Prototypes are working models of entrepreneurial ideas for new products. With certain types of products, prototypes are almost indispensable, and funding and building them the first test of the enterprise. On the other hand, an entrepreneur armed with a good prototype is able to show potential investors and licensees how the proposed product will work without having to rely exclusively on diagrams and his or her powers of description. Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a thousand pictures.
TYPES OF PROTOTYPES
There are basic types or stages of prototype creation, each of which can be used by the enterprising entrepreneur in securing financing and/or a licensee.
- Breadboard—This is basically a working model of your idea, intended to serve the basic function of showing how the product will work—not how it will look. Aesthetics, in other words, are secondary. The basic idea here is to show mechanical functionality. The approach is not suitable to a product that is mechanically straightforward and relies more fundamentally on such aspects as pizzazz and/or romance.
- Presentation Prototype—This type of prototype is a representation of the product as it will be manufactured. Often used for promotional purposes, it should be able to demonstrate what the product can do, but it is not necessarily an exact copy of the final product. Presentation prototypes are, of course, hand-made. In actual practice, small changes may be introduced to fit the product for rapid and efficient manufacturing. Such prototypes are ideal in situation where a manufacturer is being sought or the product will be licensed.
- Pre-Production Prototype—This type of prototype is for all practical purposes the final version of the product. It should be just like the finished product in every way, from how it is manufactured to its appearance, packaging, and instructions. This final-stage prototype is typically expensive to produce—and far more expensive to make than the actual unit cost once the product is in full production—but the added cost is often well worth it. It is most valuable because it enables inventors and producers to go over every aspect of the product in fine detail, which can head off potential trouble spots prior to product launch. Such prototypes, of course, also lend themselves for photographic reproduction in early promotion—or to show mockups of campaigns in order additionally to interest future participants in the venture.
THINGS TO CONSIDER IN CREATING A PROTOTYPE
Prospective entrepreneurs with a new product idea should make sure that they consider the following when putting together a prototype:
- Adequately research the requirements of the product prototype. Early planning will save a great deal of time and useless running around.
- Make sure the prototype is well-constructed and that it will stand up to rough handling if it has to be shipped to others. Be prepared to receive the prototype back broken or damaged.
- Do not shirk on presentation, even at the prototype stage.
- Recognize that complex product ideas may require outside assistance from professional prototype makers. Universities, engineering schools, local inventor organizations, and invention marketing companies are all potential sources of information on finding a good person to help you make your prototype. But before hiring a prototype maker, entrepreneurs should make certain that they can meet your expectations. To help ensure that you are satisfied, conduct research on the maker's business reputation and make certain that you adequately communicate your concept.
- Consider making multiple submissions to potential licensees. Some inventors send prototypes to several manufacturers at the same time. This harks back to planning, above, in which it is best to anticipate making five instead of one.
A relatively recent development in the creation of prototypes is rapid prototyping (RP). Also known as desktop manufacturing, RP takes advantage of computer technology to turn designs into three-dimensional objects. Some older RP systems work by printing multiple layers of plastic ink to create a model of a computer-generated image. Some newer systems are able to freeze water into a three-dimensional ice sculpture model; the most sophisticated systems can create metal molds. RP technology saves time in the product development process. It also improves product design by allowing various people to see a model and have input without creating a full-fledged prototype. It has been used by large companies like automakers and aircraft manufacturers for several years, and it is now becoming accessible to small businesses as well.
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