Whether penned on the back of a scraggly bar napkin, mended together on your basement floor, or designed using the latest 3D modeling software, every product starts with an idea. But bringing that idea to a fully functioning, marketable prototype takes time, money, and more often than not, a few expert opinions.
Luckily, there's been a recent emergence of tools, resources, and groups to help do-it-yourself innovators bring their sketches to life. "We are living in a fantastic renaissance of innovation right now," says Bre Pettis, co-founder of MakerBot Industries and the NYC Resistor, a hacker collective. Groups like NYC Resistor bring together like-minded hobbyists to collaborate and build ideas with laser cutters, rapid prototyping machines, and electronic-building software. The group has even given rise to products, including Pettis' very own MakerBot, a 3D printer available for under $1,000 (3D printers, typically costing several thousands of dollars, create objects by stacking plastic or metal layers on top of one another).
While creating a professional-looking design still may require outside help, it's now easier and cheaper than ever to get your prototypes in front of customers. Here's how to efficiently develop your idea and bring it to market.
Developing a Prototype: Doing it Yourself
Before you begin with any elaborate plans, why not take a stab at trying to build the thing yourself? Eventually, once you start to sell the product, you're going to have to know it inside and out. Putting all the initial pieces together will not only give you an idea of manufacturing details, but it will make you more prepared for speaking with professional prototypers in the future.
A little more than a year into business, Pettis has shipped more than 3,000 of his MakerBots to what-to-be inventors throughout the country. He says the device can make almost anything up to 4''x4''x6'. The device converts 3D CAD files into tangible, plastic models of any shape or size. It may take a little while to build the machine and master the software, but costs a lot less than what a development firm might charge you. "You can feel really comfortable coming up with ideas, printing it, making mistakes, and re-printing it," Pettis says.
A number of products, and even companies, have spawned from the likes of MakerBots and hacker collectives as well. Pettis says the founders of the social network Diaspora met putting together a MakerBot in computer science class at NYU. Tinkerers can even share their homemade designs on a site called Thingiverse.com, which features everything from toy cars to salt- and pepper-shakers to robotic arms. With more ease of use and collaboration, DIY modeling today acts almost as a natural prelude to prototyping.
Developing a Prototype: Taking It To the Pros
Once you have a few rough models to work with, you may want to send the idea to a prototype development firm or even hire some of your own engineers. If you do consult with a firm, you'll need to do your homework beforehand to get the best results.
"A lot of people we deal with know absolutely nothing about manufacturing and we have to try to educate them," says Paul Piccini, vice president of engineering at the Plastic Resource Group, a Pittsburg, Kansas-based development firm geared towards start-ups. The ones with the most detail and knowledge often fair the best. "Companies might come to us with designs they've built from Home Depot, and that usually helps paint a nice picture for us."
Education also means learning your needs in manufacturing methods, materials, quantity, and cost. After you come up with an estimate, firms like the Plastic Resource Group can help you condense the parts into a more efficient, sophisticated process. The cost can range anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000, Piccini says, but the cost of mass production amounts to much less per unit.
It's also important not to put all your eggs in one basket, especially if you suspect a firm could be unethical. Piccini says he's heard horror stories of developers peppering in all sorts of hidden costs once the building process gets underway. Shop for firms that quote you with an upfront, fixed cost and are willing to be somewhat flexible to meet your budgetary needs during development.
Developing a Prototype: Building a Team In-House
Mostly, the in-house route suits companies that have either been in business for a while or develop non-physical products like software. Aromatic Fusions, a Bensalem, Pennsylvania provider of fragrance technology, now manufactures its products in-house after outsourcing its early prototypes to design firms. Key to the company's recent success—taking it to No. 205 on this year's Inc. 500 list—has been its relationships with on-staff engineers who can assess whether a product can be built efficiently.
"Surprisingly enough, when some companies in the U.S. do prototyping, they don't have all of their product concepts reviewed by individuals with manufacturing expertise," says Eric Albee, the founder and president of Aromatic Fusions. "I can remember three or four occasions where the product looks great, but is utterly non-manufacturable."
True, looks can sometimes belie functionality. But in the software space, it's nearly impossible sell a product without an elegant design.
OWN, an Ann Arbor, Michigan company that develops point-of-sales software for stores, just worked through a number of product iterations before it starts beta testing in a few weeks. Even though co-founder and president Verdi Ergün knew very little about software development to start, he knew how much precision his product required. "We try to be honest with ourselves past the point of discomfort," Ergün says.
For OWN, that level of honesty and detail meant refining every nook and getting only the right people on board. Because of the expense, they put developers on one or two day trial periods, bumping it up to one or two weeks, then a few months before hiring them full time. "A lot of people will do 90 percent of the work, but they won't do the last 10 percent," Ergün says. "And that last 10 percent makes all the difference in the world."
Developing a Prototype: Running Customer Tests and Refining
Sometimes entrepreneurs forget to realize that they aren't building a product for themselves, but for their customers. No matter the business, maintaining a constant stream of feedback from customers—both potential and actual—is instrumental to the success of your product.
At Aromatic Fusion, they can spurt out ideas and models at a breakneck pace due to advancements in 3D printing technology. And with high-profile customers like Bath & Body Works, time is of the essence. "It used to take us two weeks to get a print job done," Albee says. "Now it takes two days."
After running a burrito restaurant for several years, Ergün reflected on how his business could benefit from a simple sales program. He knew other businesses could too, and tried talking to as many of them as possible to tailor the product to their needs. "It's a constant ping-pong match between our own creative abilities and what our customers actually need," he says.
These information gathering and research sessions put Ergün in the shoes of his customers, and also expanded his clientele. Refined to its most dynamic and functional form, OWN will now begin beta testing on the some 200 customers it has acquired along the way. "It wasn't me that was crafting the idea or the concept or the design," Ergün says. "It was the world."