How to Create a Product Prototype
Posted Mar 8, 2018 by Jesse Ness, Ecwid Team

How to Create a Product Prototype

An eight-year-old girl from Mexico has just 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.

Related: 11 Trending Product Ideas for 2018 that Require Minimal Investment

What is a Product Prototype?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a prototype as an “original model on which something is patterned”.

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.

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.

How to Create 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 create your own prototype below:

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.

ipod


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.

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If you have designed your product, we’d love to hear your story in the comments below.

Further reading: How To Find a Manufacturer for Your Product Idea

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.