Invention Prototypes, Prototyping & Prototype Basics

Like anything in life worth doing, the path of an independent inventor from initial stage idea to making money can be challenging.  If it were easy then everyone would be a rich inventor.  Luckily for those who have the determination to pursue innovation as a business it is not easy enough for anyone to do, which means that there are opportunities available.  One of the keys to successfully making money as an inventor is understanding that those who are successful operate in a business responsible way, and this requires closely monitoring expenditure of funds.  While you may want to rush out and build a prototype you need to be careful.  There is nothing like the show and tell of a working prototype to lure investors, partners and licensing deals, but inventing is better viewed as a marathon than a 100 yard dash, and preserving capital is absolutely essential if you are going to be successful.

There are many things that an inventor can do to help ensure a greater chance of success, and pursuing a financially responsible path is chief among them.  You do not want to rush right out and start spending money without a strategy.  Doing a patent search to see if there is any realistic opportunity to move forward is a wise first step, and should be done simultaneously or on the heels of some kind of market analysis.  These two items together will help determine whether there is enough money and enough chance of exclusive rights to warrant moving forward.  Next, file a provisional patent application to define the invention and lock in rights.  Once a provisional patent application is on file then taking to partners, investors and openly doing additional market research is more appropriate and safe.

Following this path will allow you to invest funds little by little.  Each step of the way you want to continually reevaluate and decide whether moving forward and investing more funds continues to make sense.  Determination is key, but also knowing when to cut and run, thereby preserving funds, is essential.  Your first invention is not likely to be your last invention, but if you waste all your money and it doesn’t turn out positive then you likely won’t have funds to move forward on the next invention, which might have been the winner.

For an article that purports to talk about prototypes, it may seem odd that in the first three paragraphs the focus has not been on prototypes.  This is deliberate to be sure, particularly given that the over-riding theme here is fiscal responsibility.  The prototype can be an enormously expensive endeavor, and a while you probably should engage in attempting some crude prototypes on your own to prove the concept of the invention, rushing out and spending a lot of money with a professional who will make a prototype is something that should come well down the road after you have satisfied yourself there is a market, that there is a realistic opportunity to obtain exclusive rights and there is a likelihood the invention can be offered at an attractive price point.

While describing an invention in writing and getting professional patent illustrations or engineering drawings is certainly helpful, there is simply no substitute for having a working prototype.  Unfortunately, prototypes cost real money and this is where costs can start to mount quite fast and funds begin to deplete with amazing speed.  You are going to need a prototype at some point, but starting with a professionally created prototype is not typically the most financially responsible thing to do.

In keeping with the theme about moving forward in a responsible fashion, starting with some kind of 3D modeling and/or engineering drawings  before prototyping is probably most advantageous.  Models and engineering drawings are typically much less expensive than a prototype, and they can help identify design problems.  They are still only proving the invention on paper or in a computer model, and an inescapable reality is that when you actually build things a lot of times what is on paper does not translate neatly to real life.  Furthermore, it is extremely common for inventors not to discover problems, weaknesses or advantages until they start testing a prototype.  So there is no substitute for eventually building one or more prototypes, but starting with the cost effective step of 3D modeling just makes smart business sense.

3D modeling starts to bring the invention into focus and really can allow you and prospective licensees and partners to envision the invention in a meaningful way. On top of that, 3D modeling may be enough if you are pitching your invention to an interested prospective licensee. According to Trevor Lambert, a licensing expert and founder of Lambert & Lambert and founder of the newly created Enhance Product Design, starting with photo-realistic drawings is a wise choice. Lambert says:

Developing photo-realistic CAD renderings is an inexpensive first step for inventors seeking to effectively present their invention to potential licensees. It helps the licensee imagine what the product would look like fully developed for a fraction of the cost of actual prototyping. In essence, by doing 10% of the work, it appears that 90% of development has been completed…it’s a very powerful sales tool.

If you are trying to raise money or find a licensing deal the further you get down the road to completion the more valuable the invention is because with each step toward completion you take risk out of the equation.  If all you have is an idea you will likely not find anyone willing to pay you for it, although there will be plenty who try and lead you on and praise your idea in order to get you to part yourself with money.  If you have a patent application filed that is worth something because some investment has been made, an issued patent is worth more because you now have exclusive rights.  A computer model can predict how the invention will work.  A prototype that works, however, proves not only the concept but that the invention works in real life.  It allows you to tinker with the device and find advantages and discover work-arounds for problems.  A prototype will let you demonstrate your invention in a tangible way.  This means there is far less to chance, less research and development necessary and, as a result, the invention is more valuable to a prospective licensee because there is less risk involved.

If a picture is worth 1000 words, 3D models are worth 10,000 words and a working prototype is worth at least 100,000 words.  Unfortunately, the price of each also escalates.  That being said, the biggest bang for your buck will likely be with respect to 3D models.  They tend to be relatively inexpensive, could be used in a provisional patent application and may make the invention real enough to close a licensing deal.  If you are not trying to get a licensing deal, but rather you are going to make and sell the invention yourself, 3D modeling is an important step on the way to a prototype.

