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How to Make a Product Prototype: a Comprehensive Guide with Tips and Examples

20 min read

Quick answer

To create a prototype of your product and garner investments or market attention, you will need to follow these steps:

  1. Create a detailed diagram or sketch
  2. Create a 3D model
  3. Create a “proof of concept”
  4. Create your first prototype
  5. Create a production-ready prototype

Continue reading to learn more.

An eight-year-old girl from Mexico has won a prestigious science prize for making a solar heater from old hoses, glass panels from a former construction site, and logs. Her invention will help low-income people to stop cutting down trees for firewood, reducing the climate change.

You’ve probably got some product ideas too. Possibly, you shelved them because you didn’t know what to do next. Well, turns out you don’t have to have big dollars, a degree in physics, or a lab to get started with your product idea.

Xóchitl Guadalupe Cruz López and her solar heater (Mexican News Daily)

Xóchitl Guadalupe Cruz López and her solar heater (Mexican News Daily)

What you can see in the picture above is a product prototype. That’s the very step that you need to take after you’ve got a product idea. A prototype gives a physical proof of your product’s feasibility and makes it easier to spot design flaws. You can use the prototype to secure investment, pique interest on a crowdfunding platform, and make the manufacturing process easier.

In this post, we’ll walk you through a step-by-step process for creating a product prototype. You’ll learn how to develop your ideas, find manufacturers, and even file for patents. And yes, you can do it.

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What is a Product Prototype

Defined at its core, a prototype is the first iteration of a product showcasing its practicality. It acts as a preliminary model in three dimensions, illustrating the capabilities of a product or the issues it can resolve.

A prototype serves as a sneak peek or early version of a product or concept that you intend to back and later mass-produce.

In lay speak, a prototype is a real-life, 3D version of your product idea.

A 3D printed copy of a toy design is a “prototype”, as is a paper-and-glue model of a new tool. If it exists to demonstrate an idea or study its feasibility, you can call it a prototype.

Product Prototype Types and Examples

You can classify prototypes into four broad categories based on their function and complexity.

Visual prototype

The visual prototype is meant to showcase the size and shape of the final product. It doesn’t have the functionality, materials, or mass of the product. Rather, it simply represents its dimensions.

A block of wood shaped in the form of the final product is a “visual prototype”, as is a digital model made in a 3D rendering software.

3d product prototype example

A 3D render that shows the product’s size and shape is an example of a “visual prototype” (Image source)

“Proof of concept”

This is a rudimentary model meant to demonstrate the functions and feasibility of the idea, that is, to prove that the concept can actually work. You’ll usually use materials available at hand to create this prototype. It doesn’t have to look, feel, or even work as the final result; it simply has to show that the idea is viable.

A great example of a “proof of concept” prototype is the original design for the Super Soaker. Instead of fancy machined parts, it’s made from PVC pipes and an empty coke bottle.

product prototype example

A “proof of concept” prototype is made from commonly available materials (Image source)

Presentation prototype

As the name suggests, this is a presentation-ready version of the product. It is functional and has the same appearance as the product. You can show this prototype to investors, manufacturers, and prospective customers to give them an idea what the final result will look like. This prototype is usually made from custom materials and manufacturing techniques.

You can see examples of presentation prototypes in concept cars created by car manufacturers. Since these are usually meant for demonstration rather than production, these cars often use expensive materials and boutique manufacturing techniques.

chevrolet prototype

The 2007 Chevrolet Volt Concept used expensive materials to showcase the car’s vision (Image source)

Pre-production prototype

This is a modified version of the presentation prototype. It has the same functionality but is built using production-ready materials and methods. Manufacturers will often look at the pre-production prototype to figure out how to mass-produce the product.

product prototype example 2

The production-ready version of the Chevrolet Volt using industry-standard materials and manufacturing techniques. Notice how it differs sharply from the concept version above (Image source)

Each of these prototypes builds on the former. You don’t have to go through all four stages, of course. You might go from a proof of concept built from duct tape and paper to a production-ready prototype.

Why Have a Product Prototype Made?

Prototyping, though it may appear as a time-consuming step, actually serves as a cost-saving measure in the long term when implemented before mass production. Here’s why.

