How to Make a Prototype 101: Fundamentals, Methods & More
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How to Make a Prototype 101: Fundamentals, Methods & More

Have a great idea for a new product but don’t know where to start?

The short answer is building a prototype—a model of your product.

If you aren’t sure how to make a prototype, you’re in the right place. Our team has helped builders and product teams bring countless products to market, and we’ve built up a network of over 2,000 industry experts.

To help you get started, we’ve compiled all of that knowledge—particularly around how to make a prototype—into this guide.

Remember that old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words?”

Well, a 3D model can be worth hundreds of thousands of words.

But as with every step in bringing a new product to market, planning and following well-known product development processes will not only save you time and money but also result in a better final product that will succeed in the marketplace.

This article will help you prepare for getting a mockup of your idea by explaining what to do to prepare, what prototyping is, how to make a prototype, and how to use your prototype best to gather feedback and improve your new product.

Develop Your Product Idea Before You Build A Prototype

Four co-workers in team meeting

The urge to go directly from your idea to a first prototype is strong. But to get the most out of your prototype, you need to follow the standard design process and do some research and use that information to perfect your product idea. There are a lot of factors to consider, but a good place to start is to ask and answer these questions:

  • What unmet customer need does your product fulfill?
  • Who is your product made for?
  • Which companies will you be competing with?
  • How does your product deliver what customers want?

The best way to answer these questions is to research your audience and the market and then merge your ideas with that information in a design.

Analyze the Competition

Understanding the market you want to enter is crucial to setting up a successful business.

Even if you know the market well, start by reading trade magazines and their websites. Check out this online database for publications regarding industries ranging from architecture to computer hardware. Follow the links and references to dig deeper and understand the industry’s trends, current players, and, most importantly, what people are not doing.

Next, conduct fieldwork by visiting local and major retail outlets and online sites that sell similar products. Note different advertising strategies, products at various price points, and packaging. Try to capture what message they are trying to convey and how they show the product, and try to differentiate yours.

Google Trends is another valuable tool for checking out your idea. You can search for different keywords and screen them based on location and time. Start with general keywords first. As you get more comfortable, search for specific words to check if someone is already manufacturing your idea. Also, while searching the internet, pay attention to the advertising that pops up. All of this tells you what your competitors are doing and how they present themselves to your future customers.

Know Your Core Demographics

It’s important to know who your product is made for. That includes knowing the age group, gender, interests, and hobbies of the people you sell to. Knowing your target audience will help you create an effective advertising and branding strategy. And in modern product design, branding is part of the look, feel, and function of your product.

With knowledge of your target audience, you can research their needs. Reading popular online forums and customer reviews will give you invaluable insights. As you work to understand who your product is for, capture their pain points and what they are currently excited about.

Create a Conceptual Product Design

Armed with your market and customer research results, you can now start on your conceptual design. The best way to do this step is to work with an industrial designer and go through the process of ideation and product specification documentation. If that is not an option, a great start is making simple sketches and writing a list describing what your product does.

Whoever makes your prototype needs to know what you want made—and not just what, but why. So, it’s also a good idea to tie the functionality of your product to specific market needs that you identified in your research. This information helps set priorities and will also help you get more value from your prototype when you use it for testing.

The 5 Types of Prototypes

Now that you have a clear understanding of your target audience and a conceptual design in mind, it’s time to start building your prototype. This step is crucial to seeing your product come to life and testing its functionality before moving forward.

Simply put, a prototype is a preliminary version of your product that helps when meeting with retailers, funding sources, patent attorneys, and manufacturing partners. A prototype is a model that captures how your product is put together, what it looks like, and what it does — referred to by industry insiders as fit, form, and function.

There are lots of different types of prototypes. Here is a short list, in order of increasing complexity and cost:

1. Digital Prototype

This computer model, also called a virtual prototype, represents your product. It usually consists of a computer-aided design (CAD) model and a realistic 3D rendering. Some more sophisticated digital prototypes use numerical simulation to virtually test the product’s behavior. Although you can’t hold it in your hand, a computer model can provide many of the same benefits as a physical prototype and can usually be created faster and at a lower cost.

If your product includes software or interacts with an app, you will also want to make a digital prototype of the software. You may create wireframes representing the user interface or use no-code programming to prototype how the program will work.

Product model on a computer

2. Mockup Prototype

This is the simplest type and often something you can make yourself. It can be constructed from cardboard, duct tape, modeling clay, or an inexpensive 3D printer. It only captures the basic shape and how it fits together, and hints at what the final product will look like.


3. Marketing Prototype

A marketing prototype focuses on the product’s appearance and how customers might interact. It is used to meet with customers, get feedback from stakeholders on the product, and see how important branding decisions like color, texture, shape, and user interface (UI) impact the user experience (UX). Many people make advertising and branding images with a marketing prototype.

4. Functional Prototype

If you need your prototype to do more and show how it solves the market needs it was designed to meet, you need a functional prototype. Although it is not made the same way as your final product, it should look and behave as closely as you will be selling as possible. Some people call this prototype class a working prototype because it does the same work as your final product.

5. Pre-Production Prototype

If you are ready to start manufacturing, you need a pre-production prototype. This working model uses the same manufacturing processes as your final product uses. It is also great for marketing because it is as close to the real deal as you will get.

Where you are in the product development process will determine what type of prototype you create. Before you get started, make sure you know what you want to accomplish with your prototype and pick the most cost-effective option that meets those needs.

Why You Need To Make a Prototype

Prototyping is how you check if your product is viable, determine what potential customers think of your idea, and help with manufacturing decisions. In short, you use a prototype to answer questions you and your team need answers to.

