The Secrets for Developing a Successful Prototype of Your Idea

By Phil Staunton Icon

Prototyping is one the most important stages of the design process. A prototype allows many different aspects of the product to be tested, including its general aesthetic and shape, dimensions, mechanics, electronics and materials. Every unique product will require a very different approach to prototyping because both the type of prototype required and the timescale and cost involved will vary with the complexity, size, functionality and type of product.

Approaching potential buyers with a 3D computer generated model and renderings enables them to visualise the final product, gain an idea of how it would work and potentially express an initial interest. However, the best way to establish firm commercial interest from buyers is to place a prototype in front of them that gives an accurate reflection of the finished design.This is becauseprototypes allow potential clients and buyers to get hands on with the product and explore how it will work.

Types of Prototypes

There are several types of prototypes, all of which have different functions.

  1. Visual prototype - gives an idea of the general shape and form the final product will take, but it is not necessarily made in the same material as the final product. Visual prototypes can be made using rapid prototyping, a process which creates 3D models of the product directly from CAD data. It is, as the name suggests, a quick process and is ideal for simple plastic products.
  2. Proof of concept prototype - for slightly more complex products a proof of concept prototype is usually needed. This will validate the functionality of the product and test any mechanisms. Proof of concept prototypes generally do not look like the final product, as they may consist of a circuit board to confirm the electronics are correct, or a mechanism which needs to be tested. Proof of concept prototypes generally take longer to produce than rapid prototypes, and can be fairly complex.
  3. Presentation prototype - aims to demonstrate both the working parts and the visual aspects of the final product, and can be taken to companies or the public to gain a further idea of interest in the product, and secure some letters of intent or preliminary orders. A presentation prototype will give a good idea of how the final product will look, feel and work, and is a great tool when pitching a product.
  4. Pre-production prototype is the final stage of the prototyping process, and it will look and function exactly as the final mass produced product will, and will be made of the same materials, if possible.

For simple products it may be possible to create a visual or proof of concept prototype using cardboard and sticky tape or needle and thread, though when approaching professionals and companies to launch the product it is often more appropriate to commission a company to design and produce a prototype.

How are prototypes made?

There are many processes which yield very different results, and should be chosen based on what the prototype is designed to do. For example a plastic part, such as a casing for an electrical device, could be rapid prototyped in SLS or SLA materials, whereas a vacuum casting process may be used for a rubber product, to allow the prototype to closely mimic the material properties of the final design. A professional design engineer can help guide you as to the best processes and materials for your prototype.

The right professional help

When choosing a company to prototype your idea it is important to consider more than one option, approaching three companies and getting quotes from each will aid the decision, though it should be noted that the cheapest option is not necessarily the best one, because price is not the only factor to be considered. Ideas are precious things, and they should not be passed on lightly.

You should ensure that the chosen company will add value to your product during the prototyping process. For example, you really need a company whose team includes product designers who can think of further features, style the product superbly and refine the usability. You also need to ensure the company will develop your concept in a way that is possible to manufacture, not just something that looks good. For this reason you should choose a company which is actively involved in the manufacturing process.

The level of service is very important and reviews from previous clients should be requested. A meeting face to face will help ensure the company have a good understanding of the product idea and that you are likely to get on well with them. The path from idea to final product is a long one, and so it is important that you and your design engineer get along and understand one another.

How much do prototypes cost?

Costs and timescales are completely dependent on the product. Rapid prototyping a small, single part plastic product could cost between £300 and £1200, and take 2-3 weeks to produce. A simple electronic device may cost in the region of £2000 to £4000, and complex device with intricate electronic systems may cost £20000 to £30000. Complex products can take a few months to prototype, as it may be necessary to source different trusted suppliers to manufacture different components of the product.


Prototyping is an essential part of every design process and it should not be overlooked. A good product prototype is superior to any description or illustration, and a good design engineer will be able to inform decisions, develop ideas, add value, design for production and finally provide a presentation prototype that can be pitched to industry representative. A good prototype will speak for itself and should maximise your chances of successful negotiations.

Phil Staunton is Managing Director of D2M Innovation Ltd. D2M has a proven track record of helping entrepreneurs protect, develop and sell their ideas.

Check out the D2M website for further information on creating a prototype or for a detailed description of the patent process.

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