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What makes a prototype successful?


Jpw has been in business now for over 30 years, and I have learned that there are a few ideas that help make a prototype successful.  Some projects we understand, many we do not understand.  However there are key elements in a project that make it work.  I am writing this document to educate potential prototype customers, and to help save them money and give them a basis for making quality decisions.  I highly recommend that you read this entire document before going to the links.  The links below this paragraph are internal to this document making it easier to navigate after you have read it.  This will help you go back to the points that are important for your project completion.  Not all projects need to use all this information, but you will not fully understand if your project does until the entire document has been read.  

Document glossary links

A successful concept

How to show JPW what you want to accomplish with the product

Selling the concept to Jpw and the world

The Walmart product syndrome

Invention submission companies are they a scam?

Skin in the game

What it all means to the customer (summary)

Creating the prototype

Starting at Idea creation

The Idea has Merit?

Computer modeling

Computer models as tools for understanding

The need for benchmarks in the process and what they mean


The China syndrome

Borderline reality

Non-Disclosure Agreements

Successful examples

Failed examples

FAQ on prototypes

A successful Concept

If a concept is successful it has to have a market appeal, and it needs to generate a profit in a manufacturing and marketing enterprise.  A successful concept comes from a need to make something work in a unique way using an inflatable, or coated material as a medium to do a job that may otherwise be accomplished with steel, carbon fiber, or other kind of fabric.  Inflatable lends itself to some interesting market niches, like rapid deployment, easy storage, and sometimes, but not always cost.  Manufacturability and ship ability are also factors. 

How to show JPW what you want to accomplish with the product

The ability to be able to convey the product concept, the need for the product, and what features need to be on the product based on the customers experience are critical ideas that need to be discussed.  

Napkin sketches are acceptable, but they do not have the detail necessary to sell the concept.  They include sketches on graph paper, yellow note pads, and napkins.  They are called napkin sketches because they are ideas that pop up over lunch.  Brainstorming sessions with colleagues often produce great ideas.  We do that often at our work.  The problem is maintaining a good line of communication and developing the idea in a way that can span the many facets of product development and marketing.

Selling the concept to JPW and to the world

We employ a number of tools to make and promote our designs.  They include: Solid Works design software, Edrawings, patterning software, computerized cutting system, and Google drive cloud based concepts.  These tools allow information to be shared with our customer, and potential markets.  They help to assure we have the process and the project parameters figured out to everyone’s best understanding of the product and how it is used.  Combining these systems can help sell the idea to the outside world, whoever that customer is.  With these tools we can show how the product provides a better solution or solves a particular problem before the product is even made.  Read more about design collaboration at this web site.

The Walmart product syndrome

A prototype customer who wants us to build a product for a big box store, is usually looking for something that is at a discount price to fit in to a market notch, and that a large group of people would like to have.  This is admirable, but these products, no matter how simple looking, carry huge amounts of engineering and marketing cost before they can reach this level.  It is a huge commitment, and we are concerned that those customers will fail unless they have a lot of support and money to launch a product.  Consider the cost and expense behind this process. Licensing a product idea is not a simple process, and anyone considering licensing an idea to a huge marketing concern should consider why the idea cannot be built elsewhere without your consent.  China does not recognize US patents.  They only recognize Chinese patents, and there is a lot of Chinese copying other Chinese patents.  The patent system may not be perfect in the USA, but it requires huge resources to keep it together in China.

There are other systems that should be considered.  One of those is Kick starter.  It is a grass roots way to develop a product.  It is a way to test the market validity, and get funds at the same time.       

Invention submission- is it a scam?

There are many companies who will take your money to submit your idea to Industry.  How much of your idea do they own?   How are their fees collected, and do they have any skin in the game?  Why should industry buy the idea in the first place?  If you have an idea, and you have no effort in the idea, then that is probably what you will get back out of the idea.  I have a feeling about these companies, and it is not positive.  However I do not have a bad experience with them either.  I always turn them down when they make an offer to do business.

Skin in the game

From JPW point of view, if you do not have any skin in the game there is no point in continuing a project.  When things get difficult, the project will stall, and JPW can be left with a whole bunch of unpaid work.  Skin in the game means that prototype customers are willing to use resources to promote the product. They are willing to make a deposit to see successful completion, and they are willing to supply more details about the parts and how they function, or they are willing to provide engineering skills.

What this all means to a potential proto type customer:

There is no easy way to make money with a new product.  Thomas Edison said “90 % perspiration and 10% inspiration”.  He had it wrong it is more like 95% perspiration and 5% inspiration.  It takes a commitment in resources and in time.  We are willing to help our prototype customers with this process provided we are compensated for our work.  There are many steps along the way from Napkin sketch to finished product.  A customer can invest a lot of money up front before anything is even built.  We know about some of the pitfalls that our customers have fallen into.  The reason behind this document is to show you some of the ways to avoid these problems or to mitigate the losses you can have in entering into a venture like this.

