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3d printing (josefkubes/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
3d printing (josefkubes/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Book Excerpt

How to create your first prototype Add to ...

Reprinted from the book, Invent It, Sell It, Bank It! by Lori Greiner. Copyright © 2014 by Lori Greiner. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, a division of Random House. All rights reserved.

How do you find a prototype maker? Today, all you have to do is Google the word “prototype” and your city, and the Internet will offer you a list of prototype makers in your area.

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But this was 1996, so I pulled out the Yellow Pages and looked up “prototype makers.” Sure enough, there was more than one located in Chicago. But how was I supposed to choose?

As I would learn, all prototype makers are not alike. Each one specializes in fabricating products from a certain material.

Some make products out of plastic, others out of metal, some out of wood, and others work with fabric and textiles, to name a few, so the first thing you need to find out is who makes prototypes out of the materials you need. Then pay a visit and interview the prototype maker. Ask to see models they have made, find out what they charge, and assess whether they are a good fit for you. Once you’re satisfied with the cost and quality of their product, and your prototype maker has signed a nondisclosure agreement – very important if you have not already filed for a patent – you will hand over the design of your invention and they will refer to your specifications to create a functional model that you can use when conducting market research and giving pitches.

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Any reputable prototype maker, manufacturer, or other company specializing in helping entrepreneurs and inventors bring new products to market should be willing to sign a nondisclosure agreement that forbids them to discuss, share, or otherwise use any part of your idea or design. If they refuse, walk away.

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More and more inventors are working with CAD designers to create detailed and realistic designs of their product. Increasingly, your prototype maker will use a 3-D printer to create your model. Rather than cut shapes out of materials and then assemble the parts the way traditional machines would, 3-D printers build up the product by putting down layers of materials – liquefied plastic, powdered metals, softened ceramic, or nylon, for example – which is why another term for the process of building objects with 3-D printing is “additive manufacturing.” Just a few years ago, 3-D printing, used in rapid prototyping (RP), still seemed the realm of sci-fi , but it is rapidly going mainstream. One day, we may all be printing products on demand – including your invention, perhaps – with the same ease and convenience as we print our documents at home.

For now, though, CAD design and 3-D printing are still highly specialized processes, which require a lot of skill and training. A simple Google search will reveal that there are 3-D printers catering to small business owners and entrepreneurs located all across the country.

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There are many types of proto– Even today $10,000 is considered a high price for a prototype.

It’s unlikely yours will cost you anywhere near that much. The costs will vary widely, depending on your product’s size, shape, and the materials from which it is made.

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My prototype wasn’t cheap. There are many types, each one representing various levels of sophistication and detail, but the kind I needed, and the one any new inventor intent on selling his or her idea will need, is called a “pre-production prototype.” It is essentially identical to the finished product, but is made using a one-off mold, which is a lot cheaper to pay for than a permanent mold. It cost me $10,000 to make.

Yet I was willing to spend the money, for I was sure that the more professionally made and beautiful my prototype, the easier it would be for people to fall in love with it and I would get the sales.

I hoped my prototype would be my ticket to those holiday sales I wanted. I could presell with it. I could take it with me to stores to show to buyers.

Whether they were the consumers I knew I’d have to poll for market research, or retail buyers selecting products for their customers, I wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to imagine the organizer on a woman’s dressing table. It would help me make sure people were willing to buy my invention and save me from making the worst mistake of my life. I had an incredibly strong gut instinct that I had a hero on my hands, but I wanted to make sure my instincts were correct. Unsubstantiated enthusiasm would surely lead me to make a mistake, so I needed to do unbiased market research fi rst.

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Get your ducks in a row as soon as possible, so that when your orders start to come in, you’re ready to go. There are many other things you can get started on while waiting for your prototype to be made:

contact retailers, look for manufacturing options, investigate your funding options, set your price, fi le for your patent and trademark. With the exception of the fi nal two, nothing on this list will cost you anything but time, so you risk nothing.

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My prototype maker’s suggestion that I make my invention out of polystyrene, and his additional advice that I might need something called an injection molder, sent me on my next research binge. I didn’t know the first thing about plastics, so I went back to the Yellow Pages and looked under “plastics.” And there was a list of companies that manufactured plastic in Chicago.

This was a relief, because I’d already made up my mind that I was going to do what I could to work with local companies so that at all times I could keep a close eye on the production, packaging, and any other processes necessary to usher my product onto retail shelves. But aside from “plastics,” there were other words staring up at me from those business directory pages. Thermoforming. Extrusion. It turned out there were different types of plastic manufacturing processes, and I was going to have to figure out which one I needed. It seemed as if every time I got one question answered, ten more popped up.

Methodically, I started researching, reading, and making calls to educate myself about what I would need to do to bring my product to life. And sure enough, my prototype maker was right: I needed an injection molder, a factory that mass-produces products by using large machines to inject liquefied plastic into molds.

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Ignorance is never a good excuse for stalling. You can get any information you need if you’re willing to do the research.

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You have all the information at your fingertips that you need to get your invention made. If, then, I could figure out how to get my prototype made when my only resources were the business pages and whatever books I could lug home from the library, today you can use the Internet to find a reliable prototype maker, as well as manufacturer, packager, sales rep, or any other resource you need. It is worth the time and effort to educate yourself as thoroughly as possible about every aspect of your business, from design to manufacturing to packaging. Absorbing all that knowledge will be instrumental in protecting yourself from being taken advantage of and for negotiating the best deals possible.

Lori Greiner is an American inventor, entrepreneur, and television personality. Lori is best known as a "Shark" investor on ABC's Shark Tank.

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