How to Create a Cheap Prototype for Small Businesses

Guest Post by Greg Fisher

 3D Printer with Prototype

If you are launching a new product and you’re a small business or entrepreneur, then you can’t afford to make any mistakes – especially if it’s your first product that you’re using to launch your start-up. Manufacturing, marketing and distributing are all highly expensive investments and if your product doesn’t work or doesn’t appeal to your target demographic, then it’s crucial that you know this sooner rather than later and don’t pour large amounts of cash into a project that’s doomed from the offset.

And one of the best ways to quickly find out whether your product has legs and how it needs to be tweaked for the best performance if it does at all, is to create a prototype. Without actually holding your product in your hands, there’s only so sure you can be, but when you’re able to properly examine it and test it in person you will have a much better idea of how well it works, where there’s room for improvement and what it will actually be like to use. And this is even more useful when you start looking for testers or using focus groups.

How to Create a Prototype

While you may recognize the value of a prototype, many small businesses don’t realize that options now exist to allow them to cheaply hold their item in their hands. While this was once an expensive process, prototyping is now actually very easy and affordable for even small businesses with few resources.

Do it Yourself

The first and most obvious method of creating a prototype is simply to try and build one yourself with makeshift materials. For more complex products this won’t be an option, but if you are creating something that uses readily available materials then you can easily try and create that yourself in a makeshift manner. The TechShop is a great resource to access industrial style machine if there is one in your area. There may be other local “job” shops under different names that you can find locally with some searching.

Use 3D Printing

For those items that are slightly more difficult to produce, or for a prototype that will be more presentable for beta testing, another cheap and readily available option is to use 3D printing. 3D printing allows you to ‘print’ three dimensional items in a variety of materials ranging from plastics to ceramics to metals. Almost any design you can think of can be replicated cheaply as a ‘one off’ using a 3D printer as long as it can be assembled from single parts and is not too large or complex. To create your own 3D printed prototype you will need to create a 3D model using CAD software and then use a 3D printer of your own or use an online service such as Shapeways.

Outsource

If you aren’t confident to make your prototype or it is too complicated for 3D printing, another option is to use prototyping companies and outsource the process. These services have come down significantly in price thanks to technologies such as 3D printing and in some cases, they will even be offered by your manufacturing contractor. It requires an upfront investment, but compared with manufacturing and marketing thousands of units that no-one wants to buy it’s a small price to pay!

Services

In a different line of thinking, prototyping services can be equally valuable if your final product is to be service related. As services aren’t physical products, the critical features to good prototyping of services are to get a good base of users for testing and an organized and thoughtful system to analyze your results. Consider mostly the final purpose of your prototype. Are their critical features you want to test? Are you looking to identify an optimal price point or package? Do you want to understand your target market better? A prototype can not accomplish everything, it should be very focused so that the results are actionable. Define your prototyping parameters and objectives very clearly to achieve this. A/B testing with different groups should be considered as it is a valuable tool to give further insights.

 Greg Fisher Founder of Berkeley Sourcing Group

This guest post is written by Greg Fisher; he is the founder of Berkeley Sourcing Group. He started BSG eight years ago after realizing the need for efficient processes and coordination between manufacturing firms located in the United States and factories in China. You can connect with Greg on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/gregfisherbsg

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