage. I’ve even made Smartphone prototypes that look like the final product and react to the user input but don’t have the smarts behind the facade. It’s like the Wild West town on a move set, just the front of the building is built.

Types of Prototypes

  • Form or Shape Study
  • Proof of Concept
  • User Experience Model
  • Visual (non-functioning) Model
  • Functional Prototype

Form or Shape Study

This type of prototype will allow you to explore the basic size, look and feel of a product. This type of model may be molded from clay, shaped from urethane foam called Ren, carved from wood, Styrofoam, or PolyMorph. Just about anything that you can form, sand, or cut to size to give an idea of the basic form. I’ve even used cardboard for some things, there are no forbidden materials. Due to the rough nature of finish, this is not something you want to take a photograph of for a sell sheet.

Proof-of-Concept Prototype

A Proof of concept prototype is used to test some aspect of the intended design without attempting to exactly simulate the visual appearance. This is a quick sanity check, will this thing even work. It can be just part of the design. A particular feature or function “proved out”. Things such as range of motion, mechanisms, etc. These types of models are often used help you learn and see which design options will not work, or where further development and testing is necessary.

You may want to buy an existing product and hack it apart. By hack I mean disassemble and use some of the parts. Don’t throw away something that you may need later. Stephen Key of InventRight calls this a cannibalized prototype. You too can be the Hannibal Lecter of product development.

This saves time since you are not starting from scratch. Once I wanted to explore a walkie talkie radio that was inside a child’s toy. This was when I was at Motorola and we were looking to attract younger users for communication devices. I went to Toys-R-Us and bought a singing and dancing Simba (Lion King) toy. It had a lot or the components I needed like a switch built into Simba’s ear, a speaker and a compartment for the batteries. I took a part a walkie talkie radio and stuffed it into Simba’s body. I used the switch that was in the ear as the push to talk switch for the radio. I was able to make a quick prototype and take it to my son’s school to try it out. I was in the hallway out of site. My wife brought Simba to the class so the Simba could talk to the kids. The look on their faces was priceless when they were able to ask questions and get Simba (me) to respond back. It was like magic>

User Experience Prototype

A User Experience Model allows active human interaction and is helpful to figure out the best ergonomics of a device, the flow of a website, or the optimal design of a Smartphone application. This type of model allows early assessment of how a potential user interacts with various elements, motions, and actions of a concept which define the initial use scenario and overall user experience.

Visual Prototype

A Visual Prototype can be expensive depending on the finishes needed. If you want to do close-up photographs, this is the way to go. It will capture the intended design aesthetic and simulate the appearance, color and surface textures of the intended product but will not function. It’s a very pretty brick. These models will be suitable for use in market research, executive reviews and approval, packaging mock-ups, and photo shoots for sales literature.

Functional Prototype

This is also called a working prototype. This is as close to the real deal as you can get. It will simulate the final design, aesthetics, materials and functionality of the intended design. The functional prototype may be scaled down to reduce the size and the cost. This type of prototype is the ultimate test of design and the final check for design flaws and allows last-minute improvements to be made. This is very useful to do before larger production runs are ordered or you commit to expensive tooling.

Take a Deep Breath

You don’t need to get worried about what kind of prototype you need and how much it will cost. Just get comfortable with the idea that it is a helpful tool to refine your design and communicate the invention to others. If you are licensing a product, the licensee will probably be more interested if they can see that the invention actual works and not rely on you hoping they will figure it out. The more you can do to make it more appealing the better chance you have to cut a licensing deal.

Here’s a model I made as part of a client project. I can’t share the invention with you yet because the patent is pending. This gives you an idea of what is possible.

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