Functional Prototype Manufacturing: The Ultimate Guide

With a well-made functional prototype, your new design team moves beyond your initial stage to use prototype manufacturing to achieve a three-dimensional physical object that can be held and touched: a manifestation and example of your future product design ideas.

What do we mean by Functional Prototype Manufacturing?

We get asked about functional prototype manufacturing, so we figured we should help establish what these words mean. Manufacturing is differentiated from other types of "making" by its volume. Manufacturing is typically done at higher volumes, i.e., quantities of products. Whereas prototyping generally is done in low volume because there would be no reason to make a ton of something that isn't complete, prototypes are inherent works in progress. Still, when we hear someone talk about functional prototype manufacturing, we infer that they're talking about making a reasonable number of consistent quality product prototypes that will serve a functional purpose, like market testing or certification.

8 pictures of different versions of the weighup prototype made of 3d printed plastic
Images of different early prototypes of 1 device

What Is a Functional Prototype?

Prototype manufacturing stands between your designers' original idea and the precision of the final product. Your first functional prototype is a model of your design intended to test the concept or act as a visual guide to improving or replicating the product to make it available for improvement or learning purposes. Prototype manufacturing doesn't make a functional prototype with the same materials or specifications, but the parts that matter will work.

Non-functional prototypes are cheap, easy to work with, and highly informative. In a non-functional or "looks-like" prototype, prototype manufacturing creates a revisable mockup with no working parts or software, using materials for testing that differ from the final product. Your design team will repeatedly revise the non-functional prototype during prototype manufacturing in line with feedback from the client. Another subset of function prototyping is rapid prototyping.

What is Rapid Prototyping?

Rapid prototyping creates a functional prototype quickly, typically relying on 3D computer-aided design (CAD) tools. This typically results in a prototype being made the same day or a few days. The item can be made with 3D printing/additive manufacturing, cnc-machining, or other techniques - creating a high- or low-fidelity prototype.

Why Do You Need Functional Prototyping?

Prototype manufacturing can move your functional prototype through the development process as efficiently as possible. Using functional prototypes helps in feasibility testing and finding a demand in the market, making that process more efficient and cost-effective.

There's pretty much no such thing as a product that makes it to market without being prototyped extensively. Ideas are inherently vague and often don't work out as you expected. If you've ever tried to build something physical, you learned that after the second or third trip to home depot in one day. While this happens a lot less often for professionals, there's still trial and error involved in not just making the first thing that comes to mind but also perfecting it. That's why we make prototypes, learn from them and repeat until we're satisfied with the results. They can also serve specific purposes like the ones below:

An exploded view of a smart device showing layers of parts, screws, electrical components, gaskets, wires, and a housing
An exploded view of a 3D CAD design

Testing and Evaluation

A functional prototype allows you to test the functionality of your idea with a concrete sample. Prototype manufacturing allows testing that can tell if your idea needs modifications.

Prototype Manufacturing to Production Run-Through

After prototype manufacturing, doing a run-through or design review of your functional prototype helps you spot problems before production. Spotting these problems now allows you to resolve them before facing full-on production manufacturing.

Market Research

Using a visual representation of your functional prototype brings your project to life and lets you introduce it to the market. If you use a functional prototype, you can use functional tests to show your product in action, demonstrating the most important aspects of the product to your potential customers. Based on feedback from observers or focus groups, you can modify your design, improving your product through prototype manufacturing before it hits the market.

Investor Pitches

In contrast to the standard pitch book, a functional prototype allows your potential investors to see and touch your product and observe its key functions in operation. Seeing your prototype manufactured will help potential investors understand your final product design and manufacturing processes. A potential investor who has seen a visual prototype of your product and the dedication that has brought it to this point are more likely to fund your product.


You don't have to include a functional prototype with a United States patent application. However, if you can use prototype manufacturing to produce a relatively inexpensive but informative functional prototype, it will be an excellent step to moving forward in your patent process. To read our full thoughts on patents and prototyping, click here.

