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How to Make Your Product Idea a Reality

Over the last two years, I have been working as an employee for a prototyping company. During this time I often see entrepreneurs with an idea for a great product, but with little knowledge of the product design process. It seems that during the initial meetings, about half of the time is spent going over the process of making a product, from starting on paper to finishing a production part.

With many prototyping and engineering firms, the engineers don't require a completely finished idea or design. I mean, if a design is already finished, why would you need their help in the first place? However, this doesn't mean there won't be some work on their part. Here are a few tips on how to get through the design process more easily:

1. Have sketches of your idea

On several occasions, we've had brilliant ideas for a product with no visual representation of what the client has in mind. This requires a bit of time and communication with the engineers⁄designers in order to get everyone on the same page for a finished product.

2. Be able to explain your idea thoroughly

Another problem we are faced with is a client who has an idea, but is unsure how to achieve that idea. An example of this is, if someone came to you with an idea and said, "I want to make a Flying car." Now, likely your answer will be something along the lines of, "Okay, What is going to make it fly?" which would likely lead to a final answer of "I don't know." Engineers can be pretty resourceful and fill in gaps, but they need a ledge to stand on first.

3. Have a target consumer

Another issue we often see is an entrepreneur with an idea for a product with no (substantial) targeted customer base. Let's say there is an idea for a color changing door knob; well, yes, we can make a color changing door knob, but do you think you can sell enough of these to cover the costs? Let's go further and say the targeted customer group is college students with color changing doors and the cost for each knob is $500. Now there is a second issue, your targeted customers are unlikely able to afford the $500 color changing door knob novelty.

4. Be able to set your product apart

A competitive market is never a bad thing, just because an item already exists, doesn't mean a competing company shouldn't bother making a similar item. However, it is best to research ideas before moving forward with an engineering and design group. Existing products, which may be similar to new product idea, could have patents on their designs which become a big problem. I've seen several situations where I left a meeting with a client and done a quick online search for what was mentioned, only to find a similar product is already in production. When we point this out to the client, many times they didn't realize and the project will end there.

5. Be prepared for the costs

Unfortunately, another downfall of many great ideas is the cost of making it a reality. The equipment required in the design process is usually very expensive. The CAD and CAM software are proprietary and complex, with single use licenses costing as much as $10,000 or more a year. The computers using the software aren't cheap either, usually requiring high performance hardware components. There is also the matter of the engineers' time that must be paid for.

Please note that all of these expenditures occur before there is even a physical product created. Machinery, such as mills, lathes and 3D prototyping machines can costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Getting a product into production requires an even larger list of resources, such as part molds, automated machinery and workers. These additional resources will increase costs exponentially.

6. Be patient

Lastly, making an idea into reality takes time. A product that is rushed shows evidence in its lack of quality. A client cannot bring in an idea one day and have a prototype the next. Even with rapid prototyping technology, a detailed CAD model is required in order to make a product prototype. The design process can take weeks, months or even years depending on the complexity of the finished product.

Hopefully, these tips will not deter anyone from trying to move forward with their idea. Rather, I hope it will provide the assistance in what to expect and help the entire design process move along more smoothly. Every worthwhile product idea will face challenges, but this just makes the achievement of success all that much more valuable.

Theodore H. Waltz is a design engineer with the Center for Rapid Product Realization at Western Carolina University. He is also currently enrolled in the Masters of Science - Technology program at Western Carolina University.

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