How to Prototype an Idea or Invention

By Alastair Swanwick Icon

Each idea is different and the best approach to prototyping depends on the specifics of the idea. However there are some basic principles that can help.

  1. What is the prototype for?

    Presentation to interested parties: When presenting your idea to an investor or company representative it might not actually be necessary to have a prototype. It is often possible to convey the idea or invention to an interested party using a graphic presentation. The idea should be designed, ideally using computer aided design, and then images of the product laid out on presentation boards. It is probably best to get a professional product designer to complete the design work and show how the product looks and what it does. Try to find a design company that specialises in product design for inventors. One UK based company is Innovate Design.

    If funds are tight it is better to spend the money on a professional presentation rather than a prototype. The presentation will be more cost effective than the prototype and will be quicker to produce. The work done during the design stage can help reduce the cost of the prototyping stage if it becomes necessary at a later date.

  2. When a prototype is necessary

    Concept prototypes are sometimes necessary to either prove that an idea works or instantly convey an idea that is hard to describe on paper. If people need to interact with the idea to be persuaded of its benefits then a prototype can make all the difference.

    Often people are more prepared to back an idea if they can see that a lot of the development work has already been done and a prototype demonstrates this. An inventor could typically expect to charge more for an idea if it has been prototyped so it is worth considering if the funds are available.

  3. How much will a prototype cost?

    Prototypes costs vary hugely depending on the size and complexity of the idea. Typically for a small handheld product with a unique shape it could be in the region of two to three thousand pounds.

  4. Why are prototypes so expensive?

    Often the idea has to be designed first to establish the layout of internal components and the shape of the casing among other considerations. Then a virtual model has to be built using computer aided design and then finally a prototype can be built using rapid prototyping. All of this takes time and therefore it is expensive.

  5. What is rapid prototyping?

    Rapid prototyping is a technology that takes a 3D computer model and builds a 3D plastic part. There are three basic techniques for rapid prototyping: Stereolithography, Selective Laser Sintering and Fusion Deposition Modelling. For all these processes the model needs to be professionally designed using computer aided design.

  6. Are there cheaper ways of building a prototype?

    Some ideas can be prototyped simply from existing products or by using ordinary materials and these will be cheaper than prototypes that are built using rapid prototyping. Another cheaper way is to build a prototype that proves the principle of the idea without necessarily looking like the final product. This is called a 'proof of principle' prototype. Alternatively an aesthetic model could be built that shows what the product will look like but does not prove whether it will work.

  7. What are the different types of prototype?

    There are three main categories of prototype:


    • Proof of principle: A prototype that simply proves that a particularly new system or mechanism works. Often it is just part of the overall idea and it does not need to look like the final product.
    • Aesthetic model: A prototype that looks like the final product but is not fully functional.
    • Pre-production prototype: A pre-production prototype looks, feels and works like the final product. This type of prototype can be produced to mimic how it would actually be manufactured to check that everything will fit together correctly.


  8. How can I get a prototype built?

    If you do not have the facilities or expertise to build the prototype yourself then there are companies that specialise in building prototype inventions.

For more information on prototyping an idea or invention, click here: Invention Prototype

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