How Do You Get Your Functional Prototype Made?

If you're just getting started, then you could prototype a product by modifying existing ones and hacking something together in your garage. If you're ready to create something more custom, you'll need to design whatever your custom solution is before you can prototype it. Once you have that design, you have a few options. There are many services out there that will make parts for you.

Another simple way of making a prototype from a design is to 3d print it. If you haven't done this before, there will be a learning curve, but you can get reasonably far with a little time and money investment. 

Once you've decided you need a functional prototype, the next step is to select a type of prototype manufacturing. There are several prototyping methods available. 

What is a Resin 3D Printer?

A resin 3D printer or SLA printer uses a photosensitive liquid resin exposed to UV LED light in layers, resulting in a plastic 3D model of your product. The prototype manufacturing process is called Stereolithography (SLA) and produces 3D prints of very fine detail.

What is a Filament 3D Printer?

A filament 3D printer or FDM printer, which stands for fused-deposition modeling, uses a continuous plastic thread in its prototype manufacturing rather than the liquid plastic found in resin printers. This is the more common form of 3D printing that lower-cost machines have popularized. 

Resin vs. filament 3D Printer: Which is better?

You should decide between resin or filament technologies based on your project's needs. Smaller, highly detailed, and solid functional prototypes do better with resin SLA. However, these are typically more expensive as the surface detail is more nuanced. 

Larger or finished products do better with filament. These printers typically produce large-scale prototypes build-out of semi-solid parts (with infill) that are lighter, cheaper, and faster to produce but not nearly as detailed or precise as a resin printer. 

Each has its place depending on what you're making.

How Much Does a prototype cost to develop?

This varies widely by what the prototype does, what materials it uses, how many parts there are, etc. But if you have a design, then making one prototype could cost anywhere from $100 (for a 3d print or similar) up to $10,000 for a more complex assembly with multiple parts and details. This is, of course, assuming you have a design, which itself can cost anywhere from $1,000 on Fiverr to hundreds of thousands of dollars with a specialty firm. Notably, these two are not interchangeable. We’re biased but - we believe you typically get what you pay for in this regard.

If you're going to do it yourself, you'll probably have to hire several engineers and designers and someone to lead them, which puts the specialty firm price in perspective. If you only need to do it once for now, then it's better to contract a firm with an existing team.

Where do I go to get a prototype made?

One way is obviously by hiring us, but we'll go about it in a very particular way because we're experts. We'll start with a strategy session to make sure we're making the right product for the right people. This is the most valuable step we can offer because it brings objectivity to your decision-making, which is critical to running a successful business. It also increases the value of later investments in development because you know you're on the right track and not going down the wrong path.

Realistically a prototype is anything from a single 3d print to the first product off a production line. By that measure, we've made tens of thousands of prototypes.

If you have a relatively simple product, you may contact a manufacturer directly and explain it to them. This is worth trying because it could save you money. But if you don't know what you're doing, we recommend calling a professional. We're always happy to have a conversation with you if you're going down this path about what all your options are. We only want to work with you if we're the right option.

a photo of a production functional prototype of a smart iot device that was cnc machined and assembled
A picture of a prototype that was manufactured 10 at a time by cnc machining plastic

Design Considerations for Prototype Production

The best way to make a product less expensive is through its design. People sometimes aren't expecting the investment it can take to prototype a product and get it to production. Still, realistically the money you spend on design could save you 5x the cost of the design itself just by making manufacturing that much cheaper. We've seen it happen. There are an infinite number of ways to design any one product. The quantity, quality, and other factors all affect how you design the product. 

What Methods Can I Use to Mass Produce a Functional Prototype?

There are many methods for manufacturing parts, and it depends on the components used and how they should be made. But specific manufacturing processes are better for making one-off parts and prototypes. 

Various prototyping methods and various materials are available for prototype manufacturing.