Some of the questions you can answer with the various types of prototypes are:

  • Are there any flaws in your idea?
  • Can your product be made?
  • How much will your product cost?
  • Are potential customers excited about your product?
  • What does your product really look like?
  • How does it feel to use your product?
  • Are the proportions right?
  • What are the best materials to use?
  • Will it fit together?
  • Can you take your product apart to repair it?
  • Is your product easy to use?
  • Is it strong enough, will it stay cool enough, what happens if you drop it?
  • Does it do the things you want your product to do?
  • Are there ways the design can be simplified or improved?
  • How might you solve a particularly difficult design problem?
  • Which design option is the best?
  • Is this iteration of the design better than the last one?

A prototype is also a great way to communicate with others.

When speaking with a patent attorney about protecting your intellectual property, having a prototype will help them. Also, when seeking a manufacturing partner, it is much easier to show what you want made with a prototype.

You can only speak in abstract terms until you have a digital model or a physical prototype.

In short, a prototype makes your ideas real. Until this happens, you don’t know if your product does what you want it to, if customers care, and how you will make it.

To be blunt, the people you are trying to work with may not have the slightest idea of what you are talking about until you have a prototype.

How To Get a Prototype Made: 4 Prototyping Methods

So far, we have discussed what to do before making a prototype, the types of prototypes, and why prototyping is important. Now, it’s time to discuss the fun part: making stuff.

There are many tools and methods available. Knowing their differences will help you choose the proper method for your prototype.

Keep in mind that when you make a prototype, you are not making many parts. That is the big difference between the prototype process and production manufacturing. Many manufacturing techniques are optimized for mass production. Since you are making only one product version, you use faster and cheaper methods that are ideal for low volumes.

Here are the most common methods, starting with the simplest and least accurate and moving to the most.

Method #1: Modeling

Get out the exacto knife and glue. Or maybe the welding torch. This approach to making a prototype involves putting something together by hand. You are not using manufacturing machines. Instead, you are molding clay, bending and welding metal, and cutting out cardboard.

The results can be crude or, with some expertise and paint, can look and act like the final product. If your product has electronics, you also hand-build a prototype of that part of the design using a breadboard, hand wiring, and soldering where needed.

Method #2: 3D Printing

Also called additive manufacturing, 3D printing was invented to make prototypes. It allows a user to go directly from a computer model to a physical part by building it one layer at a time.

Machines range in cost from very inexpensive to millions of dollars. There are dozens of different 3D printing processes that can produce plastic or metal parts, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

3D printing is popular in manufacturing because it is fast, and you don’t need many different tools and know how to use them. Technology has come a long way, and modern systems can make full-color parts and metal components and produce the same material texture and stiffness as your final product.

Method #3: Rapid Manufacturing

Sometimes, making the parts that go into your product by hand or with 3D printing doesn’t quite work. That is when you use traditional manufacturing methods to make a part quickly.

Processes like machining, sheet metal bending, thermal forming, and casting are applied to get components closer to the final product without paying for expensive tooling needed for production runs.

Also, if your product has electronics, you need to build your prototype boards using rapid prototyping techniques. Make sure you find a vendor that specializes in prototype manufacturing.

Method #4: Injection Molding

If your final product contains injection-molded parts, you may eventually need to injection mold those components instead of 3D printing or machining them. The good news is that some companies specialize in low-volume rapid injection molding. They can use rapid machining or 3D printing to make tools and mold your parts.

For most prototypes, you will use a combination of these methods. Just remember to decide what type of prototype you want based on the questions you are trying to answer, then pick the best or combination of methods.

How To Make a Prototype You Can Use For Testing

If you use your prototype for gathering feedback from customers, simple and specific questions are the way to go.

For example, “How does your child like this toy?” is not as helpful as the specificity of “Rate your child’s motor engagement with the toy on a scale of 1-10.”

Asking specific questions helps direct the focus group to test the qualities you want to validate before sending the prototype into production.

If you need to perform functional testing to verify that the product does what you designed it to do, you should create a test plan.

Make a list of each product behavior you want to test, then identify a test needed to measure the behavior. Sometimes, you may need to perform destructive testing, like what happens if someone drops your product off a table. You may need multiple copies of your prototype or schedule a potentially destructive test in that situation.

Good product design is iterative, and using prototypes to verify performance and gather user feedback for improvement is an important part of that iterative process.

Work With a Company That Knows How to Make a Prototype

That is why picking your prototyping company is so important. Remember, they are turning your idea into something real.

Here are some things to look for when you are searching for your prototyping partner:

  • Do they offer prototype design services to turn your concepts into a design?
  • Will they sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to protect your intellectual property?
  • Can they show you a document prototype development process?
  • What inputs are they asking for?
  • Do they have multiple prototype manufacturing types in-house or long-term, proven partners?
  • Have they created prototypes for your industry before?
  • Can they provide three or more references you can call?
  • Do they present a detailed plan of action to avoid common errors?
  • Will they accept half of the payment after the prototype is delivered?
  • Can they help with the rest of your product development, including engineering, market research, sourcing, and manufacturing management?

How they answer your questions is just as important as what they answer.

Find someone who gets it, and who is willing to partner with you on your journey.

That is exactly what we do at Gembah—we take your product from concept to market, including the all-important prototyping step.

We bring your new product from idea to the real world, guiding you from steps A to Z, and managing the process through our platform so you can see your product come to life.

Start by telling us what type of product you are making and why you need a prototype. We will take it from there.

Topics: Prototyping