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HOW TO MAKE A PROTOTYPE

of a physical product, a mobile app, or a technology.

If you asked Google a question “how to make a prototype”, it means two things. First, you’re ready to start developing your product idea. And second, you want to do it right. To help you in the process we will go over all the questions you may have about how to get a prototype made, what tools, methods, and skills it will require, as well as other important aspects of prototyping.

Why build a prototype?

PROTOTYPE DEVELOPMENT GIVES THE OPPORTUNITY FOR YOUR PRODUCT IDEA TO EVOLVE

Building a prototype opens a pool of opportunities for the betterment of your product idea. When you interact with it in a physical world, you can come up with new features and functionalities and remove those that are not necessary. It’s natural to want your product to stand out. And during the ideation stage many try to pack it with everything they can think of. But having one on one time with your physical product idea allows you to look deeper into the product and see that not all the features are needed. At least in the first version of your product. You can also discover new and not previously thought functionality and usage in other applications and markets. And this gives the opportunity for your product idea to evolve further.
Your potential partners and investors will also want to touch and test your idea to see how it works in the real world rather than imagining it. Therefore, prototypes are very handy when running crowdfunding campaigns or pitching in front of investors.

If you want to learn more about the importance of prototyping, download our white paper “Why prototyping is important”.

Benefits of rapid prototyping methods.

A quick answer is that rapid prototyping methods allow you to iterate and manufacture ideas quickly, as well as to build a prototype with relatively good accuracy. And depending on the type of a product some methods can be partially automated. That allows you to set up the first manufacturing process to test the market without investing into hugely expensive molds.

Another thing is that rapid prototyping is much less expensive compared to manufacturing. First of all, it’s because manufacturers don’t do small batches. So you will have to order larger quantities, which means more money. Moreover, if you jump into the process without a pre-production prototype, you risk getting a defective product. But by the time you know it, you’d already invest in nonrefundable molds, materials, and production.

Why hire professional prototyping companies?

“To make no mistakes is not in the power of man; but from their errors and mistakes the wise and good learn wisdom for the future.”.

Plutarch

We said many times before that prototyping is a path of trial and error. And when developing a product or building a prototype on your own, mistakes are inevitable and costly. Usually, you know that you made them only at the manufacturing and even later stages. Professional prototyping companies have already walked that path up and down. They have the experience and knowledge that enables them to help you avoid those unnecessary mistakes, saving you money in the long run. Working with prototyping experts will also save you time. They know how to make a prototype in the most effective way. They follow an established and robust process that they used multiple times, making you more time-efficient. And time is everything when it comes to product development and launch.

HOW TO GET A PROTOTYPE MADE

There are a few ways to build a prototype. The choice will depend on the kind of a product – physical product, mobile app, technology – and the type of prototype you need. When you’re just starting, you would want to make a mockup prototype to get an overall idea about the shape, size, and other properties of your product. If you’re trying to raise funds or approach potential partners, you’d need a functional prototype that looks and works like a final product.

To learn about all types of prototypes visit our page.

How to find out what type of prototype you need?

One way to do it is to ask your stakeholders, or people you’re going to present your prototype to, what they want to see in it, what specific features and functionalities need to be displayed. Another way is to consult product development or prototyping companies. You can describe your situation and they’ll be able to help.

Or you can always do it on your own. To determine what type is necessary for your specific case, you just need to set a goal or a purpose you want to achieve with your prototype. You goals can include:

  • proving the concept 
  • validating your design before manufacturing
  • raising funds for further development
  • getting potential customers’ feedback
  • starting a marketing campaign

You can learn more about the types of prototypes here.

How are prototypes made?

When building a prototype it’s likely you’re making something that didn’t exist before. So, there is no direct procedure, because each time you will be modifying existing technology or combining several to achieve the result you want. In most cases prototype development requires a combination of manual, automated, mechanical, and electrical processing that make certain processes easier and faster.

In regards to physical prototypes, they can be partially 3D printed and CNC machined that allows producing custom parts quickly. Alternatively, there are lots of stock parts that you can purchase off the shelf. Resources like Digi-Key and McMaster offer electrical and mechanical parts that you can quickly get anytime you need them. Such platforms as OriginGPS, Arduino, Raspberry Pi allow you to build electronic prototypes pretty fast, using the existing platforms so you don’t have to start from scratch.

How long does it take to build a prototype?

Generally, prototyping can take anywhere between one hour and several years. The timeline for building a prototype really depends on the type of a product and what is necessary to make it. For instance, prototyping a technology versus a small household device will take different time for building. 

We have the estimated timeline of prototype development for your reference here.

For how long do the prototypes last?

