The prototype to production process is often very confusing, particularly if you don’t have any prior contract manufacturing experience. Sure, most inventors, entrepreneurs, and business owners already know that they need to make a working prototype before they start churning out products in a manufacturing plant. You have to learn to walk before you can run. But what exactly do prototyping and production look like from start to finish? Is there anything you can do to make this process run more smoothly?
In this visual guide to the prototype to production process, we’ll help you understand all of the most crucial moments that have the greatest impact on your product, timeline, and bottom line. This isn’t a passive process. There are many steps you can take right now to ensure your prototyping and production runs as fluidly as possible.
What Does the Prototype to Production Process Look Like?
There’s a common misconception that the prototype to production process looks the same for every inventor and company. If you research this process online, you’ll find step-by-step guides supposedly designed to take you from prototype to production seamlessly. The problem with many of these timelines is that they’re far too rigid and linear.
The reality is that the prototyping to production process is fluid and looks slightly different for everyone—there is no tried-and-true formula for getting your unique product through the production line. It’s also different for every new product you design. Even if you’ve been through this process before with a previous product, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll go through all of the same steps again in exactly the same order.
With this in mind, here’s what you can generally expect from the prototype to production process:
As you can see, this process isn’t entirely linear. Unless you have a simple product and you don’t run into any snags along the way, chances are you’ll have to return to many of the previous steps in the process multiple times until you’re satisfied or you’ve run up against your deadline. This is perfectly normal. In fact, when you start this process with the expectation that you’ll likely have to tweak and refine your design multiple times, you’ll be better prepared for what’s to come.
It’s important to go through this process thoughtfully and with reasonable expectations. However, that doesn’t mean you should get stuck in the prototype to production process for months on end. There are a number of steps you can take to optimize and speed up this process without affecting the quality of your product.
How to Build a Great Prototype
Ideally, your prototyping process should only take about a month or two at most, but the process may take longer depending on where you are in the design process. The best way to ensure that your idea makes it through the prototyping phase as fast and efficiently as possible is to have an initial prototype or drawing already prepared for the prototyping engineers. This gives the engineers a clear idea of what you expect your product to look like and how you’d like it to function.
However, coming into the prototyping to production process with a homemade prototype isn’t always possible. You may be short on time, supplies, and/or experience. The best prototyping companies won’t expect this from you. They will be willing to go back to the very beginning and work closely with you on the design. Skilled engineers can even work off of a smudged drawing on a napkin or an idea you still only have in your head—they’re open-minded.
If you want to know approximately how long the prototyping process will take based on your starting point, take a look at the estimated timelines below:
|Your Starting Point||How to Get to the Next Phase||Estimated Timeline|
|You have an idea for a new product, but no actual design.||Engineers enter a design phase where they create multiple concept drawings for your approval.||1 week to 1 month, depending on how fast you approve the final design.|
|You have a design, but no prototype.||Engineers create a 3D model of the design and refine it, then when that is approved, they build a physical prototype.||A few days for simple models; a few weeks for complex designs.|
|You have an initial prototype that needs to be refined for production.||Engineers recreate the prototype using 3D software and improve on the design based on your production needs. Then, they use rapid prototyping or other prototyping methods to create and test physical models.||Using 3D software and rapid prototyping cuts down on reworks and iterations and can be completed in days or a few weeks. Traditional prototyping methods take several weeks or a few months to complete.|
|You have a final prototype that you’re ready to produce.||Engineers decide on what type of molds, materials, or tooling to use based on your production quantity and product design. Then they create the models and molds to begin the manufacturing process.||A few days to a few weeks, depending on the quality of the prototype, the complexity of the design, the production quantity, and whether you need to produce multiple parts that will be assembled later.|
If you start from the very beginning with a basic design idea, the prototype to production process could take months from start to finish. This is why it’s important to work with an experienced contract manufacturer that uses the most efficient software, tools, and prototyping methodologies. Shaving even just a little bit of time off of each step in this process could get your product to market months ahead of schedule.
What You Need to Move On to the Production Stage
Once you have a physical prototype you feel is worthy of production, you can start refining the manufacturing process. The best way to speed up this process and keep costs low is to communicate with your contract manufacturer. Give them detailed information about:
- The production quantity
- Product tolerances
- The ideal end timeline
- Your total manufacturing budget
If you worked with a contract manufacturer on the design process, then the manufacturer should already have this information. Ideally, they will have already incorporated these factors into the original design and prototype so you can move right into the manufacturing phase.
But if you contacted a manufacturer after making your own prototype, then the manufacturer may need a few days or weeks to get up to speed. They need to make 3D models of the design, train their engineers on how to craft and test each component, create molds, or program CNC machines to manufacture each part. And if there’s a flaw in your prototype or it’s too complex to manufacture, you may even have to spend a few months rethinking the design before you can start this process.
Once your manufacturer is ready to produce the components, it’s simply a matter of waiting until the components are ready. Short production runs can be completed in just a few days. Large scale production can take a few months, depending on the product’s complexity and the manufacturer’s resources.
From here, you may also have to wait an additional few days or weeks for your products to go through quality control testing, assembly, and shipping. It varies depending on your service agreement with the manufacturer.
Essential Tips to Make Your Production Run Smoothly
The number one mistake that inventors and companies make when they go through the prototyping to production process is being unsure of their own goals. Think carefully about:
- What you want your final intended end user to experience;
- The overall volume of product you want to produce;
- Your maximum budget for the entire product development process.
It’s okay if you don’t know all of the details about your project. However, the answers to these three questions are extremely important. Without them, you’ll waste time questioning your production decisions, rethinking your designs, and running into dead ends—this is time you could have spent actively working on a prototype or preparing your production line.
However, even if you don’t have all of these answers, an experienced contract manufacturer can still support you. In fact, the earlier you get in touch with your manufacturer, the smoother this process will go. It’s better to iron out these details early with advice from an experienced manufacturer than it is to try to find these answers alone without a full understanding of the process. A good manufacturer will make sure your project operates as fluidly as possible, even if you make mistakes or run into hurdles along the way. With their help, even complicated processes like prototyping and production become much easier to navigate.
PRL’s engineers have dozens of manufacturing options available to help you solve any challenge facing your product: CNC machining, custom tooling, 3D printing, thermoplastic molding, reverse engineering, and more. No matter what stage your product is currently at, we can create it and optimize it for manufacturing.