The first critical step is legal protection. You should investigate the need for a patent. As an individual or company, this provides you with some legal footing when talking to others about your idea. You will hear people talk about “IP”, which stands for Intellectual Property. They’re talking about your patent, your idea, which is what you must protect.
You will likely hear people discussing an NDA. NDA, stands for Non-Disclosure Agreement. Basically, this means that whoever works on your project can’t talk about it with just anyone. They are agreeing not to disclose your confidential information. To design, engineer or build your prototype, you must share information with the people who are going to work on it; what your product does, how it works and why it is better than anything else out there.
They need to agree to keep the information related to this project confidential. You may have your lawyer (and yes, you should probably have one), write up an NDA for you, or you could just sign a standard NDA provided by the company you are working with. NDAs are a normal part of doing business in the product development world. But, like your dad used to tell you, “make sure you read and understand what you are signing before you sign it.” It is typical for NDAs to be reviewed and possibly changed by both sides before all parties are happy with the document and will sign it. Any limitations beyond safeguarding the information you’re sharing, shouldn’t be included in an NDA.
Okay, we have the paperwork finished and now we are ready to build! Well, not so fast. What type of information do you have that you can provide to build this wonderful product? “I have all the drawings from my patent, you guys can just use those.” Those drawings illustrate what you are patenting but they are not necessarily the type of information required to build a prototype. What you really need are 3-dimensional drawings of your product. These types of files define the geometry of what you want to build. This type of data is generated using a 3D computer modeling program like SolidWorks, or Creo. You can also use this data to generate 2-dimensional drawings that further define your product. They are orthographic drawings that show the top, front and sides of your product. These will have sections through the product, details, and material call outs. This type of data fully defines your product. It will be a critical part of getting your product made.
There are a lot of different programs out there. Some are very powerful and can be used to generate data that can be used all the way to production. There are other programs that will generate 3-dimensional geometry, but the data that they produce isn’t very useful for machining or 3D printing. You need to choose a program that will give you the results that you need, often this might be a STEP or IGES file format. We recommend using SolidWorks or Creo. Other programs, such as Catia or Rhino CAD, may present some challenges when translating data for your prototype.
We will review any data that you may have, and we can usually determine quickly if it will be usable for producing your prototype. If it isn’t, or you don’t have any data at all, we can provide a quote for creating the data for you. This cost will be based on how complex your design is, how many parts it may have or how detailed the data needs to be. If we are producing files to be used for a prototype, they will be much faster, more efficient, and less expensive than if we are creating a database that will be used for production.
This is where we get to the point of determining exactly what kind of data you need. An effective way to look at this is to ask yourself, “What will I do with this model when it is finished?” “What will I use it for?” Two of the main uses for a model can be to show what your idea looks like, and to show how it functions. A “physical thing” for someone to hold, rather than a picture to look at, can be a very valuable tool to across communicate your idea. We’ve outlined six types of prototypes that cover nearly every scenario. They help illustrate several of the critical steps you’ll need to navigate throughout the design and development process.
A foam model is created from urethane foam for a quick, relatively inexpensive, early prototype. This is typically where you start, and is usually the first time you will see your product in 3D. This type of model helps evaluate size, form and ergonomics. Foam models can be left as raw material, or finished and painted to look like the real product, but don’t move or function. This is kind of like the first draft of an essay. And like an essay, you may need a few drafts to get to a workable solution.
A proof-of-concept prototype is created early in the development process to test functionality and materials. These prototypes are developed quickly to progress the project, but without the finesse of detailing or finishing. This is where you figure out how you want your product to function.
An appearance prototype is made to look just like the final product, but often doesn’t express functionality. Parts are finished, painted, assembled and graphics are applied. These prototypes are typically used to validate a design direction or can be used for presentation and photography. The actual break-up of the distinct parts may not be totally refined at this point. This gives all who are interested a look at what you intend your product to be when it is finished and sitting on the shelf for sale.
Once the basic functionality has been confirmed by early models, an engineering prototype may need to be created to refine the functional and mechanical details of the design. These prototypes may be created with low cost, or representative materials to compare performance and test functionality. At this point in the process your CAD is well developed and individual parts are defined.
With the help of in-house electrical engineers, our team can develop a fully functional electronic prototype with circuit board components, connected devices and embedded systems. From initial concept through validation testing, the end results can be taken directly into production.
