The Fundamentals Of Invention Prototyping
A Quick Preface...
Every inventor and every invention is quite different. There isn't truly a universal approach to or method of prototyping your invention. Below you'll find general information about prototypes, why inventors need to make a prototype, and what the benefits of your model are. Following that, I've included a number of videos. These videos are hopefully more specific to what your precise needs are.
Inventors & Prototypes
As an inventor, thinking up a commercially viable idea is what you do.
It's part of your natural process.
But taking that product concept and hypostatizing it in the form of a functional prototype can be a fairly long and rather encompassing journey.
When you have that fresh idea, the picture in your mind is usually of a fully functional end product; user-ready.
You envision exactly how it works, you visualize each component harmonizing and supplementing its counterparts to smoothly run like a machine.
Taking that image of perfection and translating it to a scale model or an actual product usually results in some unexpected outcomes. Things don't necessarily go as they were planned.
The early stages of your prototype design process is where you should look to map out all of the functionality and annotate both macro and micro issues (even potential ones) with remediation ideas to keep the process moving and have a troubleshooting plan in place.
What Is Prototyping?
Let's take a quick step back to make sure we're on the same page.
Prototyping is the process of making either a built-to-scale or actual-size model of the invention you intend on producing and bringing to market.
A prototype is defined as a first, typical or preliminary model of something from which other forms are developed or copied.
The prototype you build is essentially an early stage release or version of your invention used to demonstrate capabilities, features, functions, and the ways in which your idea solves a problem.
The prototype gives its audience a more realistic grasp of the concept they may have been introduced to in your initial messaging. That audience may be an investor, a manufacturer, a licensor, or another partner.
Regardless of who sees the initial information or messaging about your invention, they ultimately need to get a sense of the arrangement of components, size and weight, surface materials, etc. Depending on what your invention is, the prototype(s) can accomplish this (albeit via varying levels of complexity).
Your prototype doesn’t necessarily have to be made out of the same materials the final product would use. You can also have multiple prototypes for your invention - perhaps each fills a different use case throughout the invention process.
Why Inventors Need To Make Prototypes
Simply having an idea for an invention that would solve a problem does not legitimize anything.
It conceptualizes a theory and potentially allows you to hypothesize what your end product would do, look like, etc. - but the prototype is where the rubber meets the road.
Think about Henry Ford's patent of the moving assembly line back in 1913. He had an idea and it started as simply a vision to take Eli Whitney's assembly line and improve it so it could cut manufacturing costs and deliver cheaper products faster.
But it was just a vision. In today's world, and to paint an understandable picture, let's say he brought that idea on Shark Tank. He told Mark Cuban, et al, what his plan was, and they loved the idea - they saw how it could solve a problem and benefit multiple businesses.
But what if Henry had nothing physical to show them? Would they ever give him a deal? Doubtful.
Your prototype is living, demonstrable proof of your concept. It's used at multiple stages of the invention process and for multiple stakeholder audiences.
Inventors need to make prototypes. Here's a great video from Google on prototyping:
Benefits Of Prototyping
Prototypes provide a visual into problem-detection and needed enhancements to your invention. But as your prototype is the onset of a new journey toward production, there are other very specific advantages that you'll want to leverage.
Having a full-scale model of your invention allows you to scrutinize the ins-and-outs of each subtle detail. The original concept in your head could never have conveyed what it feels like to hold the invention (or sit in it, or turn it on...however it is used).
Now that you have hypostatized the idea, are the interacting and operable parts functioning to plan? Do the surfaces not only look good, but meet the goals from a performance standpoint?
Use the prototype to take your thoughts of how the invention would work to the next level. Perhaps you even see new or different use cases now that you have something to touch and feel.
For months or longer, everything has been a concept accompanied by a series of drawings. Prototyping is the time to realize your product - and allow others to see beyond their vision of the words you've painted.
If you're looking to sell your invention as a product, its great to kick things off by talking about it with potential buyers and showing them your drawings, animations, sketches, etc. But unveiling a real-life doo-dad - they physical model of your invention - is how you can officially settle any nerves that may have been worked up and make sure expectations are completely in line. The prototype goes a long way in showing people how worth their investment your invention is and earning you credibility.
Ultimately your prototype is pivotal in gaining financial support for your idea.
Fail Early. Fail Cheap.
Every new invention risks failure. Thomas Edison once said, jokingly, “We now know a thousand ways not to build a light bulb.”
Prototypes help inventors weed out the approaches, techniques, connections, and materials that don’t work so that they can focus on what does work. Your idea have have conceptually been perfect; you may have envisioned the harmonious components interacting with one another and even drawn it to spec. However, sometimes the 3D - or real - version proves something you could have never seen before.
The prototype allows you to pinpoint problems and solve them before you get too far in the process.
Butter Up The Patent Process
Prior to 1880, inventors in the US had to present working models (prototypes) of their idea to the patent office during the patent application process. The United States Patent and Trademark Office has since adopted a “first to invent rule” (like most of the world uses), which grants the patent to the first inventor who conceives and produces the technology or invention in practice (known as "reduction to practice").
Though not a legal requirement to obtain a patent, prototypes are the best and safest way to demonstrate “reduction to practice.”
Dan Gelbart's introduction to building prototypes:
Prototyping video: The process of using materials to create real-life drafts of ideas you have.
How to make a cardboard prototype:
How to make a plastic invention prototype:
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