One of the most famous stories of prototyping done quickly, cheaply and spot-on came from the inventor of the cyclone vacuum. In 1978, James Dyson ripped apart a conventional vacuum and attached his own cyclonic filter using cardboard and duct tape. The crude model was a far cry from today's Dyson robotic cleaning machines that appear to be straight out of Michael Bay's effects department, but his experiment worked: Dyson proved the cyclone technology would function on a small-scale household product, and the first-ever bagless vacuum was born.
What Dyson didn't do was spend a long time making his prototype look pretty or incorporating all the functions he wanted in the final product. His quick, resourceful prototype let him zero in on his main feature and improve the design from there.
Engineers who get too hung up on perfecting a prototype often lose sight of the bigger picture and waste precious development time. Here are a few ways you can speed up your prototyping process to get your invention or product to market faster.
Speed Up Your Prototyping: Be Resourceful
The Dyson example illustrates the first key lesson of prototyping: Even if you're trying to engineer the most complex, mass-produced machine, that doesn't mean you have to start with a fully functioning materials lab.
Many designers mock up a website or new app on paper before they even put any functionality to it, says Alan Nguyen, an entrepreneur, former CEO of the Yan Group, a Web-mobile-TV music channel platform.
"Just start building it," he says. "You can start with paper cutout."
With the prototype, you're usually just trying to show off one element of the product, whether it's the design or a specific function, so there's no need to fret about constructing every part of it out of consumer-grade material or technology.
"You need someone to learn how to Photoshop basically," Nguyen says. "You don't need Flash or to actually code interactions."
Many successful entrepreneurs decide to do this kind of in-house mock-up to save money and time instead of hiring an outside firm, he says.
Bill Lucas, director of curriculum at the Luma Institute, which is based in Pittsburgh and focuses on educating innovators on human-centered design, says he encourages entrepreneurs to rifle through the junk drawer to find materials to round out a prototype. One group working on a project cut Tylenol tabs in half to represent buttons; another working in a conference room turned coffee cups upside down and used them as knobs.
"That kind of clever resourcefulness we find just absolute delights in the people we put through these learning experience," he says.
Dig Deeper: How to Develop a Prototype
Speed Up Your Prototyping: Don't let Perfection Get in the Way
Don DeGraff's company, From Patent to Profit, which helps fast-track product development, advocates a very specific approach to quick and cheap prototyping. The company, which lists Kleen Kanteen among its success stories, tells inventors to create only a very crude prototype—out of balsa wood or other basic materials—that conveys the purpose and potential of the idea. Then, they make a video showing it off, put it online behind a password-protected site and begin showing it to potential investors or manufacturers.
"If they show interest, then and only then do you start spending money on the actual prototype," he says. "Now all of a sudden you've got an unbiased company or person looking at your process. And you've spent minimal dollars getting it out."
This not only helps inventors save money but also make sure they're appealing to the right parties.
"They're going to get the visual very quick if it's something they're interested in," he says.
Experts say the quest for perfection or focusing too much on details is something that often trips up engineers and entrepreneurs in the early stages of development. They spend too much time trying to make it look neat instead of focusing on showing off its features.
"It doesn't have to be perfect, as long as it conveys the idea of the full concept its getting out, it's fine," Nguyen says. "Sometimes paper is better. You don't want someone to basically judge it because one is prettier than the other."
Startup adviser Amir Khella says you need to think more like a hacker and less like a coder in these situations. Hackers know how to put things together quickly, test them, and solve problems. This way you focus more on validating the idea of the product instead of worrying about fixing bugs in the CSS code or other meticulous details.
That's the premise behind his latest venture, Keynotopia, which lets users design quick and easy interfaces and interactive mockups for web, mobile and desktop apps without touching a line of code. Khella followed his own advice: he launched the site in three hours with a $47.50 budget, and got his first paying customer within 10 minutes.
Dig Deeper: Tapping Customers for Product Ideas
How to Speed Your Prototyping Process: Focus on the Variables
That also means you need to be not afraid to fail, sometimes over and over again. Good prototypes should focus on highlighting specific features of a product—the cyclone suction power in the vacuum, for example. You want to show people specifically how your product will vary or improve on what already exists.
You don't want to be spending time fleshing out every feature of the product, Lucas says.
"Don't go broad and deep," he says. If you do, "for all intents and purposes, you're making the whole thing build out."
Khella says he recommends inventors create three to five quick prototypes at a time to figure out which one is best, which makes you a more objective judge of the product.
"In my experience that's the difference between success and failure," Khella says. Too often, he says, he gets e-mails from app developers and engineers asking things like "How can I prototype with live data?"
"That shows maybe the person is getting lost in the details already," he says. "It kind of takes the experimenter's mindset instead of the perfectionist's."
Dig Deeper: The Future of Manufacturing
How to Speed Your Prototyping Process: Know your Tools
The biggest boon to at-home inventors in recent years has been the availability of affordable, easy to use 3-D printers. The machines from companies such as MakerBot allow users to draft objects using 3-D software and print their own small objects at home, from small machine parts to full-sized gadgets.
"The first thing to do is to make sure you're working in the world of 3-D modeling," says Bradley A. Cleveland, president and CEO of Proto Labs. "If you can imagine any kind of crazy geometry, you can print it on a machine."
Proto Labs specializes in CNC machined and injection-molded parts for functional prototyping and custom one-off projects. If you're going that route with your prototype to see how it actually functions—instead of pasting together coffee cups, for example—it's important to educate yourself on the resources available before you start building.
"You really have to be careful to understand your production needs before you're done with the prototyping phase," Cleveland says. "A little bit of time spent up front spent education yourself on the prototyping processes can save you some big headaches."
Dig Deeper: 6 cool tools for DIY prototyping