Prototypes are working models of entrepreneurial ideas for new products. "A prototype is defined as an original model on which something is patterned," wrote Richard C. Levy in The Inventor's Desktop Companion. "If you do not have the time, money, skills, or commitment to build a prototype of your idea, the odds of your ever licensing it are reduced to practically zero." An entrepreneur armed with a good prototype, on the other hand, is able to show potential investors and licensees how the proposed product will work without having to rely exclusively on diagrams and his/her powers of description.


There are three major types or stages of prototype creation, each of which can be used by the enterprising entrepreneur in securing financing and/or a licensee.

1. Breadboard—This is basically a working model of your idea, intended to serve the basic function of showing how the product will work, with less concern for aesthetics. "The breadboard doesn't have to look good or even work well," stated Jacquelyn Denalli in Business Start-Ups. "It simply proves your idea can be reduced to practice." Tomima Edmark, writing in Entrepreneur, added that a breadboard "is used in the early stages of product development to demonstrate functionality and communicate your idea to potential model makers or manufacturers so they can create a finished product for sale."
2. Presentation Prototype—-This type of prototype is a representation of the product as it will be manufactured. Often used for promotional purposes, it should be able to demonstrate what the product can do, but it is not necessarily an exact copy of the final product. "In building your model," said Denalli, "consider these issues: the item's sale price, materials, manufacturing costs, marketing details, safety factors, how it will be sold and distributed, and the profit margin. If you plan to license your invention to a manufacturer, you can often do so with a model."
3. Pre-Production Prototype—This type of prototype is for all practical purposes the final version of the product. It should be just like the finished product in every way, from how it is manufactured to its appearance, packaging, and instructions. This final-stage prototype is typically expensive to produce—and far more expensive to make than the actual unit cost once the product is in full production—but the added cost is often well worth it. It is most valuable because it enables inventors and producers to go over every aspect of the product in fine detail, which can head off potential trouble spots prior to product launch. In addition, Denalli pointed out that "you can make drawings or photographs of the sample to use in brochures, mailings, pamphlets, advertising, and so on. You can also use the prototype to show to potential buyers, whether manufacturers or buyers for department stores."


Prospective entrepreneurs with a new product idea should make sure that they consider the following when putting together a prototype:

* Adequately research the requirements of the product prototype. Edmark recommended that entrepreneurs follow these basic steps:1) Write down all the materials, supplies, and tools that might be needed in creating the prototype; 2) Identify and order the various steps necessary to assemble the prototype; 3) Identify which parts can be easily purchased and/or found around the home, and which parts will need to be custom made.
* Make sure the prototype is well-constructed. "Prototypes must be well made because often they take quite a beating at the hands of executives," warned Levy. "Don't be surprised when prototypes come back broken because they were mishandled or poorly packed for shipment. It happens at the best of companies. It comes with the territory."
* Do not shirk on presentation, even at the prototype stage. "You must be as sophisticated and slick in your presentation to potential licensees as they will have to be in their pitch to the trade and/or the consumer," wrote Levy.
* Recognize that complex product ideas may require outside assistance from professional prototype makers. Universities, engineering schools, local inventor organizations, and invention marketing companies are all potential sources of information on finding a good person to help you make your prototype. But before hiring a prototype maker, entrepreneurs should make certain that they can meet your expectations. To help ensure that you are satisfied, conduct research on the maker's business reputation and make certain that you adequately communicate your concept.
* Consider making multiple submissions to potential licensees. Some inventors send prototypes to several manufacturers at the same time. Levy recommended, however, that "if a company asks you to hold off further presentations until it has an opportunity to review the item at greater length, try to set guidelines. In all fairness, some products require a reasonable number of days to be properly considered. However, if you feel the company is asking for an unreasonable period of time, seek some earnest money to hold the product out of circulation."


A relatively recent development in the creation of prototypes is rapid prototyping (RP). Also known as desktop manufacturing, RP takes advantage of computer technology to turn designs into three-dimensional objects. Some older RP systems work by printing multiple layers of plastic ink to create a model of a computer-generated image. Some newer systems are able to freeze water into a three-dimensional ice sculpture model, while the most sophisticated systems can create metal molds. RP technology saves time in the product development process. It also improves product design by allowing various people to see a model and have input without creating a full-fledged prototype. It has been used by large companies like automakers and aircraft manufacturers for several years, and it is now becoming accessible to small businesses as well.

"Properly used, rapid prototyping can greatly accelerate product development and lead to high-quality, defect-free products. Fortunately, the new generation of rapid prototyping tools, variously known as conceptual modelers, desktop modelers, and 3D printers, are much faster than earlier versions. They lend themselves to use by engineers in office environments," G. Thomas Clay and Preston G. Smith wrote in Machine Design. "Three-dimensional prototypes put engineers, managers, manufacturing staff, and marketers on equal footing in evaluating designs. All the interested parties can see, touch, and handle the design, just as the ultimate customers will."

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