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What Is A Prototype?

by | Mar 16, 2023 | 0 comments

There are many ways of making a prototype.

Typically, inventors enjoy the prototyping process.

A prototype is typically an early model of your product idea from which other later versions are developed or copied. Prototypes are useful for many reasons. They allow us to test our ideas and to improve them!

As a product idea moves from initial concept to production, different types of prototypes are made and used at different times. Want to see the prototypes of products you know and love? Check out our resource, From Prototype to Production.

Different Types Of Prototypes 

Looks-like Prototype

The function of this type of prototype is simply to look good. It doesn’t even need to work. A looks-like prototype can be made out of paper, clay, silicone molding or vacuum forming, etc.

Works-like prototype

Works-like prototypes can be extremely crude-looking, because their purpose is to show proof of concept. They just need to work as intended.

Production-ready Prototype

Production-ready prototypes are built to specification. CAD drawings are typically used to demonstrate how the product idea will be manufactured.

Virtual Prototype

Virtual prototypes are 3D graphics made using the computer. They allow you to validate your design and get feedback on your idea before you actually physically make it. These days, you can get a virtual prototype of your idea made very affordably.

For inventors, few things are more exciting than hearing a potential licensee or an investor say, “Can I see a prototype?”

Because there are so many types of prototypes, it’s smart to ask, “What type of prototype do you need?”

How To Make A Prototype

Most inventors enjoy the prototyping process. You can learn how to build your own prototypes or you can hire people to help you. Don’t overlook the value of virtual prototypes either! Do not let prototyping stop you from making progress with your idea.

Looking back, even as a child, I loved building things. From model airplanes to building ships, I was constantly creating and building things. 

Maybe that’s why sculpting — which I studied at San Jose State University — came very easily to me.

For me, building prototypes for my ideas was always very easy. For others, it can be very difficult. Here are some popular materials and ways of making a prototype for you to know about.

  • Paper

I love building my prototypes out of paper. When I created plush animals, paper was extremely easy to use.

Paper allowed me to sculpt animals with scotch tape, then later cut them up to pull out the patterns.

I could then take the patterns, lay them out on fabric, and sew them up to create plush toys.

I also built paper prototypes for my rotating spin label, Spinformation.

Once I had the paper prototype pattern, I would print a copy with colors, and it looked real.

I also built paper prototypes for many of my other ideas, because paper is very inexpensive to use.

I would place colored paper over the white paper once I was finished so it looked more professional!

When I took a picture of the prototype made out of colored paper with the right angle, it almost looked like it was made out of plastic. So, for me, paper was very easy to work with.

  • Clay

Many inventors use clay to build prototypes. There are many types and colors of clay to sculpt. Sculpey is one of the most popular ones.

  • Frankensteining

This method involves taking two existing products apart and combining them together to build a new prototype. This is extremely popular. 

The nice thing about this is that because you’re taking two existing products and putting them together, they look real!

  • Fabric

Fabric is also very easy to work with. Creating a pattern for a new product or taking an existing product and modifying it is very easy to do with fabric.

You can always find a seamstress who can help you with your fabric prototype and you can find various types of fabrics at your local fabric store. 

This is also one of my favorite materials to use to build prototypes.

  • 3-D Printing

3-D printing or additive manufacturing is the construction of a three-dimensional object from a CAD model or a digital 3-D model. 

It can be done in a variety of processes in which material is deposited jointly or solidified under liquid control. The material being added together is plastic, liquid, or powder grains that get fused layer by layer.

This is probably one of the most popular ways to build prototypes today.

There are different types of machines for different sizes and materials. 

You’ll need someone to program the 3-D printer, but after that, you’re in business. 

There are also shops where you can hire people to do this for you. Many towns and cities have Maker Spaces where there are 3-D printers available to use.

  • Silicone molding

Silicone molding is a manufacturing technique used to transform silicon rubber into a predefined shape.

Silicone molding is simple and accurate, and it will forgive mini mistakes. 

The idea is to start with the master part. This part can be encapsulated with a molding material, then many parts can be made from the resulting negative.

  • Vacuum forming

This process involves hitting a plastic sheet until it’s soft, then draping it over a mold. 

A vacuum is applied to suck the sheet into the mold. 

Vacuum forming is the simplified version of thermoforming, where a sheet of plastic is heated to a forming temperature, stretched into a single surface mold, then forced against a mold.

  • Photoshopped prototypes

This method takes two images and combines them together to create your looks-like prototype.

If you’re curious about what my early prototypes and sell sheets looked like, please watch this video on inventRightTV!

Do You Need To Make A Prototype For Every Idea You Have?

When I come up with a product idea, I want to build a model of that idea. In other words, I want to build a prototype. I want to see my idea come to life, hold it, use it, see if it works, and share it with others.

But, as a seasoned inventor, I have a lot of ideas, and I know building prototypes for each and every idea probably isn’t a good use of my time. Why? Because I’ve learned that my resources are limited, and it’s a numbers game when attempting to license your ideas. 

If you build a prototype for every idea you have, there’s a very good chance you will end up spending your time and energy on ideas that no one actually wants. 

If you want to become successful at licensing your ideas, you need another strategy. I discovered that if I could sell the “benefit” of an idea first, that would allow me to test my ideas before I built a prototype. The best way to sell the benefit of a product idea is with a one-page advertisement known as a sell sheet.

You can create a sell sheet for your product idea using a 3-D computer-generated rendering, sketching it or even taking a photograph of your Frankenstein prototype. It’s important to highlight the benefits and key features of your product idea on your sell sheet.

This strategy and these techniques save you time and effort. They have worked for not only me, but countless other inventors who have studied with inventRight.

If a company shows interest in your product idea, they might ask for a prototype because they want to see proof of concept.

For simple ideas, a prototype to show proof of concept isn’t necessary, but others will require one. 

If they do require one, now is the time to ask what type of prototype they need.

  • Can a hand-made Frankenstein prototype work?
  • Would they like to use the prototype for testing?
  • Does the prototype need to look professional?

There are many types of prototypes. Some can be very expensive and time-consuming. I love when a company wants to see a prototype. By asking them what kind of prototype they require, you can ensure you’re providing them with what they truly require. 

So, I don’t accept the “blanket statement” that you have to have a prototype for every idea you come up with.

This type of advice comes from people who have no experience pitching and inventing products. This type of advice is typically heard from people who are representing the interests of companies. Of course, companies would prefer that you have a prototype. But that’s not in the best interests of serial inventors

To become a successful inventor, you must be smart. You must be able to stay in the game long enough to test your ideas to see which ones you should spend more time and resources on.

So the question really isn’t, do you need a prototype? It’s, when do you require one?

Need a virtual prototype? Consider hiring inventRight’s Design Studio to make you one.


  • Stephen Key

    Stephen Key is an award-winning inventor, renowned intellectual property strategist, lifelong entrepreneur, author, speaker, and columnist.
    Stephen has over 20 patents in his name and the d...