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How to Turn Your Concept Into a Prototype? 55

Posted by Cliff
from the from-design-to-device dept.
Synced0 asks: "Like a lot of people who post/read on this site, I am a software developer. I have experience developing handheld applications and am quite knowledgeable about the hardware that are in various handheld devices , these days. I have been toying around with the idea of building a device that is based on a handheld platform. I have the basics for what I need such as what OS, and platform I will base it on (motherboard, CPU, storage, display panel, etc). The biggest question in my head is where do I go for the actual design of casing, and who I can get to do the final hardware design. I have never designed hardware before, but now that I have my platform and such, where do I go from here? I have some ideas on what the device should look like, but I have no skills of molding plastics. I have all the pieces working on the desk but am clueless how I progress from this stage.Is it very expensive for someone to take concept into a prototype?"
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How to Turn Your Concept Into a Prototype?

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  • by UncleFluffy (164860) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @10:06PM (#15710230)
    These people can help with part of your problem: http://www.emachineshop.com/ [emachineshop.com]
    • I noticed emachineshop doesn't list example prices for any of their example parts. A simple washer came to $130. They wanted something like $800 for a steel plate with holes cut in it (for a test tube rack). I guess it's still useful, but I find it hard to believe I couldn't get a better deal talking to a machinist in person. In fact, considering I would need two plates, it would be cheaper to just buy a milling machine [grizzly.com].
      • Talking to a machinist in person will usually result in cheaper prices than emachineshop, for single one-off parts or multiple parts. Buying a mill is great, but you will also need a wide range of accessories, and a lathe, bandsaw, drill press, grinder, belt sander, etc. A typical non-CNC machineshop probably costs $100,000 to fully equip. But you need to have some savvy, machinists run from $100+ per hour down to about $35/hr, and some of the $35/hr guys are much better than most of the $100+/hr guys.

        The r
    • I've thought about using emachineshop.com a few times on a few other projects and specialty car parts. I have been quite satisfied with the work I have had them do in the past.

      However, the issue that may arrise here is (at least at the time I was going to use them for a unique project) in the process of using them, you agree that the designs you submit to them become their property. If he is trying to build a prototype, using emachineshop.com effectively hands the rights to the design to someone else.
      • However, the issue that may arrise here is (at least at the time I was going to use them for a unique project) in the process of using them, you agree that the designs you submit to them become their property. If he is trying to build a prototype, using emachineshop.com effectively hands the rights to the design to someone else.

        Here is what is in their current (or close to current, I haven't installed the latest update):

        Customer retains all rights to submitted designs and emachineshop retains no righ
  • Four Easy steps (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Freaky Spook (811861)
    1. Patent the idea then forget about it.

    2. Wait for some unsuspecting party to develop prototype.

    3. ???

    4. Profit.
    • I have a design for a device that is inevitable, and could be made with today's technology. The problem is that I have no idea how to get a patent, it just seems to complex for me to figure out.
    • I'm sorry, but I already own the patent on 4 easy steps...

      Time to profit... :P
    • Re:Four Easy steps (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      You almost got it right.

      1) Talk to an intellectual property lawyer (look in the phone book or get a personal recommendation). There is more to IP than patents, he or she will be able to advise you on patents, design rights, copyrights, trademarks et al.

      2) Avoid "Invention promotion" companies who promise to put you in touch with "teh profit". Again just look in the phone book, trade journals or ask for a recommendation for proper product development companies.

      3) Ensure that the development company respects
    • You actually forgot one very important step, which mislead you through the rest of your steps.

      0. Check in all the patents ever filed to the USPTO for a patent that may cover part of your idea.

      1. Too bad. It is a chance you have found that and were able to pull out before any harm was done. The fact is that people violating other people's IP are more and more considered as having links with terrorists. Of course, since they are actively trying to destroy the american capitalist economy (who could deny that?)
  • by petard (117521) * on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @10:10PM (#15710244) Homepage
    I was looking into something similar for a Soekris-based project recently. ProtoCase [protocase.com] looks promising. I haven't actually placed my order, so I can't comment on quality just now. I did download their software and do a quick design to estimate costs. Looks like, for a typical soekris-sized project with a couple serial ports and a couple ethernet ports I'd be facing approx. $130/unit in very small quantities with about $70 in one-time setup fees.

