Every product idea needs to become tangible at some point, and the first embodiment of a product is a prototype. One of the most important prototyping stages is the proof of concept stage. This is typically the first prototyping stage where the idea is being tested to confirm that it is possible in whatever form. Fortunately, proof of concept models need not be expensive. Here are some ways to make great prototypes and not break the bank in the process.
The proof of concept phase needs to be highly iterative and so the raw materials need to be inexpensive to allow for the number of iterations it will take to solve the problem. A great way to make prototypes quickly and cheaply is to use hard insulation foam. It is typically pink or blue and is found at most home improvement stores. It is inexpensive, comes in large sheets, is easy to cut and can be glued into nearly any shape. It can be penetrated easily and toothpicks can be used to pin pieces in place before gluing. It can also be cut into different profiles that can be glued together to create complex surfaces. It can even be used as a substrate for fiberglass molds.
Home improvement stores have a cornucopia of inexpensive prototyping materials besides foam. PVC pipe is another favorite of the Edison Nation design team. It is obvious that it can be used to prototype innovations that involve some sort of liquid handling, but it can also be used structurally. PVC tubing and fittings can be glued together to form simple frames or they can used as linkages or other mechanical componets. PVC tubing comes in such a wide range of sizes so it is suitable for many prototyping applications. The cylindrical shape can also be used as a form to bend thin pieces of sheet metal or tin foil to create perfectly curved shapes.
Most products require some sort of mechanism to provide the functionality to solve whatever question the innovation answers, and sometimes a prototype needs some more refined components that are hard to cut out of raw materials without specialized tools. One of the ways we get pre-made parts is to harvest them from broken products. Many consumer products are filled with great mechanical components like gears, axles, springs, and buttons. Every time one of the EN engineering team members breaks something at home like a vacuum cleaner or blender, they bring it in and put it into a bin to use for spare parts for future products. Toys are another great source of mechanical components, and it can be much cheaper to harvest a motor or gear train from a toy than to buy one individually.
Many product ideas require electronics to make them function properly, and there are many ways to do electrical prototyping on the cheap. If your product idea requires sensors or some kind of control system and you are willing to do your own programming, there are a plethora of open source microcontrollers available that can be used to develop a product. One of the most popular right now is the Arduino, and we use it frequently in the EN shop. It is only $35 for the board, and it has plenty of computing power to read sensors, control servos, collect data from sensors, write to a display or even link up to a wireless network to transmit data to a website. There are also a lot of accessories available that are inexpensive to buy and also come with example code which makes the prototyping process quicker. If your project requires more heavy duty processing, you may want to look at a board called the Raspberry Pi. It is also inexpensive to purchase and has a higher power processor that is more akin to a desktop computer.
Of course, any product that has a circuit needs components to populate the circuit boards. One great way to get components is to scavenge them from old or broken devices. VCRs, old gaming systems, and electronic toys are great places to harvest low level components like resistors and capacitors, or even higherend components like speakers, motors and accelerometers.
Prototyping not only requires raw materials and components, it requires tools to build them. Fortunately, proof of concept prototyping rarely requires expensive tools. One of the most-often-used tools in the EN shop is an Exacto knife. They cost less than $10 with a set of replacement blades, and are very versatile. They can be used to cut a lot of different types of materials, can be used to carve holes in thin plastics and paperbased materials. They can even be used to etch metal or de-burr a drilled metal hole.
If you are going to invest in one power tool, the most robust type has to be a rotary tool like a Dremel. We use ours so much that we burned out the motor in it in less than a year. It can be used to grind, drill, sand, clean, and polish practically any type of material. The range of different bits and tools that are available makes them perfect for just about every prototyping job. While they will set you back about $100-150 for a typical tool and set of bits, they are well worth the investment in the saved time and ability to create that they allow.
The Next Level
While plenty of game-changing innovations can be made with tools and materials that are quite inexpensive, some of the more skilled prototypers may want add some expanded capabilities that are in the next price bracket. Fortunately there are tools that are not too pricey that can add a lot of capability per dollar. Mini CNC routers are available from many different manufacturers, and can give you the ability to cut perfect shapes over and over. Many of them use small rotary tools, like Dremels, as the cutting heads, which gives you even more value for that investment. These are in the $1000 range to get a system up and running.
Additive manufacturing in the form of 3D printing is an essential tool for professional prototypers, but the technology is becoming less and less expensive for consumer level models too. There are a few models like the Printrbot Simple that are around $500. They are even less in kit version, but require a few hours of assembly, and they require some software tuning to get good, consistent prints. For prototypers that want a good out of the box 3D printer, the 3D Systems Cube is a great option. It is ready to print straight out of the box, and has a reputation for great reliability and high-quality prints. The great advantage of 3D printers is that you can generate parts with complex surfaces in just a few hours, which can cut down on prototype iteration time significantly.
Many inventors are fearful of the prototyping stages of product development, as they believe that it will be an expensive process. However, the tools and materials needed to prototype most innovations are inexpensive and can be just the trick to helping you land your next licensing deal. Home improvement stores are a great source for cheap and easily-workable raw materials, and broken toys and consumer goods are great ways to harvest more specialized components and electronics. Investment in robust equipment like rotary tools can help speed up the process, and there is plenty of higher-end equipment for the more ambitious prototyper.