Anyone can come up with an idea for a new product; almost anyone can build a prototype.
Building a prototype that will serve as a successful launchpad for full-scale manufacturing? That’s a bit more challenging.
The road from coming up with a product idea to manufacturing it to scale is long and winding—though a partner like General Label can help guide you down the path.
In this article, we’ll do just that. You’ll learn the steps that companies normally take to get from an initial idea to a working prototype, then to full-scale manufacturing. We’ll explore which steps have the greatest impact on your final product and the methods you can use to improve your prototype to production process.
The Prototype to production timeline
The prototyping to production process is necessarily fluid. You’re going to iterate on prototypes until you find one that you like. You might decide that none of the prototypes suit your needs. You might find that the cost to manufacture a certain prototype to scale is outside of your budget. You might love a prototype but find you need to tweak the final product based on market research.
You get the idea. Creating a prototype is complex in its own right—and there are further complexities once you move to the manufacturing stage. With that in mind, the timeline we’ve created is not a step-by-step process; it reflects the branching paths that the prototype to production process usually follows.
With luck, the process might be extremely straightforward. This usually occurs if the product you’re developing is quite simple or if it’s very similar to a product you’ve already developed.
In most cases, however, you’ll need to tweak your design several times, repeating steps as often as necessary. You can limit this repetition with careful planning and a good partner (more on that later), but don’t get discouraged if you have to iterate several times. As you learn more about moving from prototyping to production, you’ll refine your process and create more realistic timeframes and budgets.
Building the perfect prototype
Prototyping is no exception to the repetitious nature of the design process. To build the perfect prototype, you’ll want to experiment with different materials, processes, and designs. The timeframe for building a prototype varies significantly depending on where you are in the overall design process.
Engineers are creative problem-solvers. Whether you’ve got a fully developed CAD design or some sketches you made on the back of an envelope, they’ll be able to make a prototype for you. In the best-case scenario, you’ll have your own homemade prototype developed—the engineers can then iterate on your existing design to find the best materials and converting processes.
No matter how far you are in the prototyping stage, however, you can expect the process of developing your final prototypes to take some time—days for simple designs, weeks for more complex prototypes. Here’s what to expect depending on where you are in the prototyping process:
Where you are in the prototyping process
How we can help
Time to completion
You have an idea or a rough sketch for a prototype
Our engineers will create a fully realized CAD design for your prototype
A few days
You have a design, but no physical prototype
Our engineers refine the design, then create a physical prototype
A few days to a few weeks, depending on complexity
You have a physical prototype that needs to be refined
Our engineers recreate the prototype digitally (using your design files as reference where possible), refine it, then create a physical prototype
With our quick-turn prototyping methods, this process usually takes a few days to a couple of weeks
You have a number of different iterations on your design/prototype
Our engineers will refine the different iterations, producing a number of working prototypes for you to test
Varies depending on how many prototypes need testing, but with soft tooling and quick-turn prototyping, the process moves quickly
You’ve completed your prototype, and want to scale to manufacturing
Testing different molds, materials, and machines/tools, our engineers will create a process to scale your design to manufacturing
A few days to a few weeks, depending on complexity
As you can see, the timeline varies significantly depending on how far along you are in the design and prototyping process. The time to completion can be reduced significantly by partnering with us early in the design process. Our New Product Introduction (NPI) support service can help you shave days off of each of the steps described above, significantly reducing your time to market (TTM).
Scaling your prototype to production
Once you have a working prototype, you can begin scaling to production. One of the advantages of working with your contract manufacturer during the design and prototyping phases is that it’ll already have relevant information about what you expect out of the final product. In circumstances where you have already fully developed your prototype and simply need to move to production, you’ll need to tell your contract manufacturer:
- The number of units you’ll need
- How quickly you want to get to market
- Your budget
- Product tolerances
You’ll also need to provide your contract manufacturer with your design files, as well as the physical prototype.
Once your contract manufacturer has received your prototype, it may take a few days to set up the manufacturing process. During this time, it will:
- Create 3D models of the design
- Train its staff on the product tolerances of each component
- Train its staff on testing each component
- Create molds and program its CNC machines
- Secure any materials needed for the design that aren’t on hand
This setup process highlights yet another reason it’s prudent to onboard your contract manufacturer early. By involving it during the design and prototyping process, all of the steps above will have been completed earlier in the process, and you can move directly from prototyping to production.
The time it will take to manufacture your product depends heavily on the scale of the production run, the complexity of the product, and the materials used. Short-scale production runs that can be soft-tooled can be completed in just a few days. Conversely, large-scale production runs with complex components may take months to complete.
How General Label can improve your prototype to production process
We’ve explored how working with a contract manufacturer like us can reduce your TTM. By working with the senior leadership, marketing, and engineering from conception, we can expedite the prototyping process, work on finding the right machines, materials, and methods for production from day one, eliminate uncertainty, and lend our experience to improve your NPI process.
Here are some of the things that General Label can do to bring your product to the next level:
- Offer quick-turn prototyping to rapidly create multiple iterations of a prototype
- Use soft-tooling (lasers, tangent knife systems, digital printing, etc.) to reduce non-recurring engineering (NRE) costs associated with prototyping and offer a more flexible design process
- Offer multiple graphics on the same production run to generate tangible products for multivariate testing during the prototyping phase—perfect for membrane switch design and more
- Design more cost-effective solutions by eliminating layers or processes. We might, for example, redesign your pinout to eliminate the need for more than one color circuit.
These are just a few of the innovative solutions we offer to the businesses that work with us. By including us in the design process from step one, you’ll reduce the need for costly redesigns, get actionable recommendations to lower your TTM and production costs, and benefit from our decades of experience in the space.