The value of making a prototype
A prototype is an original model on which something is patterned. A prototype can range from a crude mock-up developed by the inventor to professionally designed virtual prototypes and/or fully-functioning working samples.
The process of taking your idea and turning it into a tangible product is called “reducing the invention to practice” and the first step in this process is the development of a prototype.
When it comes to prototype development, the inventor can utilize a professional prototype company, virtual designer, model maker or construct it on his own. I have seen many prototypes from inventors ranging from cardboard and tape to professionally designed and constructed working samples.
Keep in mind that the prototype process is evolutionary, meaning that you may start with cardboard and evolve the prototype through several iterations over time as you refine your invention.
At one time, the USPTO required that a working prototype accompany all patent applications filed. This requirement limited the number of patent applications that were filed, particularly on inventions that did not actually work or function as intended. When the USPTO removed this requirement, the patent business exploded and we began to see countless hypothetical and theoretical inventions with issued patents on products that did not work as intended.
Should you develop a prototype?
As I discussed in the overview, there are two primary options for going to market: manufacturing on your own, or licensing for royalties. Various decisions that you make throughout the process will be driven by which option you choose in going to market, as described below.
Option 1 - Manufacturing on your own
If you are planning to manufacture your invention on your own - either domestically or by utilizing overseas manufacturers - you really don’t have a choice about developing a prototype. You will have to develop a prototype of your invention to prepare for manufacturing, since you can’t manufacture something unless you know how it works.
As for manufacturing, if you utilize a US manufacturer it will likely be an easier process of setting up the manufacturing, but it may be more expensive for setup, molds and unit costs. Yet, going overseas to manufacture also has its advantages and drawbacks.
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With technology, the Internet, and the boom in overseas manufacturing in the last 5-10 years, it has become much easier to connect with manufacturers in China, Taiwan and other countries. However, many inventors do not understand that typically, you need to provide them with an exact working sample or prototype that you would like produced. Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers are great at copying a finalized prototype that you provide for mass production, but don’t expect them to be as good at figuring out how your invention works and developing working prototypes.
More than likely, you will need to do this in the US and then supply the prototype to your overseas manufacturer. Also, you should consider the language barrier of working with manufacturers overseas. We have been working with the same Taiwanese manufacturer for over eight years and I still have a hard time understanding and communicating with him.
Option 2 - Licensing for royalties
If you are planning on licensing your invention for royalties, it will still be helpful to develop some form of prototype. However, it is not always necessary to develop a fully functioning working sample, which can be very expensive. Depending on the particular invention, a virtual prototype may be a more cost-effective solution. A virtual prototype is a computer-generated, animated model, which can be rotated on-screen and will enable you to showcase your invention to prospective companies.
Oftentimes, this is all you need to attract interest in and to possibly license your invention, although, it is still possible that a company may ask to see a tangible prototype after a virtual prototype first raises their interest in your invention. In this instance, you could request that the company evaluate without the prototype or you could consider alternatives such as building a mock-up of your own.
For example, in the case of a particular inventor, we generated interest from a company based on a very professional virtual prototype, which piqued the company’s interest, thereby initiating product conversations. Later in the process, the company asked if the inventor had a tangible prototype, which she did not have.
We suggested to the inventor that she construct a simple mock-up of the product using cardboard or foam board. The inventor spent less than $10 on supplies and a few hours to construct a very nice model out of foam board and the company was more than satisfied. The virtual prototype “sold” them on the concept and the tangible model gave them a better feel for the actual product dimensions and function while the inventor did not have to spend thousands of dollars to develop a working prototype.
Reasons to develop a prototype
- Without a virtual or tangible prototype, it will be more difficult for a buyer to understand your invention. As discussed, the chance of success increases as you move your invention through the development process. A prototype brings your idea to life for the person evaluating your invention, which increases the chances of ultimately taking your invention to market.
- A developed prototype helps to work out the details of the invention. Identifying design flaws and weaknesses is much easier when you can actually test the invention. Engineering drawings and artwork alone cannot “prove” the concept in the same manner that a prototype can – prototypes help to ensure that the invention will work the way you intended.
- Having a virtual or physical prototype helps to identify key details that should be included in the provisional and/or non-provisional patent applications. Filing a patent application before developing a prototype could lead to key details being excluded from the patent application – details that are learned only through prototype development. For this reason, I recommend that if you plan to develop a prototype, you do it first, before you file a patent application.
- Patent drawings will be much easier to complete if a model is available from which to work.
- Developing a working prototype can also help to determine the best manufacturing materials and processes. Your original invention may be altered based on the prototype.