A prototype is a representation of a product idea, whether it is a simple model you put together yourself, a 3D print out or a highly refined version produced by a prototyping firm. Several prototypes are likely to be built, assessed and tested before a product comes to market.
Prototyping lets you correct design faults and get feedback from potential customers on your product’s usability and performance. A good prototype can also help you to attract funding, giving potential investors an idea of what your product looks like and what it can do.
1. What type of prototype?
Be clear about why you need your prototype
You might want to:
- assess your product’s form and appearance - for market-testing and to make certain you are happy with the overall design;
- test function - to physically test parts to check they work and have been designed correctly;
- check fit - to make sure all designed components fit together correctly;
- use prototyping as a form of low-volume production.
Decide what you can afford to spend
- The amount of time and money you invest will depend on the level of sophistication you need and the prototyping process you use.
- Professional prototyping costs can vary widely according to the size and complexity of the product or component you are producing. Ask for quotes and details of timescales from a selection of prototype manufacturers.
- Costs for product design range from £200 to £1,200 a day.
- See Fund your prototype for ways of generating funding for a prototype.
Make basic models yourself to assess the appearance and functionality of your idea
- Assembling simple models using basic materials such as wood, cardboard and foam, or a 3D printed version of your design, can be useful in making sure your idea works.
- Models, together with simple sketches, can also help you to evaluate the appearance and ergonomics of your product idea.
- Basic models can help you show your idea to product designers and advisers but they are unlikely to convince investors or other companies to buy into your idea.
Consider whether CAD (computer-aided design) could meet your needs
- CAD software creates three-dimensional models that can be viewed on a computer screen.
- Solid modellers (such as Solidworks and Siemens Explore NX) are useful for evaluating how a product or part will be engineered. Surface modellers (such as Rhino) are better for looking at surfaces and external appearance.
- CAD models may sometimes be enough to secure funding from investors.
- 3D CAD data is needed to produce replica components using rapid prototyping techniques.
- Unless you have CAD expertise and software in-house, you will need to get the help of a product designer or prototyping specialist.
- Surface modellers cost less than a solid modeller.
Think about getting help to create a detailed prototype
- For example, to present to investors or companies or to use for market research purposes. You will want to make something that works and looks as close as possible to the finished product while avoiding unnecessary costs.
- You will probably need professional assistance from a product designer or prototyping specialist. Remember that protecting your idea is essential when seeking external help (see Plan your prototype).
- Rapid prototyping techniques such as 3D printing, stereo lithography, selective laser sintering and fused deposition modelling provide an exact replica of a CAD model (the accuracy of parts varies between processes).
- Rapid prototyping can produce parts from materials such as plastics, wax and metals by taking cross-sections from CAD data to create the model layer by layer.
- Rapid prototyping allows you to check that a part works and resolve any problems before creating production tools.
- If your budget is limited, a compromise may be to develop two prototypes yourself using low-cost materials: a rough model of how your product would work and another model showing its appearance. Developing a product often involves uniting two such prototypes.
Only make a pre-production prototype at a late stage in the development process
- A pre-production prototype is manufactured using processes representative of actual production methods. It is fully functional and looks very much like the final product.
- There can be a big difference between developing a product to the point where you can interest investors and potential customers and creating a product which can realistically be manufactured in bulk. A redesign may be required.
- You will need help from a prototyping company or manufacturer.
- Production-ready models can be produced using a soft-tooling process such as silicone tooling. Parts can then be vacuum-cast from this tool, producing a small number of functional parts in production-simulate materials.
- This costs a fraction of hard/production tooling and gives peace of mind, allowing you to market-test a product before making any large investment in production tooling.
- You are likely to need support from investors or a commercial partner to reach this stage.
2. Plan your prototype
Check what safety or performance standards your product might have to meet
- Certain products, such as electrical goods and items that need to be fire-resistant, have to meet particular safety standards. A product designer with experience in your sector can advise you.
Make sure the intellectual property in your invention is fully protected
- This is essential if you outsource any design or prototyping work - but it needn’t be complex or expensive.
- If you do not have a patent or registered design in place, ask anyone you approach to sign a one-page confidentiality or non-disclosure agreement (NDA). This will not be sufficient if the prototype is going to be displayed in an exhibition or a publication.
Decide how many prototypes you are likely to need
- If you are having prototypes made professionally, it may be cheaper to produce several samples at the same time, depending on the prototyping process used.
- The quote you get from the prototype manufacturer will also be dependent on volume. Smaller firms may offer a good rate for small batches, whereas bigger companies may be better for higher volumes.
- Consider how many samples will be needed for consumer testing or for potential investors, licensees or manufacturers.
Consider how your prototype is likely to be assessed and tested by others
- Some products may be tested so vigorously that they could be redundant afterwards.
- You may need a supply of samples to be tested in this way. Alternatively, you might get an independent testing body to run tests and write a report or get the product certified against relevant standards.
3. Fund your prototype
You may be able to fund basic prototypes from existing funds or borrowings
- A bank loan may be enough to cover the development of early-stage prototypes. Your business plan will need to show that your idea is a strong commercial proposition and that you will be able to repay the loan.
