Prototypes serve an important role for companies developing new products. When developed and used properly, prototypes can speed up development, test assumptions, and reduce overall development risk. But how much does it cost to prototype a product?
A few common scenarios:
|Common Scenario||Typical Range ($)|
A prototype of an IoT device for use in a crowdfunding video, not optimized for production
|$40k – $250k|
A prototype of a large industrial equipment product suitable for customers to use at a trade show, but without optimization for manufacturing at scale
|$150k – $400k|
A mechanical prototype that validates ergonomics, but does not include fit and finish considerations
|$10k – $30k|
A prototype of a subsystem: solely the servo drive and controller of a larger system, with no consideration for integration or product – only to validate that the servo may be suitable for the application
|$8k – $20k|
A VR prototype (exists in virtual reality, not physically built) of industrial equipment to test for location of hand controls. No consideration for overall equipment functionality
|$12k – $40k|
A final prototype of consumer electronics device that is representative of the final production design, that incorporates optimizations for production, durability, and cost control
|$300k – $900k|
A more detailed answer is driven by a few variables:
- Intent: How will the prototype be used?
- Fidelity: How ‘finished’ does the prototype need to be?
- Complexity: How much engineering is needed?
Intent: How will the prototype be used?
The first factor that plays into the cost of a prototype is how the prototype will be used. Every prototype should exist for a reason — for a test or other purpose that is defined and can be measured. If you want a prototype, but haven’t defined the intent of the prototype, start there.
Some common intents (or uses) for prototypes include:
- Functional validation: does a specific feature on the product function as intended with the current design, or does the design need to change?
- Aesthetic / ergonomic testing: does the shape and look of the product appeal to users, or does it need to be changed?
- Concept communication: demonstrate to investors or stakeholders the state of the product in the development process.
- Feature sets: are the features included in the product the right ones, or do some need to be added / deleted?
- User interface testing: do people use the product the way the design team had assumed, or not? Is the product easy and intuitive to use?
- Market testing: Is the product and set of features appealing to target users / buyers or does it need to be changed?
Fidelity: How ‘finished’ does the prototype need to be?
Another factor that impacts product prototyping cost is the level of fidelity needed. Think of fidelity as a spectrum. At one end is the first, very rough partial prototype that might test one specific electrical component in a certain application to allow further development. At the other end of the spectrum is a prototype that looks, feels, and functions like a production unit, that will be used to generate pre-sales at a trade show.
And there are multiple fidelity levels in between:
a) Partial or sub-system prototype testing only one feature, without consideration for form (meaning the shape of the product, ergonomics, user interface, etc.).
b) Multi-feature prototype without consideration for form
c) Multi-feature prototype with some consideration for form
d) Multi-feature prototype that demonstrates form
e) Full-feature prototype without consideration for form
f) Full-feature prototype with some consideration for form
g) Full-feature prototype that demonstrates form
Complexity: How much engineering is needed?
The final factor driving prototype cost is the complexity of the product itself. A full-feature prototype of an industrial electronics device will likely require a lot of embedded systems development time, mechanical design, and enclosure design work leading up to the prototype build. On the other hand, a prototype of an enterprise IT product to test aesthetics may only have mechanical design work and industrial design efforts to develop the design language and aesthetics prior to the prototype build.
If we consider “Intent” and “Fidelity” as two axes in a matrix, we would find that a “1a” prototype is probably easier to build than a “6g” prototype. But there is a third axis — the complexity of the product itself. Working on a spectrum again, at one end we might have a simple fly fishing tool. This is a single-piece product with a limited number of features. On the other hand, a complex product with multiple subsystems like the JetGo may take thousands of hours to engineer and develop to the level that it’s even possible to produce a “6a” prototype.
Prototyping Cost Examples
With so many factors it’s cumbersome to precisely lay out the cost of prototypes for each scenario. But we can look at prototypes we’ve developed, and what the associated costs were:
|Description||Rough Cost||Work Completed|
Simple hand tool, no electronics completed, 6g prototype.
|$18k||Multiple designs explored, one selected, and then iterations and multiple prototype builds to refine the design prior to the 6g prototype.|
Web-connected kitchen appliance with electromechanical systems, complex enclosure design, and embedded systems, 6g prototype
|$425k||Multiple design iterations and engineering for all subsystems: electric drive, battery and charging, IoT connectivity, enclosures and bracketry. Ten prototype iterations prior to the 6G prototype.|
Biometric lock for a consumer product, 1a prototype
|$22k||Component selection aligning with specific constraints, PCBA design, firmware development, and sourcing of components. Build and test rough prototype of the board and sensor only.|
IoT wearable incorporating multiple sensing technologies and multiple enclosures, 6a prototype
|$120k||Component selection, power modeling, PCBA design, firmware development, app development (low fidelity), enclosure functional engineering (not optimized for aesthetics), and builds. Four subsystem iterations and partial builds prior to the 6a prototype.|
Electronic consumer product incorporating electronic compass and magnetometer for a specific specialty application, 3d prototype
|$75k||Component selection and characterization to determine if they are suitable for the application, processor selection, firmware development, preliminary enclosure design and engineering. Three partial prototype builds prior to the 3d prototype.|
It’s worth noting that since product design and engineering is iterative, a “6g” prototype likely will have been preceded by multiple lower fidelity prototypes. So the cost of the “6g” unit will include the sum of all the prior prototypes, and the development efforts to create them.
The build cost of the prototype (printed parts, machined parts, prototype PCBAs, etc.) can be significant, but the engineering and design time is typically a bigger cost driver.
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