While inventorship can often be solitary work, it is important to leverage the experience and skills of the inventor community to help grow our skills and offer advice. For this reason, instead of my normal discussion of prototyping techniques and industry events, I have opened it up to questions from you, the readers.
The following questions were submitted by members of the Edison Nation community, and hopefully the answers will help you out with your prototyping challenges.
Mark Bartlett, Sarasota, FL?: “I would assume “function over form” would be the most important aspect of a prototype. The ability to provide recognizable proof of concept over aesthetic design would be the most important factor. Would you agree and could you give any examples of crude prototypes that went on to become successful products?”
I agree that early in the prototyping phases of product development, it is crucial to get the function of the prototypes worked out. When I discuss inventing and prototyping with inventors and clients I like to use the concept of technical debt.
At the start of a program, you have 100% technical debt. You have no idea what the right technology is or how to execute it. Through research, prototyping, and iteration the functional elements and dependencies are uncovered and the technical debt becomes lower and lower until finally, you have nearly no technical debt when the product is manufactured.
In the early phases of the prototyping process, the goal is to decrease the technical debt of the innovation as fast and as economically as possible so that the industrial designers can create a beautiful and iconic look for the product that can effectively house the technical elements of the design and which is so crucial to sell it.
A great product that used crude prototypes to good effect was the Collar Perfect personal travel iron. At the beginning of the project one of the biggest questions we had was what shape the product needed to be to iron all of the different areas of dress shirts and other clothing. The team built about 30 different prototypes out of foam core to test out different sizes and shapes. The prototypes were inexpensive, fast to build, and had no internal working elements. However, they allowed us to narrow in on the hamburger shape for the product and led us to create the pivoting wings that defined and distinguished the product.
These simple and inexpensive form model helped the team at Enventys Partners define the product at an early stage that set it up for commercial success.
Derrick James, Beloit, WI?: “What’s the best way to prototype electronic components if you have, at best, limited experience in this area?
Electronics and internet connectivity are driving innovation in nearly every sector of consumer products and it is important for inventors to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of electronics to help build their prototypes. Fortunately, the open source community has given us easy-to-use development boards and published a ton of content on how to use them.
I would highly recommending starting with the Arduino Uno board. The Arduino is powerful enough for most applications, is the most used and documented microcontroller and there is a lot of free code available to download and circuit diagrams that will help you wire it up. Sites like hackster.io have nearly 4000 projects built with Arduino with full step by step instructions.
Learning the Arduino programming language is really powerful, because the same integrated development environment (IDE) and the C++ programming language can be used to program lots of other microcontrollers other than the stock Arduino including ESP8266 and other IoT development boards. Building a knowledge base with an Arduino foundation is likely going to be the most bang for your buck.
The Arduino is my recommendation for anyone looking to learn electronics and coding for prototyping.
John Nelson, Lake Ronkonkoma, NY?: “I am thinking of upgrading my prototype shop to include a 3D printer, I have some AutoCAD experience however I do not know what are the most user friendly 3D printers and what is a reasonable price point, any advice…thanks”
3D printing continues to evolve at lightning speed and is giving inventors access to great equipment that is affordable for the home or garage based workshop. Printers are a great tool, but their drawback is that you need a three dimensional CAD file of the part before you can print. Modeling parts in 3D requires extra software and expertise and needs to be considered coincidentally when considering purchasing a printer.
Students and teachers have no problem getting student licenses of professional software like SolidWorks, but there are still free and low cost options for the rest of us. TinkerCAD is a great free program for beginners as it has an intuitive interface and lots of pre-build designs that can be leveraged. For those with a bit more experience or need a more powerful tool, I recommend AutoDesk Fusion 360. It is fully featured and economical CAD software and is free to use for hobbyists and startups.
Unless you need an extremely big bed, I would stay in the $1000 range for an extruder based printer. The key is to get a printer that does not have proprietary filament cartridges and will allow you the flexibility to run commodity or specialized printer material. The Prusa i3 and Lulzbot Mini2 are both great options in that price range that offer great customer support and a wide range of materials.
Scott Tarcy from the Amazon show ?3D Print the Future? does a lot of extruder based printing and recommends the Ultimaker 2+ as it has proved to be very reliable in his lab. If you are more cost conscious and adventurous, I would recommend the Sainsmart Creality Ender-3. It is available for less than $300 and has a stiff platform and good printing. However, since it is a commodity printer from an overseas firm, the documentation and support are not going to be as good.
A Sainsmart Creality Ender-3 and a Lulzbot Taz running parts during the product development bootcamp I hosted in the Dominican Republic.