  • Address potential issues proactively. Ensuring a sturdy laptop bag design includes pinpointing problems such as strap durability by creating prototypes.
  • Enhance market insights. Distributing prototypes to your target audience influencers for feedback before further investment in production can provide valuable market research.
  • Mitigate business risks. Prioritize validating product demand by capturing prototype photos pre-sales to assess demand, preventing unnecessary expenses on unproven products.
  • Attract investors. Utilize prototypes to showcase product viability to potential investors seeking assurance before committing funds, presenting tangible proof beyond a business plan.

How to Make Your Product Prototype

If you’re reading this, you likely already have an idea for a product. This might be a simple sketch on the back of a napkin, a 3D render, or even a fully-fleshed out proof of concept.

Your next step is to turn this rough idea into a functional prototype. We’ll share a process to have your own prototype made.

1. Create a detailed diagram or sketch

The first step in creating a prototype is to create a detailed concept sketch or diagram. Your objective should be to capture as many ideas as possible in a visual manner.

Ideally, you should have two concept sketches:

  • A design sketch showing how the product might appear upon completion
  • A technical sketch showing the product’s dimensions, materials, and working.

You can use software to do this, but pen and paper work better. You can even turn to these pen and paper drawings when you’re filing a patent. Feel free to experiment and be creative in this step. You’re a long way from manufacturing at this point; don’t be afraid to try new things.

2. Create a 3D model (optional)

The next (optional) step is to transfer your concept sketches to a 3D modeling software. This will help you (and any third-parties such as investors or partners) visualize the product better. You can also use this model to create a 3D printed copy of your prototype.

Another benefit of a 3D model is that you can use augmented reality apps such as Augment.com to visualize it in the real world. This works particularly well to demonstrate the size, shape, and design of a product idea. It can be expensive for a small business that hasn’t launched yet, though.

There are a number of tools you can use to create simple 3D models. Shapeways has a good list of both free and paid resources.

Related: How To Find Trending Products To Sell Online

3. Create a “proof of concept”

Now comes the fun part: actually building the product idea.

How you build your first proof of concept will depend on a number of things. If you have a simple product that you’ve already modeled in a 3D software, you can simply get it 3D printed to create your “proof of concept”.

However, if you have a complex product with a number of mechanical or electronic parts, you’ll have to improvise harder.

Remember that the proof of concept doesn’t have to look good or even resemble the final product. It simply has to work. You can even use common household products to create this early-stage model.

For more complex products, you might have to seek help from a handyman or machinist.

4. Create your first prototype

Your proof of concept shows that your product works. Your 3D model shows what it might look like.

Your next step is to combine the learnings from the proof of concept and 3D model to create your first prototype.

This should be a fairly detailed model that looks like your final product and has the same functions.

It’s not always possible to create this detailed first prototype alone. Depending on the complexity, you might want to get help from a machinist or a specialized prototype designer.

You can use directories such as ThomasNet and Engineering.com to find prototype designers.

product prototype 2

ThomasNet has thousands of prototype designers and manufacturers to choose from

Since this is just the first prototype, you shouldn’t worry too much about the kind of materials used or even the cost. Your objective is to get a working model that resembles your final product.

5. Create a production-ready prototype

The final step before you get to manufacturing is to trim the fat off your first prototype and get it to the production-ready state.

This is essentially a process of cost and feasibility analysis. You have to go through every part of the prototype and figure out ways to cut costs without compromising functionality.

At the same time, you should look at ways to improve the product’s aesthetics or durability.

For example, you might replace an oft-used plastic part with metal, and a little-used metal part with plastic. This will help you cut costs while still retaining quality.

It helps to work with a manufacturer and figure out how different components in the prototype might impact its cost and quality. You should also look at different raw materials and see which ones are more pleasing aesthetically.

Your goal should be to find a balance between cost and quality depending on your target customers. If you’re targeting luxury buyers, for example, quality will be more important than cost. For budget customers, it will be the opposite.

Once you have a production-ready prototype, you can find a manufacturer and start selling your idea to the world.

Tips to Follow When Creating Your Product Prototype

Prototyping an idea from scratch can be complex, especially for a first-time maker. Following these tips will make the process much smoother:

1. Create a list of priority features

It’s inevitable that your final product won’t have all the features you envisioned in your original idea. Cost and material constraints mean that you’ll have to cut down on some expensive features.

Therefore, when you’re designing your first prototype, segregate all the features into three categories:

  • Need to have: These are features you absolutely need for the product to work. For example, “portable storage” would be a need-to-have feature in an iPod.
  • Good to have: These are features that would help your product stand out, but aren’t essential for its functioning. For example, the “click wheel” was a good-to-have feature in the iPod. It made the iPod much easier to use but wasn’t essential to its running.
  • Not needed: These are features that are superfluous to the product and don’t add much in the way of appeal or utility. Often, these features are too expensive to implement as well. You can safely discard these features in your design.


