Do you need a Prototype Of Your Invention?

Do You Need a Prototype of Your Invention?

The short answer, “no”. Most inventions don’t need what people typically think of as a prototype. Many times, building a traditional prototype can even harm your chances of success instead of helping. But that is mostly only because people don’t understand the why and when different types of prototypes should be used. The answer to the question, Do you need a prototype of your Invention, is a complex one.

This article will explain the different types of prototypes as well as why and when they are helpful.


What is a Prototype?

A prototype is any physical representation of an idea that is used to move towards commercialization as a product.

A prototype is often thought of as something that you can touch and hold, but it could also be something digital or really any way of conveying the idea.

The technical definition of the word is less important than what you are actually trying to accomplish with it. You aren’t trying to accomplish a “prototype”, you are likely actually trying to accomplish a business function. Like idea validation, or attracting investors, or proving your idea functions as intented.


How Could Building a Prototype Hurt Your Success?

Opportunity cost

The answer is because of the opportunity cost. Each type of prototype has a specific purpose. If it turns out you don’t actually need the answer to that purpose, or there was a significantly easier way to answer it, then a lot of the time and money you spend building it might all be for waste. 

Worse yet, that would have been time and money not spent on perhaps more important tasks in your journey. This opportunity cost alone is a reason to seriously consider what type of prototype you actually need.

Don’t spin your wheels

One of the biggest mistakes any entrepreneur makes is thinking because they are working on their idea, they are making progress. In reality, that is often not the case. Spinning your wheels is still work, it’s just not actually getting you anywhere at all.

Don’t build what you don’t need

Just because you know you might need a more professional prototype at a later stage, isn’t a good reason to divert resources to that at this time. In any step in the Invention Process, you should only ever perform the task that you need too for the step you are on at the time.

It’s easy to let time and cost get away from you in this business and that can end up being a significant expense. An expense that can ultimately be the reason you don’t have the funds you need to proceed. Or enough progress to show to attract investment.

Types of Prototypes.

There are three main types of prototypes.

  1. Illustrated Prototype
  2. Digital Prototype
  3. Physical Prototype

Understanding the different types of prototypes is the first step in understanding which one you need and answering the question of, do you need a prototype of your invention.

1: Illustrated Prototype

An Illustrated Prototype is commonly made by hand on paper or with a simple illustrator program. It does not generally include full dimensions or specifications, and might not be complete or to scale.

It’s often called a “Napkin Sketch” even though it’s rarely actually on a napkin. People don’t normally associate a “Napkin Sketch” as a prototype, but it is one.

2: Digital Prototype

A Digital Prototype is much like an Illustrated Prototype, only it introduces representative dimensional and mechanical characteristics, or at least moves towards them.

Where the lines of an Illustrated Prototype are meant to be “Ballpark”, the lines of a Digital Prototype are meant to be exact. Or help you determine what exact should be.

This type of prototype must be created with 3D modeling or CAD software because the dimensions and specifications must be universally recognized by computers.

3: Physical Prototype

A Physical Prototype is a physical 3 dimensional object that you can touch and hold. It can range from a production quality full representation, to a very rough mock up of even just one feature of the overall intended product.

The reason a prototype in the invention world can include things other than a physical three dimensional thing is because it is all about conveying the idea however you need to do that. The point is that there are other ways to achieve the same purpose without having to make something physical. Understanding this can save you a lot of time and money.

Purpose of the Prototype.

When it comes to the question, do you need a prototype of your invention, it is critical that you understand the purpose for the prototype. To do this, you have to ask yourself why you actually need the prototype in the first place. What utility purpose do you need to accomplish with it? 

Here are some of the common reasons for a prototype and what type you might actually need to address that reason. These aren’t in any particular order.

There are six main reasons for prototypes. 

  1. To understand the idea yourself
  2. To Validate the idea or market
  3. To test or improve certain features
  4. To have the manufacturer prove they understand how to make it
  5. To confirm production
  6. To advocate, promote or sell.

Prototype Builders We Recommend

Reason 1: To understand the idea yourself, or to think it through.

This is purely an internal purpose. You aren’t trying to prove your idea to anyone else, or get any kind of external feedback. You are just trying to understand the concept yourself and if you personally think it’s worth pursuing.