    These guys [emachineshop.com] have also occasionally been recommended on soekris-tech, and also offer free software to help you design and submit projects to them.

    Good luck!
  • Casing... (Score:2, Informative)

    by Chapium (550445)
    This isn't necessarily a specific organization, but for casing, you might need to find someone with Industrial Design [wikipedia.org] background.
    • It sounds to me like you have some basic hardware specifications and some ideas of how the device will be used - which will influence the hardware design. But need guidance in getting it from a rough pile of wires to a slick finished product.

      Unless you have all the skills - board design, human factors, industrial design, materials engineering, etc. etc., you're best served by working with some professionals. Try Nectar [nectardesign.com], Frog [frogdesign.com], or IDEO [ideo.com] for starters.

  • Some answers (Score:3, Informative)

    by mnmn (145599) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @10:24PM (#15710304) Homepage
    Sorry for not giving you a link, but there are plastic moulding companies that offer samples albeit at high prices. You'll give them an Autocad drawing with all the specs. They will clarify the tolerances they can offer. Now before you go off and pay for a mold, they commonly have this device that can create any solid plastic shape in 3D using lasers.
    • Re:Some answers (Score:5, Interesting)

      by WhyCause (179039) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @10:59PM (#15710444)
      One thing to note, here.

      Before you submit your plans to a molding shop or machine shop. have someone who knows something look at them! Yes, it is easy to draw something and have it made, but someone who has gone through this process a couple of times will be able to spot common pitfalls that most new designers fall into, namely:
      • Tolerances far too tight - nothing will move if you have everything too snug, and machine shops start doubling prices for every extra significant figure on those tolerances.
      • Your parts may not actually be manufacturable - if a machinist or CNC machine can't get to a place to cut away material, you just plain can't make the part.
      • You have more than one part to be made - one case is likely composed of multiple 'parts', at the very least a front and back half, and if you don't split them out, you'll get one solid chunk back, not the smooth open/close mechanism you expected.
      • You might not be able to put everything together - Tab A might fit into Slot B in your head, but if the tolerances aren't correct, or if you just goofed, the real parts won't go together like you think.
      • Your cool design might be buildable, but not manufacturable - rapid prototyping machines can easily make things that are otherwise unmakeable; everything looks great for real production until the machinist/molder laughs you out of his office.


      ...they commonly have this device that can create any solid plastic shape in 3D using lasers


      mnmn is referring here to a rapid prototyping machine, which is a really slick option for early prototypes because of the rapid turn-around time. CNC machines might be a second option, since the parts they make will be durable and very solid (unlike a rapid prototyping machine's output). At my undergraduate institution, we had a rapid prototyping machine (one of the first in the nation at university, by the way), and they would sell time on the machine to individuals/companies who wanted to have things made (Remington Firearms was a steady customer, if I recall correctly). I would suggest asking around at the local Mechanical Engineering departments if I were you, since they are likely to be much less expensive than a professional firm, and much more forgiving of design errors. They will also have access to CNC machines that they may be willing to sell you time on, provided you buy the materials and have everything ready to go (CNC machines don't just take 3D model files, you have to specify cutting paths, depths, and cut orders).

      All in all, I'd suggest going to a bar near the local university on a Friday afternoon and waiting for the Mechanical or Industrial Engineering graduate students (they won't be hanging out together) to show up. Start talking with them or buy a few rounds, and they'll have better specific information for you.
      • Re:Some answers (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Xiroth (917768)
        Or better yet, see if you can find where the Industrial Design students hang out. You can either chat with them or even pay one to design it for you - most of the time, the competition for jobs in the field is fierce, so you should be able to pay a graduate student peanuts for reasonably good work.
  • Granted, I have no idea what I'm talking about, but isn't this what venture capitalists are for?