- Family and friends may give you a loan at a better rate than a formal lender. But if you cannot get the product to market, they risk losing their money.
- Make it clear that family and friends should only invest amounts they can afford to lose. Get agreements drawn up professionally.
Investigate possible grants and awards
- You can apply for funding of between £25,000 and £10 million through Innovate UK. Funding can help you test an idea, develop a new product, process or service, or work on collaborative projects.
- The innovation charity Nesta can provide funding, particularly for ideas with social impact or those that deal with major challenges.
Consider equity investment or forming a commercial partnership
- For more sophisticated, pre-production prototypes, you are likely to need investment from business angels or venture capital firms. Alternatively, you could look for a commercial partner to help you develop your idea.
- Again, you will need clear evidence that your idea has strong commercial potential, including a good early-stage prototype or CAD graphics.
Think about bringing outside specialists in as partners in return for a cut of profits
- Some product designers and prototyping companies might consider this if your idea has clear commercial potential. This could be worthwhile if it helps you get the product to market, but you need to be sure it will make financial sense for your business.
- You will need to get a clear agreement sorted out from the start.
Check whether you can get possible tax breaks on research and development (R&D)
- Eligible companies can claim R&D tax credits on any amounts spent on R&D in a tax year.
- You may be able to claim up to 230% of qualifying expenditure on R&D activities when calculating your profits.
4. Get your prototype made
If you lack design expertise, find a suitable designer to design your product
- Design skills are essential for turning an innovative idea into a product that can be successfully manufactured and sold. Designers can assess feasibility and aesthetics, spot potential problems and suggest alternatives.
- It can be worth getting the product designer to manage the whole process, including briefing and managing the prototype manufacturer. This can save time and reduce the risk of error, but will cost more.
- Look for someone with expertise in your field and ask to see examples of previous work.
- Get an agreement as to how much of the intellectual property in the developed prototype the designer will be entitled to.
Search for a prototype manufacturer that can handle your requirements
- Again, some prototyping specialists may be able to handle the whole prototyping process. Others may only make the prototype but are likely to have contacts who can take the project through to completion.
- Make sure that a prototyping manufacturer can produce the complexity of prototype you require. Ask what processes and equipment are available and make certain that these will be suitable for creating your prototype.
- If required, check whether the manufacturer can handle CAD data - some are better at this than others.
- Aim to find a prototyping manufacturer with experience in your field. Ask to see examples of previous work.
- Ask your trade association or local business support organisation if they have the names of any firms that can help. A product designer may be able to suggest suitable manufacturers.
- Obtain a range of quotes from different prototype companies based on the drawings produced by you and your designer. Most companies work on a day rate and charge according to how long the process will take.
- Check timescales - but make sure a quick turnaround will not affect quality.
Consider whether a university could do your prototyping work
- Universities may be able to make prototypes at a lower cost than a manufacturer or prototyping specialist. Directed by academic staff, students work on design and prototype projects as part of their studies.
- However, universities may not be able to work to the same timescales as a specialist prototype manufacturer.
- Check carefully what services are available. Universities may lack the equipment to produce the most sophisticated models.
- A university may be able to help in areas such as design and product launch. It may also provide testing services, producing a report on how the product functions to show to possible investors and manufacturers.
- Get more information by checking the websites of university manufacturing and engineering departments.
Get your prototype made
- You will need to supply the prototype manufacturer with an outline, CAD data and detailed drawings of your product idea. Drawings will need to be converted into 3D CAD, which has cost implications.
5. Present your prototype
Think carefully before approaching big market players
- Most big companies have their own R&D teams and will be working on new ideas all the time. They may not want to see your ideas in case they are later accused of infringing your intellectual property.
Set out clear rules for anyone you leave your prototype with
- Companies interested in your idea are likely to want to hold onto your prototype to look at it more closely.
- If you do not have patent or registered-design protection in place, make sure the company signs a confidentiality agreement.
- You should also draw up a written agreement setting out how long they can keep your prototype for and who will be responsible for paying for any damages or breakages.
Think about creating a video of how your product works
- This can be useful if someone is unable to attend a face-to-face meeting or if your product has a long operating cycle, for example.
Use any feedback to improve your idea
- Feedback from potential investors or companies that might be interested in licensing, buying or manufacturing your product can help you to refine your product idea.
- This could lead to the development of a more sophisticated presentation prototype and, further down the line, a pre-production prototype.
- Find out about technical and safety standards from the British Standards Institution (BSI) or through the Trading Standards Business Companion.
- Read advice on drawing up a non-disclosure agreement from the Intellectual Property Office.
- Find out about government funding for innovation through Innovate UK.
- Find out about funding from Nesta.
- Find business angel networks and get advice from the UK Business Angels Association.
- The British Private Equity & Venture Capital Association (BVCA) provides venture capital guidance for entrepreneurs including useful resources and links.
- Read more on research and development tax credits from HM Revenue & Customs.
- Search for a designer through Innovation Bank or use the design consultant directory of the Design Business Association.
- Read design guides and case studies from the Design Council.
- Find a trade association relevant to your sector through the Trade Association Forum.
- Find universities and colleges through Unistats.