  • Vacuum forming uses sheets of heated plastic formed into a shaped vacuum mold. The hardened sheet is removed from the mold, retaining its form.
  • Additive manufacturing or 3D printing is where levels of plastic material are added to a print following a mechanical design to create a functional prototype.
  • CNC machining is a prototype manufacturing process that uses computer numerical controls to machine a test version of your final product. CNC machining works with real-world lathes and mills on your components.
  • Silicone molding is a prototype manufacturing process using uncured silicone rubber to mold final products into shape. Types include injection, compression, and extrusion. The best choice depends on the details of your product.
3 pictures of a smart sensor from overhead, profile, and 3rd angle perspectives
A rendering of a product after it has been designed

How to Get Your Functional Prototype Manufactured

You should include several steps when prototype manufacturing your functional prototype. These steps will get you a better functional prototype and protect your intellectual property and budget.

After you select your preliminary group of engineering teams for prototype manufacturing, put together a Request for Quote (RFQ) package or "tech pack." You should include sufficient detail for the manufacturers to produce consistent prototype manufacturing. The RFQ should consist of a 3D model and 2D PDF drawings for each component and assembly. Then create and include a slide deck or product requirements document. Be sure to request information on all costs, including shipping, etc., and production timing.

You are going to need to send a 3D file. Coordinate with your prototype manufacturing candidates how to send it and ensure that you're all using the same coordinate system. You should produce enough functional prototypes to make your final product work the way you intended. Working with a professional design company can ease the prototype manufacturing process for you. They will know various parties in the prototype manufacturing, funding, and sales arenas and can connect you with them. If you are concerned about showing your idea to others during this process, we recommend using a Non-disclosure agreement or commonly referred to as an NDA. 

What is an NDA?

Use a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) in product manufacturing to protect your intellectual property. An NDA is a contract that says you will disclose your information only if the recipient keeps it confidential. But, an NDA is only as strong as the idea it protects. Thus, the more concrete your functional prototype is, the better your NDA will protect you. Steps you've already taken, like filing a patent application, will help you if it ever becomes necessary to enforce your NDA.

How to find a prototype manufacturing company?

If you're looking for a company to manufacture your prototypes and do not have a design, you need to do that first. Once you have a design, you should look for companies that can show you similar products that they've manufactured before. There are many manufacturing processes, and you'll want to make sure the company is experienced with the ones that apply to your product.

Prototype Manufacturing of Functional Prototypes from China

Nearly everything today is made in China. But before you send prototype manufacturing for your design there, think about some of these issues. China doesn't work very hard at protecting your intellectual property. There's no guarantee that anyone will steal it, but there is a lot of history. Remember that your goods may be cheaper, but they might be higher quality if made on-shore. On the other hand, a large percentage of the world's ISO 9001 certificates are issued to Chinese companies. So, if you want to go to China and maintain quality, make sure to use a firm that gets them.

A PCB up close showing lots of tiny components and traces
A photo of a prototype PCB

Relationships are critical in Asian business. Getting your prototypes in China may allow you to develop a relationship with a company that becomes your final manufacturer. You may want to work with a U.S. company that already has these relationships and can extend them to you as part of the process.

How do I work with a prototype manufacturing company?

Most companies that only manufacture prototypes are rapid prototyping companies whose clients are engineering companies like design firms, product startups, and big product brands. They expect to receive well-engineered and designed documents that they can easily interpret and quickly make. The more work they have to do to fill in the gaps, the more they charge, and not all prototype manufacturing companies are good at this.

What should I expect from a prototype manufacturing company?

Manufacturing prototypes that are one or a few parts can be done at high quality for hundreds to thousands of dollars in quantities as low as 1. Keep in mind the lower the quantity, the higher the price per unit because the more you make, the easier each one gets. 

You can typically expect better customer service from a company that advertises to companies your size and that is in your country or even your region - though there are plenty of companies that break that mold. You can also typically expect order quantity minimums to range from 1-100 for "low volume" or 1000+ for "mid to low volume".

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