As the new year is now in full swing, many of us have formally or informally made some resolutions or put some new activities or experiences on our to-do lists for the year. While some have some have vowed to train for a 5K or travel to a new place, I am sure many Edison Nation members have vowed to finally get their product idea off the ground. It is quite easy to fantasize about landing the licensing deal and seeing your product in a store, but there is a lot of back end work that needs to happen first. Since the first steps are often the hardest, I wanted to take a moment to talk about some of the steps you can take to get your idea out of your head and get a great “works-like” prototype that will help start you on your way to success.
It may seem obvious, but one of the best ways to get your product moving is to start drawing it. 3D printing and other quick prototyping tools like laser cutters and CNC milling technology have certainly revolutionized the prototyping landscape. While these technologies are a great help, they can be a distraction in the early days of product development. One of the best ways to start flushing out your idea is with a paper and a pen. Even if you are not great at drawing it is important to get a bound notebook and some of your favorite pens (my favorites are black bleedy pens) and start making some sketches.
In the early days of your product’s life, there are so many ideas that are swirling through your head and so many different embodiments that the product could take on, that it is so much more efficient to make lots of hand sketches as opposed to going straight to CAD. Your sketch notebook will also become important when it becomes time to file IP or if you talk to a service provider to get a prototype made in the future. Carry your notebook with you throughout the day so you can record any lightning bolt moments as you go about your normal business.
Once you have some ideas sketched out, it is time to do some research. The phrase “Google it” is firmly embedded into our culture, and I encourage everyone that has a new idea to do just that. There are countless inventors who thought they had struck gold with the next big thing and spent tons of time and money building up prototypes only to find that someone else had done the same thing years ago. While this may be one of the most boring steps it is important. Look at competitive products and do some patent searches. While your initial concepts may be close to what someone else has done, you may find a gap in the marketplace that you can tweak your design to fill. Your research may even result in new product idea that is better than the one you started.
After some research it is time to get down and dirty and do some prototyping. Early prototypes do not need to look good. They just need to a have a set of functional components to test the concept of your idea. Most of the early proof of concept prototypes in the EN engineering shop consist of some cheap purchased components and lots of super glue. For example, the early prototypes of the Sock Sync were made from used Pringles cans, some PVC pipe, and hot glue. There are so many big box, craft, and dollar stores out there with components that can be cut apart and re-purposed to make your prototype that you should not have to spend loads of money in the early stages. This will allow you to validate your idea and give you some ideas on how to modify it and make it even better.
Once you get a first stage prototype made, it may be necessary to make new prototype with some custom components. This is often the case in products that need some special geometry to perform correctly that cannot be recreated with shelf components. This can be done with 3D printing, machining, laser cutting, water jet cutting, or any other appropriate technology.
3D printing is a great way to get custom parts quickly. You may be an early adopter and already have one on your desk that is ready to go. However, if you do not, there are plenty of services that do small quantity 3D printing at low cost. One site that is popular in the maker community right now is Shapeways.com, which lets you upload a 3D CAD file and order them. One trick with 3D printing is that many of the 3D printing processes do not result in a water tight part. Check with your 3D printer service provider to choose a material that is right for your application. Of course, 3D printers need a CAD file.
Many inventors that have come through Edison Nation have had a friend or family member with computer drawing capabilities that they have used to create files. I also covered some of the free and low cost CAD solutions in a previous blog post if you want to make the file yourself. If you decide that you need machining or some other service, some of your local machine shops may be able to use your hand sketches to make parts without having to take the time to do any CAD work.
A great way to get help while working on your idea is to join an inventor community. Edison Nation is a great place to share stories, give progress updates, and get help from fellow inventors. There are also local inventors groups in many areas that meet face to face. A Charlotte inventors group meets in the Edison Nation space once a month, and in addition to the fellowship, they have guest speakers and workshops to help people make better prototypes and provide help in all phases of the product development process. There are also Maker Faires all over the world where you can interact with people that are expert prototypers and learn about new technologies to move your product along. Just be prudent that when you are out and about or posting on forums that you do not disclose any details of your product that would cause problems during patent filing.
Getting started is sometimes the hardest part of product development. It can be so frustrating to have a great idea and not know how to get it to life. Use the momentum of the new year and new beginnings to finally get your idea on the way to market. Sketch your ideas, do some research, and start making some prototypes. As the saying goes, perfection is the enemy of good. Even if your prototypes are crude, they could be just thing you need to land your licensing deal and get your product to market.