For obvious reasons you need to prove - first to yourself, later to others - that your inventive step works. That usually means a series of increasingly polished prototypes. This may be where your first big costs kick in. A good prototype is rarely cheap but the closer you can get to a marketable product, the easier it will be to interest potential stakeholders.
For a large-scale or inherently expensive idea, you may need to seek funding for the prototype itself. In that case you need to concentrate on amassing convincing evidence that your idea has the potential to (a) work and (b) make huge amounts of profit to compensate for the much greater level of risk.
To stand any chance of persuading stakeholders that your idea is technically sound and marketable, you must be able to prove not only that it works but also that you have done all you reasonably can to perfect it. There are three main reasons for this:
Before that though, you need to produce at least one and perhaps many first or ‘private’ prototypes (James Dyson built over 5000 prototypes of his Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaner). This is so that:
Your best choice if it’s at all possible. You can’t get much better than real product and with multiple samples to leave around you can speed up evaluation by potential stakeholders. It may in fact be essential for a product that companies need to damage or wear out during testing if they’re to assess it fully (see Testing and assessment by companies later). You’ll also learn a lot about manufacturing methods and costs, which may prevent you from being hoodwinked during licensing negotiations.
Unless you can make trial batches yourself without any risk of disclosure, some legal protection - at least a non-disclosure agreement (Project 5) - will be vital before approaching designers or manufacturers. If cost is a problem, it may be worth exploring the possibility of a joint development venture with a small company (Project 6).
Near-product is what you get when compromises are made to make the exercise affordable. For example: the tooling for an injection moulded plastic product normally costs many thousands of pounds, but it may be possible to commission a cheaper mould that lasts long enough to produce a limited number of acceptable samples. As long as you explain this when presenting your idea, it shouldn’t harm your prospects with stakeholders.
If you can only afford a prototype rather than actual product, make sure it’s a good one. You’ll probably have to improve considerably on the quality of your first prototypes and for that you may well need professional input from a designer or manufacturer (see later). This is likely to make the exercise expensive but worthwhile if it transforms your ugly duckling of a first prototype into something more swanlike.
Full size is best unless your proposed product is so big that no one would reasonably expect you to lug it around. As far as you can, use materials, relative weights and proportions that would be used in a finished product.
Don’t pay to have the wheel reinvented. We’ve known of inventors being charged very large sums for the ground-up design of a prototype that could easily have made use of cheap parts taken from real products. For example, for a power tool use the plastic casing of an existing tool or one of the standard casings that are readily available for many types of product. Always challenge any suggestion that this won’t do, as custom-made alternatives will usually be much more expensive.
(But learn from the experience of the inventor of an electrical appliance, the UK market for which was then dominated by two fiercely antagonistic companies. He used body components from a mix of their products to make his prototype look good and took it to both companies. This was like showing red rags to two bulls and both meetings flopped. Lesson: be prepared to swap parts to flatter whatever company you’re visiting.)
If your product is huge but you still want a full-size prototype, a sympathetic factory might loan you fabrication space or do the job for you on reasonable terms. It’s worth a try and could lead to a useful partnership.
If money is tight or if the equipment or materials you need are hard to get hold of, use any cheap materials for the prototype as long as the result adequately demonstrates the working principles of your idea, and present it alongside a model of what you think the product should look like. For the model use any cheap workable material - for example, painted wood to represent plastic. For best results consider using a professional model maker, but good ones aren’t cheap so make sure you’re not going to end up spending as much on a model as you might on a decent working prototype.
More a support prop than a substitute for any of the above, but perhaps essential if:
Consider any of the following if relevant. They can add persuasive force to your presentations and demonstrations but are not a substitute for a product or prototype:
With luck, a company will want to evaluate your prototype. This usually means letting them have it for a length of time that you must negotiate (Project 10). Before handing it over, and ideally before you even design or make it:
Many products have to be tested for robustness in normal use and abuse. For example, small electronic devices may have to withstand being dropped on to a floor from desk or workbench height. It obviously helps if even a prototype can pass such tests. In general, don’t bank on getting your prototype back in pristine condition and make sure you design in enough sturdiness to keep it soldiering on. Products such as anti-theft devices may even have to be tested to destruction, in which case you need either a supply of samples or the test report of a reputable independent organisation (see Independent testing).
Don’t make your prototype an orphan. Make companies understand that you care about it by setting a strict time limit on the evaluation period and including a requirement for feedback. If you have relevant expertise, volunteer to be an adviser during evaluation.
If you can, ask to meet the people who will be doing the testing. Advantages are:
Before they can lawfully be sold, many products have to meet statutory safety or performance standards. These may differ from country to country, though many standards (for example the ISO series) are international. Other standards agreed within specific industries may not have legal force but will drastically reduce the sales prospects of nonconforming products. It’s your responsibility to find out which standards apply to your product, and what testing and approvals procedures it will have to go through. Your local trading standards department (www.tradingstandards.gov.uk) or the British Standards Institution (www.bsi-global.com) should be able to advise you, and the documentation that comes with products similar to yours will often list the standards they meet.