  • He said HANDHELD and device. So step one is LICENSE patent from cybernaut...
  • My problem (Score:1, Offtopic)

    by mbstone (457308)
    The problem I always have is how to turn my prototype back into a concept.
    • Simple. Just say that in addition to doing whatever it actually does it also allows cars to use no gasoline, it cures cancer, it allows people to access the internet without paying any telco/ISP, and it can break DRM. Make this publicaly known in a press release, get it slashdotted/dugg, and within 24 hours your prototype will be turned back into a concept.
    • What prototype do you have? I would always go to custom manufacturer as 'petard' has suggested above. Like, take help from http://protocase.com/ [protocase.com], if you want custom metal case/s. Ask for questions you have through forums, friends, among others. Hold on, is it how do i turn concept to prototype? :-)
  • Radio Shack. Or Radioshack.com. Maybe their sales people don't have a clue but rummanging through the drawers will find you what you need. Breadboards, project boxes, LEDs, switches, resistors, zip ties, electrical tape. You need at least a rough mock-up eh? Here in Oregon we have an even better shop called Norvac. Ah, shrink tubing, fiber, every connector known to man, motors, and more.
    • Fry's. The local Fry's has a LOT more stuff along these lines than any Radio Shack you're ever likely to see.
    • Re:Two words... (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Mouser Electronics Inc. www.mouser.com

      They have about everything you need, most of it dirt-cheap (not everything though!) Make sure to look at the catalog page (PDF, or hard copy) and not just the website, since prices on idential items will range depending on the manufacturer.

      Identical quad op-amps could cost $0.07-3.00 as i recall (different manufacturers, same specs)

      they don't have minimums to order on most parts, and the shipping is flat.
    • And for casings - cardboard does wonders. Really! If you must, get some metal duct tape (they sell it in home depot and places like that) and warp the cardboard in it (AFTER cutting it...), it will make it much stronger, heat tolerant (more or less non-flammable if you are dealing with high heat), water proof and look shiny.
    • He wants a handheld computer. Radio Shack can't even begin to touch what he needs.
      • He wants a handheld computer. Radio Shack can't even begin to touch what he needs.

        He wants a project box. RS has plenty of basic project boxes in stock, even if the sales staff has no idea what they are for.
  • by MadEE (784327)
    When I have been on projects where money has been an issue I typically go to local plastic injection mould manufactures, usually the smaller the shop the better luck I have and simply talk to them about the project. Unless they are swamped with work they are usually very helpful and I have even on a few occasions had them make me a prototype case for next to nothing. After all these guys know you do need financing make things a reality. A single injection mould will cost you around $250,000 depending on
  • by EmbeddedMan (189952) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @11:35PM (#15710592)
    One example is Logic Product Development. (My employer - shamless plug) We do exactly what you are asking for. Sometimes (when everything is custom) it is expensive. Sometimes it is not. There are many other product development houses out there (also called contract engineering houses) that can take your prototype and turn it into something that can be mass produced. You'd then have it manufactured at a CEM (Contract Equipemnt Manufactuer) either here or overseas.
  • online RFQ (Score:4, Informative)

    by jayrtfm (148260) <.jslash. .at. .sophont.com.> on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @11:46PM (#15710631) Homepage Journal
    mfgquote.com [mfgquote.com] lets you put your job up to get bids from 1,650 suppliers performing over 200 manufacturing processes
  • I'm not sure about anywhere else in the world, but in the city I live in [in SK, Canada] we have a high-school that offers Machining and a school that offers Plastics. Generally you can go to the school and get what you need done [assuming you can do the CAD side of it yourself]
    Just go to the school and see if they have any students looking to make a bit a cash. :-)
  • Big Blue Saw (Score:3, Interesting)

    by chroma (33185) * <chroma.mindspring@com> on Thursday July 13, 2006 @12:11AM (#15710716) Homepage
    You should check us out. We currently offer waterjet cutting, which is cheaper than many of the processes listed in this thread.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 13, 2006 @12:15AM (#15710732)
    There are three basic levels of plastic part volumes and costing outside the realm of machining from a block of plastic.