You do need to be careful with prototypes and prototyping though because as mentioned it can get very expensive very quickly.  For that reason many inventors will find it advantageous to think in terms of a series of prototypes, beginning with something crude that proves the workability of the concept, which you might do in your garage or workshop with available pieces and parts at the earliest stages.  The next step prototype may be something more substantive to engage in further testing and to uncover weaknesses that need to be tweaked and advantages that need to be accentuated, perhaps again on your own or maybe with the assistance of some trusted friends or fellow inventors.  Finally, you arrive at a more sophisticated prototype appropriate for show and tell for inventors, partners or licensees.

Those looking for answers are still likely left with questions, such as what is the road map or time line I should follow.  Unfortunately, that is the one part of the equation for which there are no hard and fast rules.  In fact, what makes inventing difficult is the need to proceed with multiple things nearly simultaneously.  Obviously, you cannot do more than one thing at one exact moment, but as you are working on your crude prototype you might want to also be doing a patent search to see what else is available, particularly as your prototype takes twists and turns you didn’t originally anticipate.  At some point while work on the invention continues you might want to engage the services of someone like Enhance Product Design to help out with 3D modeling or engineering drawings, or maybe if things look promising you consider hiring a patent attorney to seek exclusive rights.  The important thing to understand is that there is no one correct way to proceed, but many wrong ways to proceed.  Just try and keep the focus on being fiscally responsible, investing little by little only as things continue to prove out, saving the biggest financial investments to nearer the end of the process.  After all, there is no sense spending large sums of money if the invention fails to prove out at the low investment threshold steps.

In any event, once you do arrive at the end of the prototyping stage, if you are ready to move forward, the next step is to do a limited production run so that you have some units that can be sold.  While there is nothing like a prototype to prove the invention, there is nothing like sales in order to prove market demand and likely success.  But production runs and sales is another topic for another day.

Happy inventing, and good luck with your prototype!


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Join the Discussion

3 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for The Mad Hatter]
    The Mad Hatter
    November 6, 2010 10:18 pm

    Great article, which tries to educate new inventors about what is really important. I used to run an inventors group for about 2 years here in Port Townsend, and I would say that 90% of them should have read a message like this.

    For that matter developers working on new models of devices that are already on the market, or are no longer covered by patent should read it too. All too often developers get overly excited about what they are doing, and loose sight of important things like costs. I don’t care how good your product is, if you can only sell 100 of the for $50.00 each, and you spent $1,000,000.00 developing it. You’ve still blown a lot of money, and probably put yourself out of business.


  • [Avatar for Stan E. Delo]
    Stan E. Delo
    November 6, 2010 07:10 pm


    Great article, which tries to educate new inventors about what is really important. I used to run an inventors group for about 2 years here in Port Townsend, and I would say that 90% of them should have read a message like this. What seemed critical to me at the time was some way to evaluate inventions while keeping them strictly confidential either through the WIN program, or other ways to evaluate the market potential. Also, I find your predilection for diversity to be very refreshing.

    One day trying to anticipate the fate of open innovation and the future of US patent law, and the next getting down to the nuts and bolts of successfully developing a napkin sketch into an actual invention. Only an inventor could write an article like this.


  • [Avatar for The Mad Hatter]
    The Mad Hatter
    November 5, 2010 09:25 pm

    Just try and keep the focus on being fiscally responsible.


    Great post Gene. However, I’d like to bring up one point. Steve Jobs is alleged to have said, ‘You can’t ask a focus group what they think of a GUI if they don’t know what one is.’ I don’t know if he really did say that, but the the statement is right. If your project is significantly different than anything on the market, or if you are in a market leader position, attempting to determine the market can be damned hard. About eight years ago the company I was working for produced an electronic controller with built in diagnostics and display. None of the competing units on the market had these features, so doing a proper market determination was pretty well impossible.

    But we went ahead with it. Quite frankly when we introduced it, we were told that we’d wasted our money. But the device sold really well, in part because it had an advantage we hadn’t completely considered. It took a lot less time to install than competitive units, and technicians installing it required a less training, since they could ‘see’ what was going on.

    Later slight modifications to the device (and a hell of a lot of EXPENSIVE dyno time) gained us a California Air Resources Board engine retrofit verification – a market that we couldn’t evaluate in 2002 because it didn’t exist (here’s a complete list of verified devices, you’ll note that we ended up having to develop several different versions for the market).

    Later on we added a calculator to our website to help end users decide what they actually needed to do, since the Air Resources Board hadn’t developed one. Small things like this can have an outsized effect on your sales. Yes, I’m proud of what we did, even though I’m no longer, due to my physical condition, with the firm.

    Here’s another example of a device that it wouldn’t be possible to evaluate sales for. CatGenie – The World’s Only Self-Flushing, Self Washing Cat Box. It may sound insane, but we have one, and the damned thing works. The cats like it. The humans like it. The one dog, who used to get a kick out of eating kitty poop is a little annoyed, but that’s fine. His breath no longer knocks squirrels out of the trees when I’m walking him.

    I can just imagine the look on the patent attorney’s face when he/she was asked to patent the Cat Genie. Yes, there’s a patent for a Feline excretia processing and elimination system, issued May 2003.