Prototypes are not built to last because they are needed to test certain aspects and nuances of a product. In general, they are weak, fragile and easy to break. The lifetime of a prototype will depend on how you use it and what you do with it. 3D printed prototypes, for instance, are usually good for a year and then the material may start to degrade, it can dry out and crack, or absorb moisture and change its properties. So it’s important how you store them. Keep them in a dry place and under optimal temperature. Room temperature is usually preferable for most materials. When you transport them, make sure to provide enough packing material and cushions.

Prototypes, however, can be made tough and durable. But it boils down to whether you’re ready to pay for that. Making it stronger requires more expensive materials, better assembly, and more time. They can be made to last long, but why would you want it? You don’t want to get stuck at the prototyping stage. You want to go through it as quickly as possible. And that’s the point of building prototypes using rapid prototyping technologies. Prototype is not a piece of art, though a combination of art, technology, and crafting are used to make them. But it’s a disposable item that provides you with knowledge, validation, and ideas.

How many prototypes do I need and how much do they cost to make?

It’s almost impossible to know for sure how many prototypes you’re going to need. Their number will depend on the complexity of your product and the purpose of a prototype. As a general rule, you will get through a few prototypes until the version you determine as a final one meets all your criteria. Hence, the cost will vary accordingly. 

To help you understand how the prototype budgeting and cost estimation works, please read our article How Much Does It Cost to Build a Prototype.

Video: “How Many Prototypes Do I Need” answered by Konstantin Dolgan, Co-founder of LA New Product Development Team

STEPS TO MAKE A PROTOTYPE OF A PHYSICAL PRODUCT

Here are the steps for making a physical product prototype:

  1. 1. Conduct research based on the prototype’s goal
  2. 2. Select materials, parts, and prototyping technologies
  3. 3. Create CAD files
  4. 4. Make or purchase all the components
  5. 5. Test fits and adjust the design if necessary
  6. 6. Test functionality and adjust the design if necessary
  7. 7. Apply surface finishing and decorative elements
  8. 8. Conduct the final testing
  9. 9. Prepare the final design for manufacturing

1. Conducting research.

To start the process you first need to do the research and prepare more on a theoretical side. The depth of the research will depend on your goals. If you’re going to present your prototype to a large audience or potential consumers, you’ll need to do an extensive search. You need to learn everything about their preferences, understand what they do and don’t want to see in the product. Even such aspects as the color of your product can play a crucial role in people accepting or rejecting it. For example, in one of the projects we were tasked with making a packaging prototype for a new Fashionit product. And the color aspect was of utmost importance. The client researched their target audience and identified a specific shade of pink that spoke best to them. So much so, that even renderings for the package had to be of that exact color. By going ahead with the research results, the client successfully added a new hot item into their line of products. And consumers just loved it.

If you don’t take into account your target audience needs, wants, likes, and dislikes, you put the success of your product at risk.

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2. Selecting materials and technologies.

After your research is complete, you can start selecting materials and components needed to build a prototype and the types of technologies to use. When it comes to technologies, you need to determine whether you are going to use something that’s already been designed and developed or something which you will design yourself. Arduino is a good example of the existing technology, which allows you to quickly design electronic devices. It’s not quite applicable for mass manufacturing though. But it’s time- and money-saving when you just want to test some functionality.

3. Creating CAD files.

CAD file is a digital 3D model of your product idea, which will be used to make your prototype. If you’re familiar with 3D modeling, you can design it yourself, using such software like Fusion360 for example. If not, then you will need to use the help of an industrial designer. After your CAD files are ready, you can start building.

4. Building a prototype.

The building process includes several steps:

Step one: Preparing all the parts your prototype will require. Information about the parts will be taken from your CAD files. But you need to determine which of them you’ll manufacture and which ones you will purchase. In the first instance, such rapid prototyping methods as 3D printing, CNC machining, silicon rubber molding and alike can be used for making the parts.   (article for reference coming)

Step two: When all the parts are ready, the assembly starts.

Step three: After the assembly is complete, it is necessary to test the prototype to ensure that everything fits together and works. If there is some mismatching or something needs to be adjusted to make it work smoother, you do those adjustments.

Step four: Functionality testing is performed to see if the prototype works as intended. Here you check for possible improvements, what you want to reduce, add, or change. After all necessary iterations, you can move to the next step.

Step five: Post processing or in simple words making the prototype look neater, cleaner, and more presentable. During this step you may also want to apply certain surface finishing, such spray painting, epoxy coating, or vinyl wrapping. Some artistic elements or branding could be added to provide a more finished-product appearance.  