    Rapid Prototypes: SLA, FDM, SLS, etc. Google those terms to see what they are. No tooling involved. Companies all over the place make them. I'd suggest FDM prototypes from quickparts.com or redeyerpm.com. Probably $25-150 per part. Several days for turnaround.

    Rapid injection molding: niche filled by Protomold.com. Cheap tools (between $2k and $10k for most things), relatively cheap parts ($5-$15). 1-3 week delivery depending on price.

    Real injection molding: Jillions of suppliers. Tools take 4 weeks or more. Don't count on less than $10,000 for a tool. Parts will be as cheap as they can get.

    All three avenues need a 3D CAD model at some point. You can hire a consultant engineer for ~$100 an hour in some areas to model it up if you have decent sketches with some dimensions. How pretty you want it will determine how long it takes. Figure a few grand for something decent. You might be able to find software on the web to do it yourself if you don't have the money.

    If you have a big pile of money, you can hire a company to design the parts, order the tools, and fabricate your whole product. Figure many tens of thousands of dollars for labor if you go that route.
  • Shameless plug for a family friend: http://www.l-m-w.de/ [l-m-w.de], based in Germany.

    These guys can do some pretty amazing things with their equipment, check out the "Produktbeispiel" (product examples). They cut and fold metals with lasers, drills and water jets. No idea what they charge, but you give them an Autocad file and they turn it into something real (if it's creatable). Last time I visited they were doing cases for large-scale image scanners (a-la 10ft by 5 ft).
  • by Animats (122034) on Thursday July 13, 2006 @03:08AM (#15711155) Homepage

    Actually, at this point you need to build two things. One is a functional prototype that fits in some standard case. The other is a non-functional prototype that shows the desired look and feel of the product.

    The functional prototype you put in some standard case. It will be bigger than the final product, but it will work. Get a good catalog of boxes (Mouser and Digi-Key have good selections.) You'll have to drill holes and grind things down, which you do with hand tools and maybe a Dremel tool.

    The look and feel prototype you have designed by someone who understands industrial design. It may be a clay model. There are polymer clays that can be fired in an oven to make a hard object. The model is then painted, and perhaps glue-on stickers are applied, followed by a clear coat. There are other approaches; you can machine the mockup out of a block of Delrin, or build it up in a stereolithography machine. Or if you just want to have pretty pictures, you can design the case in some 3D system and generate renderings. But for handheld devices, a solid object is more useful.

    Now you can get user opinons on the thing. You'll make some mods, and may do another version of either prototype. Marketing and funding efforts begin.

    Once you have a basic design that seems to work, you're faced with designing the real thing. This is a packaging job, and you have to think about things like design for assembly, waterproofing, shock and vibration resistance, interconnects, and similar subjects. If you can get the whole thing on one PC board, do so. If you can't, you get into interconnects, always a big hassle. Try for one PC board with surface mount components and a clamshell case that holds it in place; that's straightforward to fabricate in quantity. If your idea is any good, by this point you have some funding. So you get this done by somebody who knows how.

    Incidentally, having custom membrane keyboards [melrose-nl.com] or rubber keyboards like a cell phone [newenglandkeyboard.com] made isn't that big a deal, and you can get much of your job done by a supplier in that business.

  • It's difficult (Score:3, Informative)

    by Alex Belits (437) * on Thursday July 13, 2006 @04:39AM (#15711337) Homepage
  • It might sound very simple advice, but networking (ie. finding people with skills or resources you don't have) and making deals (get them to work for you) are the steps you have to take to get your project anywhere.

