Turning Ideas Into Products: Expert Tips For Invention Prototypes - Part 1: Terminology

If you have an invention idea that you hope to bring to market, eventually it will need to be prototyped as an essential part of the product development process. A prototype is a model of the invention idea (or part of it) that allows the inventor to validate and “prove” their concept. The prototype will allow the inventor to test and refine its functionality, appearance and production methods.  

The prototype phase could be viewed as going from the drawing board to the shop floor. Typically, several prototypes might be made, with each one building on the last in the development of a product for production. The goal is to create a final prototype that is close enough to the real thing that it can be set up for manufacture.
Whether the inventor or a licensee takes responsibility for making the prototypes, it is a key step in the journey from idea to product. This prototyping phase is actually quite an exciting time for inventors as it creates the opportunity for you to actually touch, feel and experience your invention in your hands.
For starters, there are several different types of prototypes, with each serving a different purpose.  These prototypes can be expensive or possibly even dirt-cheap. They can be simple or quite complex. The prototype itself might be a single part of an item or the whole item entirely. The actual materials used for your prototype could be made of production-quality plastics and metals or maybe just duct tape and wire. It all depends on the final product and the intended purpose.
Below is a quick look at some of the terminology you will need to familiarize yourself with as you go through the initial prototyping and overall product development process.

Mental Model:

The brain is an amazing simulation device. You can create and test a variety of potential solutions or constructions in rapid-fire order at no expense. The key is to develop your visual imagination skills (fodder for a future article) and your understanding of how the world works.

Sketch Models:

This is where most inventions start. It is a simple form of discovery. Sketch models are quick proof of concept studies and experiments to test a theory of operation. They are often made from bent hangers, tape and rubber bands. At my firm, Trident Design, we often use Legos or Kinex. Anyone can do this at home and it’s fun too!

Proof Of Concept / Works Like Prototypes / Breadboards:

These prototypes don’t necessarily look like the final product, but they can quickly prove that the basic concept will work. This process may demonstrate all or just some of the functions of a design.

CAD Models or Virtual Prototypes:

This is a 3D representation of a product concept built in CAD (Computer Assisted Design) software. Solidworks is a commonly used professional software package. The models can be rotated, exploded (pulled apart) and turned into photo-realistic renderings. They can be very rough or completely detailed. An accurate 3D model is required to create a functioning prototype part.

Rapid Prototypes:

This is a term usually used to refer to parts made in 3D printers of various sorts. A 3D CAD model (computer file) is sent to the machine and the printer then builds (prints vertically) the prototype in layers over a few short hours depending on the final size.

Aesthetic / “Looks Like” Prototypes: 

These look just like the real thing, but may not function perfectly or even at all. Their purpose is to refine the aesthetics and form of a product—they can also be used in photo shoots and for sales purposes. In combination with a proof of concept prototype, these prototypes can complete a picture by connecting all the dots.

Production Prototype:

These look and work like the “real” thing. They are used to finalize a design and to explore manufacturing methods and assembly techniques. Prototypes are never perfect; even the final one. They help you learn and prove functionality, but they are not as good as production products because the cost to make a perfect prototype is about the same as going into actual production. There is always a leap of faith required when jumping from prototype to ordering final production tooling.

Off Tool Samples:

These are the samples you get off your molds (surprise) prior to getting an approved final sample. They usually start quite imperfect. This is normal. It typically takes 2-3 rounds (sometimes more) of tweaking to get the product just right.

The invention prototyping world is full of specific niches related to numerous product categories, but these more common terms above are key items that every successful inventor should be aware of.  In my next article (part 2) we will dive into actual prototyping methods and discuss the important options available to all inventors. I hope you find these articles helpful and informative. Please feel free to leave feedback here and I welcome any and all questions as we continue down the product invention path.

SEE ALL: Turning Ideas Into Products Articles

Part 1 - Expert Tips For Invention Prototypes - Part 1: Terminology
Part 2 - Expert Tips For Invention Prototypes - Part 2: Prototyping Methods
Part 3 - Expert Tips For Invention Prototypes - Part 3: Proof-of-Concept Prototypes
Part 4 - Expert Tips For Invention Prototypes - Part 4: Production Prototypes
Part 5 - Expert Tips For Invention Prototypes - Part 5: The Iterative Process
Part 6 - Expert Tips For Invention Prototypes - Part 6: Making A Million Dollar Product

Also, check our our Inventor Information Section on Prototyping Your Product or Invention

Chris Hawker
Trident Design LLC
Advice for Inventors Blog
- InventorSpot.com

Chris Hawker, Founder of Trident Design, LLC is an idea guy. Chris has spent the last 20 years inventing, developing and selling innovative consumer products in a variety of industries. Chris has brought numerous products to market through a variety of business models including licensing, private label manufacturing, marketing, distribution and more. To date, Chris is probably most well known for the PowerSquid, licensed to Philips—an innovative, award-winning, and commercially successful power strip.