Prototypes – who needs them?

The word prototype comes from the Greek word ‘prototypon’ meaning first or primitive form.  So, by definition, prototype means it is an early stage representation of a final product or thing. 

They are commonplace in the world of new product development and have various purposes.  However, they can also be disproportionately costly, fragile and can often be done without.

So what are they for and do you really need one?

Prototype: benefits

Perhaps the most useful reason for one or more prototypes is to test something.  Such uses include:

  • Proving a principle
  • Providing a sense of scale
  • Gauging customer opinion

They are useful as an integral part of the new product development process or indeed supporting a presentation to a potential client.  If accurate, they may also be used to brief a manufacturer, check pre-production product or prepare promotional material prior to launch.

Prototype: disadvantages

It is too easy to assume you need one, commissioning it without due consideration of the costs involved its potential constraints and limitations.


It is rarely possible to make a prototype that this identical to a mass-produced product because:

  • Manufacturing methods are likely to differ
  • Different materials are often used
  • It is possible to make it appear the same as a production product but it will rarely if ever perform similarly or as well

The most significant disadvantage is typically cost.

Modern rapid prototyping and 3D printing techniques have brought costs down to more affordable levels but even these methods have their limitations.  Making a one-off item, comparable to a mass-produced product, however it is made, will never be as cost-effective.

Do I need one?

Prototypes: types

Earlier comments notwithstanding, there are only really three types of prototype:

  • Proof of concept: an engineering model to prove a concept or principle.  Such a prototype focuses on operation not aesthetic
  • Mock-up: a rough and ready mock-up often made using cardboard, string, Styrofoam and tape.  This is for testing scale or illustrating intended form and operation or better understanding co-relationships and interdependencies
  • Pre-production: a near-identical representation of the finished product.  This has a variety of uses from development and manufacture to sales and promotion.  It rarely if ever performs like the final version and is usually a significant investment

So, do I really need one?

New product development projects are unique so there is no one answer here.

The key things to consider are:

  • Budget
  • Need
  • What
  • When
  • Where


If you afford one or more, then they can be invaluable tools in developing a technically feasible and commercially viable product.

If budget is tight, then certain types of inexpensive mock-up may suffice.  It may also be possible to do without a prototype altogether.

It is often a personal cost and benefit equation.


What is your product and is a prototype really necessary?

If you are an inventor or individual and are seeking to license a relatively straight-forward product then the need for a prototype becomes less obvious.  With modern CAD and 3D presentational techniques becoming so efficient, both in terms of cost and how they look, a great presentation can be enough to convey or sell an idea.

If the idea or product rests on a technical theory or mechanism however, a proof of concept may be unavoidable and such a prototype may be necessary to show or even prove that a great idea will actually work in practice.

Similarly, if you need to market test the idea or product, particularly in the consumer market, then customers will typically want to see it and touch it if not operate it.

An ability to focus on specific need and to at least consider compromises at this stage may also affect where you get the prototype from and how much it costs.  You may even be able to modify an existing and similar product rather than making something from scratch.


If you need a prototype then what type do you require?  Remember to base this on need.

A high cost and attractive prototype shown to clients will draw comment but not necessarily the comment required.  To maximise the benefit of customer feedback they need to know what they’re looking at.  If it’s an early stage prototype show it is by making it a rough and ready mock-up.  It is important to ensure that it cannot be perceived as a finished product when it isn’t.  Feedback in this situation is unlikely to be what is required.

An additional consideration here is whether you really need a one-off.  Low production techniques exist and whilst there will be design compromises and such a process may increase the cost of making a one-off, they can be worth considering where you feel a small batch may be necessary.


If you decide a prototype is necessary then when is it really needed?

Making the wrong type of prototype at the wrong time, typically too soon, may be costly. 

If you decide one is necessary, remember that the earlier in the development process a prototype is made then the more likely it is that the design will change and further prototypes will be required. 

In contrast, if the design is based on an engineering principle or mechanism then the sooner this is tested and proven the better, before further funds are expended.


If you need or want a prototype where should get one from?

Assuming you cannot manufacture it in-house, specialist businesses exist that design and manufacture prototypes on a contract basis.  They can deliver very high quality work using multiple techniques often on very tight timescales.

With the advent of rapid prototyping techniques and the increased accessibility to, and affordability of, 3D printers and where relevant, it is relatively straight-forward to find a local supplier and keep costs down.  It is also always worth considering your local University.

For reference, you can obviously seek suitable prototype companies on an international basis.  Whilst this may be necessary for certain specialist products, techniques, scale or materials consider the associated costs and risks of doing so. 

Wherever you go, make sure you are satisfied your selected company takes confidentiality seriously and balance cost and risk.


In summary, a prototype:

May be discretional or essential

  • Can make an idea easier to sell
  • Will reduce risk in the long-term
  • Is potentially disproportionately costly with operational limitations

Focus on need and if you need one, decide when you need it, choose the right type for the right purpose and consider different ways of making it and sources.

Make sure you consider your needs, options and confidentiality, ensure customers know it’s a prototype as necessary ask questions and seek objective advice when in doubt.