Step six: Final testing is needed to identify whether or not a prototype is complete. If you see that it doesn’t perform or look good enough, you can create a list of improvements to incorporate in your next prototype. If you’re satisfied with the results of testing, you can start preparing the design for manufacturing.

5. Design for manufacturing.

You will need to have design for manufacturing done to optimize your prototype and prepare it for production. The goal of this stage is to finalize the design considering the production methods and their limitations and nuances.

Video: Building physical prototypes. Challenges and rewards. Webinar.

STEPS TO BUILD A MOBILE APP PROTOTYPE

Here are the steps for making a mobile app prototype:

  1. 1. Identify the type of prototype
  2. 2. Conduct research
  3. 3. Create a wireframe
  4. 4. Design algorithms
  5. 5. Work on visual design
  6. 6. Make a clickable prototype
  7. 7. Design a functional prototype

ios app development, ios development, app development, LA NPDT.

Mobile app prototype example.

1. Identifying the type of prototype

To determine early on what will be required from a mobile app prototype to meet your goals is very important. In case if you’re planning to launch your app with this prototype, it’s essential to estimate the pool of users. Are there going to be hundreds, thousands, or more? If your app is intended for ten thousand users and more, for instance, then its architecture and security must be much more thought through. Consequently, it will be more expensive to build.

2. Research.

Focus your research on the type of technologies, processing, and templates you’ll be using to build a prototype. Find out what software and methods other prototyping companies use for mobile app development. When it comes to the target audience, make sure to research what devices and operational systems they will prefer to use the app on.

3. Creating a wireframe.

Wireframe is a storyboard or visual sketches of your app. It provides an overview of structure, interface, user flow and functionality of the app. Consider it as a sketch of your user interface. It allows you to visualize the user experience.

4. Algorithm, Logic design.

Having a wireframe done, you need to design the algorithm or logic behind your users’ experience. Essentially, it is how the users will navigate the app and interact with it.

5. Visual design.

Visual design implies choosing colors, fonts, shades and overall appearance of the mobile app. This part should be preferably done by a professional. But you can do your initial sketches using Paint, Power Point, Adobe or any other tools that are available today.

6. Clickable prototype.

As soon as the first five steps are completed, you can make a clickable prototype. There is no technology behind, meaning that it’s not a fully functional product yet. But you can experience the flow of the app in real time.

7. Working product.

After analyzing and getting feedback using a clickable prototype, you’re ready to start designing the actual product.

STEPS TO DEVELOP A TECHNOLOGY PROTOTYPE

Making a technology prototype includes the following steps:

    1. 1. Conduct literature research and analysis
    2. 2. Estimate economic and technical feasibility
    3. 3. Design your prototyping and experimentation methods
    4. 4. Test your assumptions with prototypes
    5. 5. Analyze the results

1. Research.

In depth research is a must if you want to build a prototype of a technology. You need to review all available scientific literature, especially studies and research works done in the fields relevant to your technology idea.

2. Market research.

Market research should be conducted on macro and micro levels. You need to study what types of new regulations are in place or are planned to be released locally as well as internationally. You also need to think strategically. Now when the world moves to more green technologies you don’t really want to invest into a new drilling method. Thus, you need to think ahead of time, because technology prototyping and development takes years. And here comes the economic aspect. You need to consider if building this technology is feasible. In case you can’t invest in it right now, will you have access to capital to build it later in the future? And even if it’s possible to build it, does it make sense to do it right now?

American government designed a special program for comprehensive technologies called SBIR.  Phase I of the program helps to cover the research on whether any of the government agencies will benefit from your technology.

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3. Prototyping and experimentation methods design.

In this step you need to select and design methods of prototyping you will use. You need to be very clear on what you want to test, how you’re going to test it, whether or not you need special equipment and/or permissions to perform such testing and to build your prototype. In order to do this type of prototyping the SBIR Phase II funding is available for business and granted by different U.S. agencies.

4. Technology testing.

After it’s done, you can start testing your technology in the real environment or use computer simulations. There are national and private testing labs that can help you with this stage. Depending on your funds and the complexity of your project, you’ll be able to find access and resources to test different types of technologies.

5. Test results analysis.

At this point you need to invite a subject-matter expert who is able to analyze your initial results and even help you with the design of the further experimentation. After getting a validation that the testing was successful, you most likely will iterate and reiterate, as well as test other assumptions, theories, and hypotheses.

HOW TO CHOOSE A PROTOTYPING COMPANY

Nowadays, outsourcing prototype development to professional prototyping companies is a common practice. But to choose the right one for your prototyping needs can be a challenge. Here are a few criteria which will help you make the right choice.

