How To: Get started with Prototyping with Ralph Machesky
In our third installment of the “How To…” series, we’ve reached out to Edison Nation member Ralph Machesky to relay his experiences with prototyping.
Let’s start off simply… what is prototyping?
Prototype [proh-tuh-tahyp] noun
… the original or model on which something is based or formed.
In a few words — prototyping is a physical manifestation of your idea or object.
You actually model, create, build or assemble a ‘mock-up’ of an idea or object. Since prototyping usually relates to something that has not been built before, it can be a fluid type of process. By fluid, I mean the prototyping process can flow easily, it can have obstacles and it can have breakthroughs. It’s very exciting to a lot of inventors because you finally get to take an idea right out of your head and start the journey to making it into something real.
To me, that’s one of the best things of being an inventor… the ability to transform not just a new and possibly abstract idea, but to make it into an actual something you can hold in your hand (usually).
Now that I mention it… that’s kind of heavy if you think about it.
How did you get started inventing and creating prototypes?
Wow. I gotta go way back on that one. Let me rewind for a minute.
Okay, I’m back and I went way back indeed… to when I was about 10 years old.
We had little electric ‘slot cars’ (Aurora AFX, anyone?) back then that you could drive around on a plastic track with molded slots down the middle. Not physically get in/on and drive, but with a pistol grip wired controller. Wireless wasn’t even invented yet or the web, LOL. Anyway, the cars went insanely fast around the track, but we always wanted them to go just a little…bit…faster…which is crazy but hey — I was 10 years old!
I didn’t like the way the cars would spin out on turns so I had to think of a solution. I wanted to go as fast as possible around the turns, yet still have control. I thought about it for about three seconds and voila! All-wheel drive electric slot cars were born! I guess that was a precursor to the AWD Audis and Subarus of the future, who knows?
Oh, how did I make the car? I took another car with a broken shell and using parts from both the gearing and drivetrain, carefully cut and glued it to another working car. It was a little longer than the other cars because of this modification, but it ran like greased lighting around the track. I guess that was my first ‘creation’ or invention of sorts. I haven’t been able to stop myself ever since. :)
As an inventor yourself, do you find that creating a prototype (going beyond just explaining a concept), impacts commercialization? How?
Absolutely. Prototyping and inventing is a natural pair, joined at the hip.
Very few things, if any, are commercialized without starting out as some ‘prototype’ somewhere. Almost every invention goes through a ‘transformation’ process that is a steady progression in shape, form or function from day one. Very rarely does it remain exactly the way you first envisioned it. Why? As you create your ‘mock-up’ or prototype you will discover and learn things about your invention that you didn’t know. For instance, what do under-cuts and mold release have to do with manufacturing? Only everything! Undercuts, as I mentioned, are important to both your prototype and commercialization. If you want something injection-molded or even thermo-formed as depicted below, undercuts in the design prevent the item from releasing from the molds and are a stopping point until those are removed and corrected. This all points back to the previous How-To Lesson from Tim Hayes on Industrial Design. Nice work, Tim!
Other physical aspects of your invention will become relevant during the prototyping process, like weight and materials selection, for example. You may discover that the working prototype you built is not strong or light enough and you may have to consider making the final product out of aluminum instead of steel. So, as you prototype you ‘learn’ things about your invention. This is fun to me, because you really get to discover what works and what doesn’t.
As your prototype evolves and transforms, it gets closer to becoming a commercial possibility. You have hopefully ironed out all the kinks and made numerous changes to make the final product that much better. By smoothing out as many bumps as possible beforehand, you make it that much easier for a manufacturer to be willing to make the final product.
Oh, I forgot to mention the two basic types/classifications of prototypes, which are working and non-working prototypes. Working prototypes are just that — they actually work just like or close to the final product should. A nonworking prototype is similar, in that it looks like your idea, but doesn’t actually work, or perform a physical function. It’s for show only. Simple, right?
Have you ever worked in helping other inventors with their projects?
When you say ‘worked in helping’ I guess that’s a ‘yes’. I have collaborated on some projects/concepts that others asked me to help them with and I’ve also offered my services to people I thought could use it, uninvited. That may sound a bit rude, but they wholeheartedly thanked me later for my help. I can’t bear to see people struggle when they shouldn’t have to. If I can help them, I’m going to help.
What tools would you suggest an inventor would need to get started in prototyping?
Hmm… that’s a tough question which is really based on the needs of your project.