The first generation iPod didn’t have a “click wheel” since it was too expensive to implement (Image source)

Try to have as many need to have features as possible in your final design.

2. Sign NDAs and file patents

You’ll inevitably turn to a prototype designer, machinist, 3D modeler, etc. in the course of developing your prototype.

If your idea is innovative, soon enough you can discover someone selling it on AliExpress for a much lower price. Even if they don’t copy the product idea, they might copy a new design or production technique that you developed.

To protect yourself from intellectual property theft, you can take the following steps:

  1. File a patent for the product idea and design.
  2. Ask all third-parties to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

NOLO has a beginner’s guide on filing your own patent, though ideally, you’ll want to go through a patent attorney.

To create NDAs, refer to this template.

3. Keep costs in mind when designing

One of the biggest challenges in creating a prototype is balancing utility and cost. You want the product to fulfill its promised functions, but you also want to sell it at a reasonable price. An exceptional product that your customers can’t afford is bound to fail.

At every stage in the design process, ask yourself two questions:

  • Is this part necessary?
  • If yes, what is the cheapest material to make it without sacrificing utility?

The cost of materials varies widely, even among materials in the same category (such as “plastic” or “metal”). Keep this in mind when you’re designing your product.

4. Use standard manufacturing techniques

Another reason for cost overruns between prototype to final product is the use of custom manufacturing techniques.

Essentially, any factory that builds your product will use some industry standard manufacturing processes (such as “injection moulding”). If your product can’t be manufactured using them, the factory will have to create customized techniques and train its staff to use them.

This can add substantially to the production cost, especially if you’re manufacturing in small batches.

Therefore, when you’re designing your prototype, keep a close eye on the kind of manufacturing process each part will require. If a feature requires a heavily customized production technique, consider removing it. A prototype designer or machinist should be able to help you figure this out.

Related: What Your Business Plan Should Look Like: Sample

5. Borrow ideas from competitors

Taking apart your competitors’ products can give you a detailed understanding of what works, what doesn’t when making a product. This can be a massive help in designing your own idea.

Therefore, before you start creating your prototype, take a close look at your competitors’ products. Analyze their materials, design, and manufacturing techniques. Look for flaws and opportunities.

6. Test your product prototype

Testing a prototype is an essential part of creating a product. It’ll help you identify weak spots in your prototype and avoid going over a budget: it’s cheaper to fix a prototype than a final product. Not to mention, you’ll get valuable insights from real people and improve your product to avoid negative feedback after you launch it.

You can test your prototype yourself and ask your friends to participate before you test externally.

When testing your prototype, be sure to:

  • Determine what exactly you are going to test. “I want to test my prototype” is too vague. “I want to find out if people can use my product to transport cakes safely,” — that’ll help you evaluate your prototype’s potential.
  • Invite the right audience to test your prototype. Ideally, it should be your target audience. For example, if you’re creating a product for students, it makes sense to offer them to try it.
  • Set a clear task for people. It’s better to offer them a realistic scenario so that they understand what exactly they need to test. For example: “It’s your birthday party. You’re looking for a board game that has simple rules and is suitable for all ages. Play this game to see if it suits your requirements.”

Here are possible questions to ask your testers:

  • What do you like about this product?
  • When would you use this product?
  • What would you change about this product?
  • Would you recommend it to a friend?
  • Would you choose this over similar products that exist on the market? Explain why.

What’s Next?

Creating and testing a product prototype brings you one step closer to launching your product on the market. Make sure to prepare for that in advance: build an online presence for your business, starting with a website.

With Ecwid E-commerce, you can do that yourself, without any help from designers or developers. Choose what suits your business the most:

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Want to learn more about patenting a new product and manufacturing it? Learn from fellow Ecwid merchants! After knee and back surgeries, Angela Brathwaite found herself looking for a portable travel urinal but couldn’t find one. So she designed and patented one herself!

Listen to our podcast with Angela to learn how she created a problem-solving product for thousands of women and girls.

Have you ever designed your product? We’d love to hear your story in the comments below!


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About the author

Jesse is the Marketing Manager at Ecwid and has been in e-commerce and internet marketing since 2006. He has experience with PPC, SEO, conversion optimization and loves to work with entrepreneurs to make their dreams a reality.

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