First and foremost, you need to make sure that the company you’re considering is able to build your prototype. Don’t be shy and ask whether or not they have experience in making similar products. If their answer is no, then you need to know if they have all the resources (human resources, machinery, materials) necessary for making your prototype.

BUILDING A PROTOTYPE REQUIRES INTIMATE AND CONTINUOUS COMMUNICATION BETWEEN THE CLIENT AND THE PROTOTYPING COMPANY

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It’s also important to take into account how quickly they respond to your messages and how communicative they are. Building a prototype requires intimate, close, and continuous communication between the client and the prototyping company. That’s why you want to make sure that they communicate quickly and effectively. Also, look at their reviews. They are usually a good source of factual information.  

Next thing you need to make certain of is that they know all the aspects of manufacturing. Moreover, it’s preferable that they do manufacturing themselves. It will ensure that they understand the nuances and the limitations of manufacturing methods, as well as how to transition a product from prototype to production.

Then, ask how long they’ve been in business for, approximate timeframe, and their payment terms. If they take 100% upfront, it may be a red flag. If they give you a too quick timeframe, they can fail to deliver on time. But you don’t want to work with a slow company either. So gauge whether their projections are reasonable. You can always refer to the timeframe we mentioned previously to get an idea how long it can take to make your prototype.

Where to find a prototyping company?

Depending on where you are, there might be local companies. But there are not that many prototyping companies in the U.S., for example, and those that exist may not be in your area. If that is the case for you, we suggest using Google to see what your options are. Also, you can ask your patent attorney or talk to local manufacturers who can point you in the right direction. And you can always talk to us. We’re a prototyping company. And actually if you’re reading this article, then you found one already.

CONTACT US

WHAT IS NEEDED TO BUILD A PROTOTYPE AT HOME

When you decide to make a prototype yourself, the first thing you need is a plan. It must have the steps of how you’re going to build a prototype and assemble it, including the list of materials, parts, components, and tools you will need. Research which parts you can purchase and which ones you will need to manufacture. It’s also great to have some reference on how you want your prototype to look. Try to find pictures of similar products you can turn to in the process.

When hiring a prototyping company, they will do all that job for you. You just need to provide them with specifications on what the prototype needs to do, how it should look, how many you need, and when. For a physical product they’ll also need CAD files from you, and sketches, wireframes or UI mockup for a digital one. Based on that information, the prototyping company will know how to build it, what materials and methods to use to satisfy your criteria and timeframe.

What can I use a prototype for?

First of all you can use your prototype as a proof of concept to test and see if your idea is doable and would work as expected. And when you know that it is, you can present it to potential users, partners, and investors. Later on it can be an “eye candy” during your marketing campaign that will help you to attract attention to your product and business. You can even use it to get pre-orders for your product before the manufacturing begins.

Your prototype might also be useful when you need to prove your product’s novelty to a USPTO reviewer when applying for a patent. Your application might get rejected if they don’t completely understand how the product or technology works. They can also fail to see the difference between your and somebody else’s idea. If that occurs, your patent attorney can connect with a patent reviewer via a video call so that you can demonstrate differences and prove your point using a prototype.

What skills do I need to build a prototype?

For making a physical prototype you need to be able to work with your hands and put things together. If you know how to operate hand tools, you’ll be fine. Having machining and post processing skills like surface finishing, polishing, spray painting, will make the process much easier.  It’s also preferable to have basic CAD modeling skills. But it’s not critical since you can always hire a professional to do it for you.

If you’re developing a software product you will need: graphic design skills and software and knowledge of user interface (UI) design. For electronics prototype soldering skills are a necessity, as well as a basic knowledge of how electricity works. Programming skills are also needed if your electronic prototype has a microcontroller.

And overall, regardless of the product type, general understanding of physics and chemistry will help you a lot. If you know how different materials behave under stress, temperature, and in combination, you’ll be able to build your prototype much faster and safer.

What tools do I need to build a prototype?

Prototypes can be built at home using DIY tools as long as you know how to use them. So, when making a prototype for a physical product make sure that your tool kit includes: super glue, hot glue, duck tape, plyers, hammer, screwdrivers and screws, nails, a drill, wrenches, vices, and a dremel tool.   

If you consider applying machinery, you can get a few 3D printers of different kinds and a CNC mill. A CNC router is very handy as well. It cuts thicker materials and soft metals like aluminum, copper, and brass. Other equipment can be a drill press, machines for sanding and polishing, and spray painting equipment. You can also use a laser cutter to make flat parts out of acrylic, wood, and plastic.