There are some very basic tools everyone already has or should have and there are specific tools that relate directly to what kind of prototype are you building.
For instance, simple cutting tools, like scissors and straight-edged razor blades or utility knives are infinitely useful and low-cost. You can cut basic materials like paper, cardboard and even thin plastic. You would also be surprised at how many ‘working’ prototypes one can build using just those materials.
(Hat tip to Mark Bartlett of EN, thanks Mark!)
I’ll even include some pictures (scroll below) showing some working prototypes I made with just cardboard and plastic. The plastic was from a soda bottle, if I recall.
If you can afford it, a nice X-Acto® modeling knife would be great. Even the knock-off brands (Proto, Harbor Freight) work pretty good and are very inexpensive! A Dremel Rotary Tool is a must have. Of course rulers don’t seem like much of a ‘tool’ but are definitely needed at times. Tape measures may be needed depending of course of overall size of your project. I even use digital calipers on several things.
If your kids (or you) have Legos in your home, you have an amazing construction set at your fingertips already! It’s fairly easy to create some simple or even detailed prototypes with Legos these days. Legos are a wonderful thing for everyone!
Most people have a computer or laptop these days, but most do little more than web surf or email with them. CAD (Computer Aided Design) and 3D Modeling software can turn that computer into a potential money saver…and even money maker! If you have a decent computer at home and are willing to learn, you need to acquaint yourself with these things, STAT! You can actually create ‘virtual’ prototypes that look realistic, (John Vilardi, nice work!). They are drawn to scale and depending on your software, complete real physical tests without any real physical materials!
COSMOS Works for Solidworks (now called Solidworks Simulation) does some incredible things, like kinetics, fluid flow, working springs, gravity, pistons…you name it!
That stuff, while neat, is NOT cheap and I should keep this list to things you need to get started, not advanced items yet. I told ya this stuff was exciting!
What is your most memorable project and why?
I guess one of my most memorable projects was one I built years ago when I managed a large video arcade. We had a full-sized Dynamo® Air Hockey table in the arcade and it almost always was being used and made a lot of money. The ‘plastic’ air hockey puck was made from a poly-carbonate resin, derived from a similar type of plastic used in ice hockey rink surrounds and bullet-proof teller glass. Anyway, the pucks have been clocked at over 180 miles an hour…they could hit things really, really hard. It wasn’t long before people got tired of either ducking, or being hit that I decided I needed to come up with a solution and fast! The ‘BING’ moment for me, was when a new mother walked by the table with her newborn baby and saw the puck go flying across the room. I told myself right there and then I had to fix this problem RIGHT NOW! And I did.
With no viable, effective solution available I created my own, in just a couple of days time. This was one of my examples that went straight to production and everyday use. I designed it on the fly and had no time for a mock-up or prototype. The patent attorney requested I build a scale model later on. This was later deemed a ‘dynamic energy absorbing screen’ by my attorney. I called it the Arena™ and it worked perfectly. We could pack the arcade to fire code limits and nobody got hurt! Kids (and parents) actually liked it!
Drawing of my Arena Net System from the patent application
It worked so perfectly, the President of Dynamo Corp came out just to see it in action and test it out himself. I have some pictures of both my miniature scale prototype I built (it’s just a model)…
Mini-scale model I later built for the lawyers
…and the actual product in use in my arcade.
My Arena in public use. Air Hockey like it’s 1988 baby!
Yeah, that was some 80/90’s hair stuff… stop your laughing! I still love air hockey! : )
I would later find out the reason he came to ‘check out’ my innovation was because they were just testing a short, plastic upright that bolted to the table sides and was about 4–6 inches tall at most. Their product was called ‘The Shield’ and was a placebo solution that would sadly later gain industry acceptance, based almost entirely on its ‘look’. You could just ‘look’ at the clear shields and tell they were supposed to ‘protect’ you, or ‘do’ something otherwise, why would they be there, right?
What the industry settled for to supposedly ‘protect’ patrons.
This was my first lesson in ‘products that reach the market are not always the best’. My Arena™ worked so well that they were worried I would disrupt their plans to go ahead with their fairly low-cost solution, even though it didn’t really work, *sigh*. The ends of the tables still had no protection whatsoever and the pucks very often flew right over the little plastic shields on the sides. I only sold a few of my Arena™ net systems before I found out my wife was pregnant with our first child and that as they say, is that! Life does get in the way at times. So, I had a lot of things happen at that time that were pretty memorable.
Still awake after all of this dribble? Okay great! Now on to the good stuff!