A functional prototype embodies the culmination of learnings from previous prototypes. It performs and looks like the final production product, applying production materials and finishes wherever possible. This prototype is a true representation of the final functional and aesthetic design.
For a full rundown of levels of fidelity and what prototypes can be used for, you can take a look at our overview of complete prototypes.
A question you likely have is what is this going to cost? Do I need to mortgage my house? Am I going to have to eat macaroni and cheese for the next ten years?! This can be an expensive undertaking and you need to be aware that you are probably looking at thousands of dollars rather than hundreds. Prototyping rates vary by the size of the shop and the geographical location. A shop in California is probably more expensive than one in Ohio. Hourly rates can vary from $65 – $100 per hour and may be even higher. Design and engineering rates tend to follow the same trends regarding firm, size, and location. In general, most firms fall in to a range of $95 – $175+ per hour.
Regardless of who you work with, they should provide a quote for what they intend to do for you. They should spell out what they are going to do, how they are going to do it, what it will cost, and how long it will take to get it done. There will also be assumptions involved. This could cover what you bring to the table such as drawings, CAD, or other types of information. Remember, this isn’t like ordering a burger, this is likely the first time someone will be making a model of your idea. If it has moving parts or complex systems, it’s possible you’ll get a cost range, rather than a hard number.
You will want to know if they are just going to build what you give them, simply executing data, or if they will help figure things out along the way. There are often unanticipated hiccups that involve a deep understanding of the cause and effect of each step in the process. Having a partner who can work with you on solving these issues as they arise may prove to be invaluable in the development process. But, it always goes back to what you want your prototype to be. If you have everything set and you just need a physical prototype to show off, maybe executing data is just fine. If you need a little “tweaking” along the way, then it may serve you well to pay for some design or engineering services. Your prototyping team would review inputs and advise (based on the intent of the prototype) when additional design or engineering support is needed for a successful result.
Don’t be surprised if you are asked to pay for everything up front, but many firms require this when dealing with and entrepreneur or even a business that they have never dealt with before. If they don’t require full payment up front they may require a certain amount down and the balance when the project is finished. Just remember, this is business. Don’t be offended. You may never cheat anyone out of payment, but if they don’t know you, they have to protect themselves. It’s hard to pay employees with promises.
Let’s say we’re all finished, and you have a wonderful prototype. It’s exactly what you need, and you are ready to go! Now how do I get this potentially fragile thing in my hands? If the firm you are dealing with is local to you, it’s a no brainer, just pick it up and stick it in the back of the Chevy. If not, then you have a few choices to make.
If you are dealing with a smaller product, you can most likely ship it via FedEx or UPS. The prototype fabricators need to make sure that it is well packed. Ask questions before you get to the end of the program. The shipping terms should be listed in your quote, and often shipping costs are not included. If they are, you will want specifics on how your precious cargo is going to be sent to you. The last thing you want is having the prototype you’ve invested in just thrown in a box and sent the cheapest way possible. This is not the time to go light on shipping costs. You need to make sure that it is packed securely in a good, sturdy box and if possible, shipped overnight. This will cost more, but your package will spend less time in the shipping system, which means it will have less chance of getting damaged. We generally never ship anything on a Friday for Monday delivery. If it needs to be there Monday, we will try to plan to ship for a Saturday delivery. Again, this may cost a little more, but it increases the odds of your package making it to you in one piece.
The other critical detail to consider is the time of year or the region in which you are shipping to or from. This is a prototype, and it may look like the real thing, but it is made from modeling materials. If you ship it with a three-day delivery to Arizona in August, you will have a Salvador Dali model when you open the box! Think melted cheese. It won’t be good.
The other option to consider when shipping your prototype is a service called White Glove. Essentially this means you rent a truck and a driver to personally deliver your model. This can be done with a car, a van, a truck, or even a semi, depending on the size of what you are delivering. This service will only move your prototype. They will not haul anything else even if it is a semi-trailer. I have seen a giant tractor trailer used to move a solitary product. It sounds crazy but when you just spent $345,000 on a prototype, the delivery cost isn’t as important as it is arriving in perfect condition!
You’ve got an idea, now it’s time to make a plan. When you’re ready to take your idea to the next step and pursue a prototype, make sure to consider the following:
Why is it so important to have these pre-defined? We’re glad you asked. When you anticipate these considerations, the process for moving forward with a shop will be much smoother. Communication will be clearer, and quotes can move faster with less back and forth over the details. In the end, it will save you time, and get that prototype into your hands sooner.