Though you might want to prove specific mechanisms or functions are possible, you should really ask yourself if it is necessary.

Some inventions have no significant or complex function to validate. Simply knowing it’s manufacturable without significant hurdles is a good reason not to bother with making something physical early on. At least not at this stage. 

You only have to prove to yourself that the idea has merit. An illustration is usually enough for this stage. 

Reason 2: To validate the idea or market.

In order to validate the idea or a market for it, you don’t necessarily need anything if you are good at describing things. However, it is more common to actually need something physical to convey your idea to others. 

What exactly you need depends on your Validation Strategy. If you think you can convey your idea well enough with a well crafted Napkin Sketch, that is perfectly acceptable. If you try this and find people aren’t quite getting the concept, then this might be a good time to determine what the next level of prototype is that you might need.

The decision on which type might depend on what resources you have available to you. If you find it easier to make a rough Physical Prototype by hand than a 3D CAD model, then that might be your answer. 

This decision might also depend on the target market you are trying to convey too and what they are typically receptive to.

Reason 3: To test or improve certain features.

This is for if your invention has certain features that require it to perform a certain mechanical function, and you don’t know what dimensions or specifications would net that result. 

This is assuming you can’t test this with a CAD model or other means. Which can again depend on you and what skills and resources you have available to you. If you have the capability to determine what you need to in order to be confident in a design through other means, then you might not have to actually make the physical prototype. 

But if that skill set is not in your arsenal and you know you can quite easily build something to learn what you need too. Then that is probably a better move for you.

For this, it’s important to note that you might not have to build the whole prototype vs just the portion of it that you need to test or prove. A car company doesn’t have to build a prototype of the entire car just to test a new engine component. They can rig up a test of just that component.

You also need to pay attention to if whatever you can build is representative of the materials and processes that production would have if such characteristics are critical. 

Such as if your design relies on a slippery plastic surface for something to slide, a 3D printed representation likely won’t be smooth enough to slide for your testing. You might not be able to determine from a prototype how the actual production unit will perform. If this is the case, you might consider getting help from a Professional Prototype Builder to make a better representation than you can.

Reason 4: To have the manufacturer prove they understand how to make it.

This is more accurately referred to as a “Sample” and is always made by whoever is going to actually manufacture it. 

You are likely going to send the manufacturer CAD files as a reference for them to learn how to make your invention. However, mistakes happen and they could make something wrong. By asking for a sample first, you can confirm if they understand your design’s intent. 

Sometimes this unfortunately requires they make all the expensive tooling or molds to produce your invention into a product. Other times they can just 3D print the portions or otherwise use rapid prototyping. At least on certain portions of the invention. 

But in any case, this always involves communication with the manufacturer and their capabilities.

This is also meant to be performed in the later stage of trying to find a manufacturer or supplier. If you need help finding someone to manufacture your invention, you can work with a Sourcing Agent. They can also help walk you through the sample process with the manufacturer.

Reason 5: To confirm production.

This is more accurately referred to as a “First Article” or “Production Sample”. 

It is the first actual production units off of all the production molds and tools. It is the exact version that the customer would receive. 

This is meant to confirm that the manufacturer made the invention into a product correctly before your customer sees it. This usually also includes actual packaging as the customer would receive it. 

It is meant to represent the total customer experience. Again, a Sourcing Agent will be able to help you with finding and working with the manufacturer.

Reason 6: To advocate, promote or sell.

In order to promote your invention for the purposes of selling it, there are a lot of options. 

Many people simply make a Video with a CAD image or a non-functioning 3D print and post that as a Kickstarter campaign or otherwise use that to promote interest. 

Others will hand make samples that they can even sell to generate initial sales. 

A well written Sell Sheet can also really help.

Either way, when it comes time to sell or pre-sell your invention, this might be the right time to invest money into making that presentation a good one.


In the end, the answer to the question, do you need a prototype, is a complex one. But if you understand the ins and outs of the different types of prototypes and why each are used, you can more easily answer this question for your own idea.

As always, it is important to listen to other perspectives, but always keep in mind that the answer also might be different if you are going to license or venture.


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