Any other details you’d like to share beyond the questions above?
You should always, if possible, make your prototypes out of the best suited materials possible within your budget. Don’t break the bank on this stuff! The idea is to get a basic idea of size, scale, weight or function with simple, low cost materials first! You will discover you that you end up making several prototypes with varying changes or materials; it is the nature of the beast, as they say.
Materials for FREE!
I routinely scavenge plastic and cardboard from my recycle bins at home just to make a quick prototype. Another good place to look for free materials is stores. Yep, sometimes they just throw away the end cap display signage and promo items. A lot of great plastic materials can be had there for just the asking. You just have to get to it before the compactor does, LOL.
Part of a working prototype I built from cardboard and plastic. Was fully functional and cost basically nothing to make…What is it?
Why, it’s a hair dryer powered mini-vac for hairstylists, of course!
I have also been able to get ‘free’ samples of advanced engineering materials from 3M and others, simply by requesting them. They won’t just give you large quantities for free, but sometimes small amounts are all that’s needed to prove functionality.
Hobby Stores — a treasure trove
If you have a Hobby Lobby store nearby, you are also in luck- they have Styrofoam, plastic, balsa wood, paint, etc., a veritable prototyper’s delight. You can go online and look for the 40% coupons and get your materials inexpensively that way. This is also a great way to get that fantabulous Dremel rotary tool. You simply have to get one of those if you ever build anything in your life. Pretty much any good hobby store will have quite a few useful tools and materials.
Springs and Nuts and Bolts — Oh, my!
Yeah, I love ACE Hardware, I’ll admit it. They have almost anything one could need building prototypes and when they don’t, I’m shocked! If you cannot find most everything there you need, what the heck are you building anyway? Another thing I like about ACE is most of the inventory there is made in the U.S.A. Woot!
3D Printers — A gift from the prototyping gods!
I just can’t say enough good things about the impact of 3D printing on my life.
Seriously, there isn’t enough room here. You really, really need to check them out if you can. That doesn’t mean you have to run out and buy one right away, but if you are serious about prototyping/inventing and you can afford it, DO IT! Make sure you do your research first though, as they are not all created alike. Try to avoid ones that use proprietary filament spools like the DaVinci mini. It is a great little desktop sized 3D printer that works fairly well, but the spool of plastic filament has to come from them. It even has an embedded chip that forces you to use their supplies only. I’ll pass. They even have handheld 3D printing pens that you simply start ‘drawing’ with. Instead of squirting out ink, it melts the filament plastic and squirts that out allowing you to ‘build’ things out thin air. Truly amazing stuff.
Casting Resin and Silicone are my friends
This stuff is extremely useful to me for making a lot of neat things. RTV silicone is not exactly cheap, but worth every penny. Some of my best working prototypes have been made using just those two materials.
The Internet… simply one of the BEST tools EVER!
Seriously, if you are not using the ‘Interwebz’ for all the collective knowledge on the planet, what are you doing? I can get technical drawings, 3D Modeling /CAD parts, material listings, subscribe to hundreds of catalogs, shop for the best prices and have it all delivered to my door on just about everything, collaborate with other
inventors…phew! The resources you have at your fingertips are mind-boggling.
Real Example — The Dripnot
Start to finished product:
Left: What the industry thinks is ‘good’
Center: My first paper prototype
Right: Final reusable product made from food grade silicone — look at how much it changed from the center picture.
Evolution of a product:
Left to Right: Rubber casting mix (amber), Tool dip (red), Early 3D print failure (opaque with lines), Cast made with instant molding putty, Thermo-formed plastic disposables (yellow) and Thermo-formed inudstry accepted single-size unit (white)
Dripnot holders in use:
End result in action at the NAPICS show. I have since redesigned them and they are even better than my originals, which I didn’t think was even possible. Hopefully patented and on the store shelves soon!
Just as man is his own worst enemy, you are the biggest limitation when it comes to creating your prototypes! I could go on and on worse than I already have, but should save it for my upcoming book, Building Everything out of Nothing.
I hope this inspires you to explore the prototyping possibilities that await you and the rewards that will follow…if you just get BUSY! Seriously, get to it!
NOTE TO READERS: ALL of my inventions are based on real world PROBLEMS. People know the saying “the mother of invention is necessity.” What people don’t know is that “the father of invention is frustration!”
We sincerely thank Ralph for sharing his prototyping experiences and advice! You can also learn more from Ralph on the Edison Nation Forums!