    Before you jump out and start hyping your project, making connections and start signing people, you have to make your own homework. You have to put your idea of a device and it's usage into an simple and clear message that is convincing, after that make atleast some calculations about the cost o
  • Prototyping of small intricate devices can be quite expensive. Especially if you want to design it for commercial viability. For designing the case, you'll want a high end 3d modeling software package like SolidWorks [solidworks.com]. You will idealy want it to be designed to be viable for rapid injection molding, though for a first prototype it isn't neccessary. You will want to design the case around what your electrical engineers can do with your board. Once you have a design, look into stereolythography for the rapid pr
  • Doug Hall? (Score:3, Informative)

    by bluprint (557000) on Thursday July 13, 2006 @09:50AM (#15712575) Homepage
    He's one of the judges from that show American Inventor. His website is here [doughall.com]. At the bottom of the page, is a link to a company he recommends called Evergreen IP [evergreenip.com], who can supposedly help with this kind of thing. I have no personal experience with any of this, just happen to know about this guy.
  • I've read the excellent and informative posts. My comments presume that you have created something and now want to try and sell it. Your packaging choice for the next step, will be dictated by your customers. Who are they? Do you have a contract or a request for this device - if so, go to them to see what they want, and take the steps to package it nicely and as close to their request as you can make it. If this is a speculative venture and you only have a concept that you have implemented in a desktop
  • I don't know if by "I have the basics for what I need such as what OS, and platform I will base it on (motherboard" you mean to say that you already have selected/designed/tested/certified the actual motherboard.

    Assuming you haven't done that (since it implies the case size will be constrained by your already selected board), you need to do some serious electronics work to get the circut board to a suitable shape and size for your handheld.

    Once you have it working on your desk, you need to do the following
    • Thanks for the great info! I think part of my problem is I am not a case designer and we don't have anyone on the project that really is. Right now we have all the hardware working, such as 3" display, the motherboard, cpu, battery all these things. The things we don't know and maybe some of these machine shops have consulting for this is how to build a case. If we mockup a general drawing of the device, are they knowledgable to insert whatever supports are needed to hold the boards and plugs and battery a
      • I haven't been involved in hardware since 1991 (I do exclusively software now), so my info is quite dated. I was involved in doing the purchasing and kitting (I dealt with all the suppliers), the hardware/software testing, and some of the software development (we were a startup, and in those days everybody had more than one role). I'm not sure that the small electronics industry has survived in the form I remember.

        Back in 1991, one of our (electronics) hardware guys also had a talent for doing enclosure d
  • If you're doing this as a hobby, and are not looking to make this into a business, I suggest taking balsa wood or modeler's clay and hand build the enclosure to prototype the rough idea. Then, you can sand/smooth/paint it carefully to have a "finished product", or hand your prototype to an art school student (someone that is studying commercial industrial design) -- and ask him to build it in his 3D CAD/CAM class. I knew a guy that made beautiful SLA product prototypes in class - stuff that looked very r
  • OK, you have developed some software and know the hardware you need. Think of how you got there. You had some requirements, you had a budget, you had a schedule. What you need now is to apply the same kind of thinking to your hardware.

    Think of -how many- widgets you want to build. If you can make a living doing 100 of them, it's senseless to make plastic parts. If you need to make a million of them, it is senseless to make anything but the minimum plastic part that will satisfy the requirements, even o
  • TechShop.WS (Score:2, Informative)

    by mhamrick (513789)
    If you're in the Bay Area, you may be interested in TechShop (http://www.techshop.ws/). They're up in the industrial complex across highway 101 from Menlo Park off the Marsh Rd. exit. Like the Crucible in Berkeley, they're a place with a bunch of tools for prototyping: PCB etchers, 3d printers, electronically controlled lathes, CNC milling machine, etc. They're scheduled to open their doors in August, I think. $30 gets you a "day pass" to use all the equipment in the building. $100 gets you a monthly member
    • These are all good comments/suggestions.

      I am currently going through this exact same process. I have no outside investors, so I am 'bootstrapping' it.

      Here's what I've learned so far.

      There's more details to consider than I would have thought possible. Packaging, technical manuals, repair manuals, software CD's, shipping, warehousing space, final assembly space, not to mention the actual product design.

      I have it easy I suppose. My product is relatively simple for an electronic device. Circuit

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