The 6 Steps to Turning Your Idea Into a Product

designers building prototype

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Lorelei Yang
Lorelei Yang718
Wonky consultant with a passion for words
If you're trying to turn an idea or invention into reality, you'll likely want to prototype it. This important step — which comes between design and production — is an essential way to refine your design and create a working model that proves your idea's value. Prototypes can be self-built or created at machine shops, 3D printing firms or other places that offer this service. Regardless of where you go to create a prototype, it's important to understand why you might need one and what the steps are to create one.

What is a prototype?

A prototype is the first model of something, especially a machine. It forms the basis on which future forms of the invention in question are developed or copied. For example, in software, the term refers to a working example from which a new model or new version of an existing product can be developed.

Why do you need a prototype?

Prototyping is an important process that helps refine a product. It gives designers the chance to research new alternatives and ways to build the product and to test the existing design to confirm a product's functionality before it goes into full production. Through the prototyping process, you can figure out what does (and doesn't) work in your design and make adjustments as needed.
If you're trying to raise money or get a patent for your product, having a prototype can also improve your odds of success in both endeavors. When investors and potential customers evaluate your product, a prototype gives them a better sense of what they're spending their money on — which makes them more likely to give you their hard-earned money. 
If you're applying for a patent, having a prototype may also improve your odds of success. While a prototype isn't required when filing a patent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, having one does help demonstrate that your idea has been thought through in enough detail to merit the office's consideration for approval.

6 steps for making a prototype.

1. Identify basic requirements.

Before you can begin creating the prototype itself, you need to determine what's needed in it. This includes outlining the necessary functionality, inputs and outputs.

2. Create a concept sketch.

Before building the full prototype, you should begin by sketching out the product design. While you can use a digital drawing program for this step, it can be more efficient to start on paper, so you can easily sort through multiple ideas through quick sketches. 
Hand-drawn sketches may also come in handy if you ever need to defend your ownership of your intellectual property. Intellectual property adviser CreateIP advises that sketches drawn by hand can carry more weight in court than electronically-generated drawings.

3. Develop a virtual prototype.

After your paper sketch is done, you'll want to create a digital sketch of your idea. AudoCAD, which can be used to create both 2D and 3D renderings, is a standard design tool for this purpose. A 3D rendering allows you to rotate and animate your virtual sketch — this allows you to visualize the product from all angles. This design should be much more detailed than your concept sketch since it's the design you'll use to develop the prototype. 
If you don't have the skills for this yourself, you may want to consider hiring a professional graphic or prototype designer to help you with this step. 

4. Create an initial handmade prototype.

Your first prototype can be made at home and be in miniature if called for. Physical products can be made at home with substitute materials (such as using fabric scraps to prototype the shape for a leather handbag design), so they don't have to be exactly true to your final product vision. This first physical prototype doesn't need to be perfect — it just needs to be presentable, so it can prove that your idea is possible. If you're creating an electronic product, you may want to make use of third-party programming libraries to save time on coding and image design.
With the rapid expansion of 3D printing (a process that uses CAD designs from scanned or computer-made 3D models to layer material into a working prototype), you may want to consider 3D printing, rather than hand-building, your prototype. The story of Sally Dunne, create of Pedal Petals, illustrates the advantages 3D printing has over traditional prototyping. By using 3D printing, Dunne was able to prototype her product in a matter of hours, print the first prototype the same day on her at-home 3D printer and make her first sale on Etsy the same day.

5. Use the initial prototype to identify and correct issues in your design.

After your first prototype is built, you should use it to identify any flaws that need to be fixed in the design. This may involve creating multiple iterations of the product. 

6. Finalize your design to create a final prototype.

Eventually, you should arrive at a prototype that represents your actual product as it'll be sold to customers. This is your final prototype, and it can be used to show your product to potential investors and customers, as well as part of your patent application.

What materials are used to make a prototype?

The short answer is, "It depends." The material used to make your prototype depends on the type of product you're building. Generally speaking, though, you should choose prototyping materials that are relatively cheap and easy to work with. For example, if you're making a leather bag, you could use cotton or nylon fabric to create the initial prototypes because they're much cheaper than leather.

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Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.