The five stages of prototype development

The five stages of prototype development

16th January 2018 by Steve Bates

Entrepreneurs usually invest time and money in prototypes because they can help them see how well their product will work in the real world. A prototype may:

  • Help them understand the supply chain for the components they’ll need
  • Reveal flaws in the original design
  • Give an opportunity to solve any design issues
  • Prove that the design/technology works
  • Enable them to get feedback on the product and act upon it
  • Give a better understanding of what the price per unit will be

And, because the product isn’t already in production, any problems should be relatively cheap and easy to fix.

What’s more, by producing a prototype you’ll be able to demonstrate how the product works and the problem it solves, to both journalists and potential backers. It’s far easier to explain a product and demonstrate why it’s worth producing it if you have something tangible to put in front of people. Here’s a quick run through the various prototype stages:

  1. Create a bill of materials

A bill of materials (BOM) is a bit like a recipe/shopping list for preparing a product. By producing a BOM, you’ll have a reasonably good idea of how much funding you’ll need to manufacture your product.

It’s mainly a detailed list of parts and items needed to put together a product. It should also include where to find the parts and how to put them together.

  1. Works like a prototype/technical development

The second thing you should create is a piece of technology that works to fulfil your vision. This stage of development is often known as ‘technical development’ or “works like a prototype’. [ ] It should do the job you had in mind, but probably won’t be pretty, or even look at all like the finished thing. In fact, it’s likely to resemble a battery attached to a clump of wiring. But it should prove that your idea works.  Although it may seem a little early, test the prototype and give demos to your target market to start getting feedback and to build excitement about your idea.

  1. Looks like prototype

This is a representational prototype that the engineers on your product project will use to take your piece of technology and try to turn it into something that looks like [the finished thing. It’s important to think carefully at this stage about functionality, as sometimes, the engineers may have to cut certain things out in order to create a product that’s viable to mass produce. Again, test your prototype and show how it works so that you can gain valuable feedback from your target market before your product goes into production. There’s no point in making thousands of something that nobody really wants.

  1. Design for manufacture (DFM)

Your DFM [ ] may look a bit different to the prototype in stage three. That’s because this prototype will take into account:

  • What it’s like to manufacture products
  • Working with a supply chain in the real world
  • The cost of components – and perhaps will include cheaper alternatives than were originally envisioned
  • Speed of production

However, check that the engineers haven’t compromised on your idea to make the piece look a certain way, or weigh-up whether the practicalities of manufacturing something cost-effectively mean that something has to ‘give’. It’s crucial that you test the reaction to this prototype with your target market. Once you sign it off, the result will be a product that’s fully optimised for mass production.

Many entrepreneurs are tempted to run a fundraising campaign before producing a DFM, but this can be a costly mistake. Without a DFM, you run the risk of seriously underestimating costs, discovering ‘hidden’ costs too late and running into unexpected sourcing issues.

  1. First units off the assembly line

By now you’ll probably have completed your funding campaign and have a marketing and PR strategy in place to reach your target market. Imagine the pride you’ll feel as the culmination of all your hard work comes off the assembly line and is ready to go on sale to the world.


There are some really interesting stories around creating prototypes, here’s one  that I found particularly entertaining:

Steve Jobs and the iPod 

The engineers presented their prototype for the very first iPod and watched anxiously as Steve played around with it. After what seemed like an age, he announced that he was rejecting it as it was too large.

The engineers retorted that it was impossible to make the device any smaller. Silence.

Then Steve got up, wandered over to the aquarium tank and simply dropped the iPod into the water. It sank to the bottom and bubbles floated to the top. “Those are air bubbles. That means there’s space in there. Make it smaller.”

Steve Bates

Steve Bates

Content Team at Seedrs

Digital Agency Kent