Your prototype may have to demonstrate at least the potential to meet relevant standards if it’s to interest stakeholders. Be warned too that compliance testing is often an expensive and slow process. If you don’t find out what’s involved and plan for it, you could find yourself badly over budget and late to market.
If testing is likely to be rigorous and you don’t have lots of replacement prototypes, consider having your prototype or product independently tested. In fact, consider having it independently tested anyway. The favourable report of a respected and impartial test organisation can significantly improve your prospects when trying to win over sceptical or lukewarm potential stakeholders. It might, for example, persuade them to fund you to produce more prototypes for further evaluation.
Many university departments offer independent test facilities at commercial rates and can often carry out tests equivalent to statutory or industry standards. Some are highly specialised. For example, if you want to test an item of outdoor clothing or equipment you couldn’t do much better in the UK than Leeds University’s Performance Clothing Research Group. To find a test centre with the right clout, ask around within the relevant industry or market sector.
A word (OK, paragraph) of warning though: when you get your report, study it carefully because we’ve yet to see a report that says exactly what the inventor claims it says. It’s not the job of a test body to give praise or approval. It’s their job simply to say ‘We did this, and this is what happened’, but test results can be such a mixed bag, and tend to be written up in such technical language, that for the non- expert reader there may be no clear message. So some inventors make up their own, focussing on what sound like the best bits and ignoring the rest. They go around claiming that their idea is a proven success when the data as a whole tell a different story. This risks rubbing potential stakeholders up the wrong way. As soon as they twig, they may justifiably use the report as an excuse to reject your idea outright rather than see it for what it may actually be - an early and helpful identification of weaknesses that can be fixed.
If you genuinely don’t understand the report you've paid for, ask for clarification. Most test reports are written by people whose strength is science rather than English, so you needn’t feel any embarrassment in saying ‘Please explain what you mean here’.
If you don’t have product design skills or at least technical drawing skills to enable your invention to be properly understood by someone competent to make it, you may not be able to produce a presentable prototype unaided. You need a designer or at least a draughtsman.
Design is a key factor in the success of commercial products, and it can be a key factor in the success of pre-market inventions too. You need to think about design from day one, as even an extremely well-built functional prototype may not impress stakeholders if its underlying design is impractical, dated or just plain ugly. Good design is persuasive. The true value of your invention may be missed if it’s buried inside a poor design.
Good design skills aren’t cheap but an experienced designer can be invaluable in dealings with manufacturers or component suppliers, either at prototype or full production stage. Manufacturers need detailed and precise specifications before they can make anything, and if queries or problems arise they need access to someone who talks their language.
If you’re not up to those demands, you have these broad options:
Always shop around for quotations from manufacturers, as costs can vary widely. Small companies may be better for prototypes and trial batches, as they may be more flexible, have fewer overheads and be more in need of the work. Large companies with advanced equipment tend to be cheaper only at very high volume but for that reason get quotes from them too, if you can. Knowing how cheaply your product could be manufactured may help sway potential stakeholders later. In all cases ask how quickly the job can be delivered and hold them to it in any contract, as it’s not unknown for companies to accept a small job and then just sit on it until they’ve nothing better to do.
Ask for quotes based on the detailed drawings that you or your designer have produced but make sure those drawings represent exactly what you want. A late request from you for even a minor modification may have knock-on effects right through the design that can add enormously to the final bill. Prototypes and new products are by definition not run of the mill, so don’t leave your manufacturer guessing about even the tiniest detail.
Thinking beyond prototype stage, it doesn’t harm to talk generally to manufacturers about production costs and how to reduce them. If they’re interested in what you’re doing, you could learn a lot from them. Ask about the effect on costs if production were to be scaled up. A good way to do this is to get quotes for progressively larger quantities - for example 1000-off, 5000-off, 10,000-off and the run-on cost per thousand thereafter. The more you learn about manufacturing costs, the easier it is to start attaching figures to the all-important relationship of sales volume, price and profit. This will be essential information if you get to the business planning stage and beyond (Project 8, Project 9 and Project 10).
What if a prototype isn’t possible without first raising considerable funding? This can be a real problem for ideas that will be inherently expensive to prototype.
At private inventor level, where prototyping costs can become prohibitive very quickly, you might want simply to convince a potential stakeholder that an idea you can’t afford to do anything with is worth exploring further.
In the absence of a prototype you have to focus on proof of concept - making a convincing case that your idea is:
The following checklist is partly an action planner and partly a reminder of what matters. If you’re tempted to think ‘I don’t need to do all this stuff’, it may help to point out that we’ve modeled the checklist on questions professionals are very likely to ask if you want their advice, support or money. We therefore have to be stern and say that if you aim to be a respected and successful inventor, you can’t afford to duck any of it.
If you don’t legally protect your intellectual property (IP) you can’t safely disclose it, profit from it or defend it.