If your product has electronics in its design then you’d need more sophisticated tools like a soldering kit, resistors, capacitors, and alike. And to build programmable circuit boards you can always use Arduino, Raspberry Pi, or ESP 32 boards.

When you need to make a fabric prototype you will need a basic kit – a sewing machine and expandable materials.

What materials can I use?

There is a countless number of materials you can find in the nearest hardware store and use them for your prototype. The first easiest way is to make it out of paper or cardboard. They’re especially good for making mockup prototypes. Using clay and playdough will enable you to create organic 3D shapes. Plastic bottles are great as well. PVC pipes are very popular among DIY inventors and they’re actually one of the main components used for making prototypes at home. Other materials can include plastic and metal sheets, wood, aluminum, and Styrofoam. Most of the materials used in prototyping are relatively low-cost because prototypes are supposed to be as least expensive as possible.

If you still have questions that are custom to your project, please feel free to contact us. Our prototyping experts are always here to assist you.

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What is rapid prototyping?

Rapid prototyping is a process of building product prototypes quickly using technologies, equipment, methods, and techniques that streamline the process. Some of the equipment used in rapid prototyping includes 3D printers, CNC mills, laser cutters, and such processes as sheet metal bending, silicone rubber molding, injection molding, etc.

Do prototypes need CE marking?

No, they do not, unless you’re planning on selling your prototype or making it available for public testing. In that case it’s not a prototype, but a “minimum viable product” (MVP). In most cases a prototype doesn’t need to have a CE mark. Moreover, it will be quite difficult to get the CE mark on a prototype. If you can make a prototype very close to what your product will be, then you can possibly use it to obtain a CE mark. But it should be coordinated with people issuing the CE mark because they most likely want to have a sample of your product as opposed to a prototype. However, if methods used in producing your final product and prototype are the same, then it might be acceptable.

What is an MVP prototype?

MVP stands for a Minimum Viable Product. Prototype is not a product. It’s a piece for testing and evaluation before the product is made. So when talking about MVP, it’s referred to a product not a prototype. An MVP has a minimum number of features and minimum level of quality necessary to satisfy customers. When people ask about an MVP prototype they likely mean not a fancy prototype but a functional one. It should resemble the final product but not be very expensive and shouldn’t take a long time to develop. Thus, if we apply an MVP concept to a prototype it will mean a functional prototype that works and looks like a final product.

Do you need a working prototype to file for a patent?

No, you do not. It might be beneficial to apply for a patent after completing the prototyping stage, though. The main reason is that while building your prototype you discover certain nuances and improvements. New ideas often come up during this particular stage of product development. So it’s beneficial to incorporate them prior to filing a patent to make sure your patent covers all the features and design configurations.

Do you need a prototype for a Kickstarter campaign?

Yes, you do. If you’re planning to launch your product on Kickstarter, the platform requires you to have a fully functional prototype that you can demonstrate. Other platforms like Indiegogo or GoFundMe, for example, don’t have this requirement and you can start your campaign as soon as you have a concept design completed.

Can you sell an idea without a prototype?

Yes, you can. Your idea is your intellectual property that can be sold. If it’s not complex and easy to understand, then you don’t need a prototype to prove its validity and feasibility. But to convey your idea fully and clearly to the potential buyers, it’s better to demonstrate a physical model and let them interact with it rather than rely on their ability to imagine and visualize your idea. Also, people who consider buying an idea would likely prefer to see it in action. So a functional prototype would be best to present if you choose to go that route.

What is SLA rapid prototyping?

SLA stands for stereolithography. This is one of the first 3D printing technologies that was developed in the 1980's. The technology is based on curing photopolymers – resins with UV light that is projected on the pool of resin. A printer has a build plate which comes in contact with resin and the UV laser projects an image on the build plate making the resin solidify in the form of the object projected. Then layer by layer an item is built. In some types of SLA printers the build plate goes into a tank with resin, in others the process is reversed. SLA prototyping is relatively fast. It provides great definition and is capable of producing tiny details and textures. It can be used with a wide variety of materials, including hard, flexible, high temp, castable, ceramic, and other types of resins. SLA 3D printing is not an easy method. Incorrect time and temperature settings may result in the wrong material properties, even part damage like warping or cracking. This method also requires proper post-processing of the parts. Another downside of the SLA printing is that the materials used are toxic, including pure alcohol that needs to be used in the process. Inhalation of the resin vapors or contact with skin can cause irritation and more significant health issues. Also, the disposal of resin is a relatively big concern. Due to all those factors SLA is being replaced with newer and safer 3D printing technologies. But at the moment it still has its place in the prototyping industry. The technology itself is rather developed but the focus is now on making the materials less toxic, less expensive, and easier to work with.

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