Creating a prototype

Starting at the idea creation:

So you have an idea for an inflatable widget that is part of another product that will revolutionize the Soybean industry.  What do you need next?  Our experience asks this question…. is there a market for your product.  Because without that, there is no point in continuing.   Jpw can make your widget, but you do not know if you can sell it.  This is a place where computer modeling can come in.  Showing potential customers how your product solves a problem is a huge step in the right direction.  At this point JPW takes on the role of your customer, asking how the inflatable component will become a marketable part.  Pit fall #1 is not having identified a market for the product or part.  If you are not at this point you should consider doing more research to determine the marketability of the product. 

The idea has merit:

The idea has a market, but can it be built and function as it is supposed to?  If it is an obvious yes, the project can move forward.  We may need to do research to determine the feasibility of certain aspects of a project, and that will take some effort.  We may talk about how to build a product using our processes, or even other manufacturer’s processes.  We may offer suggestions for how parts can be attached to the main part.  Customers do not come to us knowing all of our capabilities or the limitations of our processes and the parts we can attach to make an item function.  We often learn and develop new ways of attaching parts based on the need.   Often we do not fully understand the need to do something in a particular way, so we may offer suggestions on the design to give both our customer and ourselves an understanding of what is to be accomplished.  We may need to use math and science to determine if the part will handle the stress imparted in normal use.  We may require our customer to computer simulate functionality before moving to the next step.  We have had projects that we like to call borderline reality projects.  These are high risk and high reward projects. And we will talk about those later.

All of this is design time is necessary and it should be compensated.   

Computer modeling:

At this point in the process we may have already done some computer modeling to understand how the product or part solves the problem.  It is also possible the napkin sketch or even engineered drawings you have sent to us show us how the product solves the problem.  In many cases the sketches or drawings do not show the part or components of the part in a way that we can easily build them.  Our knowledge of how inflatable parts, and the techniques to make them work, often do not mesh well with the sketches and drawings that we get.  We have needed to educate highly skilled engineers on what we can and can‘t accomplish.  A design concept that may seem simple to a customer may pose huge difficulty in production because of steps necessary to make it happen.   A customer who is accustom to working with a specific type of product may not understand the difficulty in designing and making attachments or accessories for the inflatable part we are designing.  Clear computer modeling is the best tool for understanding the design, and it is the best collaboration tool we have to understand what the customer wants. 

Before the modleing process starts, it is a great Idea for potential customers to gather together all of the information that they can in the form of pictures that can be sent to us that may help us understand the concept and the problem we are trying to solve.

Computer models are great tools for understanding.

Besides modeling 3 D parts, we can model parts on a 2 dimensional picture that helps us put that part in a visual perspective of what is going on, or to help us figure out the problem we are trying to solve.  The model helps us understand what the end result is, and it helps the customer understand what we can do to make our product work for them. 

Once the model is complete, it has all the features on it that will allow it to function as intended.  This is a good time to do a second brain storming session to see if there is anything that can be done to enhance the product.  Computer models can have simulation scenarios performed on them.  In this way we can test out the validity of the solution to the problem, or the strength of the parts.  These models can be evaluated in the most extreme conditions without ever having to build a product. 

The computer model is an excellent marketing tool.  Solid works has a free Edrawing viewer that will allow you to show off your product to a potential buyer and talk about how effectively it solves the problems it is designed to solve.  

To get to this point, we still have not built anything, but we have done a lot of work.

The need for BENCH MARKS

As you can see there are points in the process where the process deserves scrutiny.  At some point a customer may decide that this is too much, and it is time to drop the project.  They may decide to move on, but under a limited budget.  They may decide to take it to the next level and then decide if it should continue. 

When doing this work, I have noticed that customers reach stress points where they have to drop out of a project.  Unfortunately, the customer may not see the value or the work involved in the design process, and JPW can be left holding on to an invoice that does not get paid.    In other words far too often we can get stiffed if the project fails for any reason.   For these reasons and for the best possible outcome for everyone, we feel it is necessary to establish bench marks in the process where we can be assured that our design work is paid for, and that the prototype customer is comfortable in moving forward or stopping the project.  We call these Benchmarks, and they usually happen at a place where payment for services can be made. 


It is assumed that the project has been through some kind of market analysis to determine if it is feasible to build it.  In special cases we may want to develop a computer model to help determine that market feasibility.  To do that would require a different understanding that I will talk more of at the end of this document.  In a simple project we may have the customer pay at the end of the project when we ship.  We will always try to follow up to see how the project is doing.  

BENCHMARKS may include:   

1 We ask for an initial deposit to start a project and get it through the concept/ functionality phase, where all parties understand the functionality.    

2   At some point after the concept/ functionality phase, JPW comes to an understanding of manufacturability, and will discuss that with the customer, because it usually changes some of the aspects of the project from the point of view of the customer.  The customer has to agree with these concepts.    

3   We finalize the design, and at this point the computer models will be presentable for a second round of market research or evaluation.

4   We may require engineer testing of the computer model if it is complicated enough to warrant that effort.  We have used engineer consultants to do this work, and to verify the validity of the product.  This would be a payment to a 3rd party, and they would have reputable engineering skills and will be able to qualify their work with excellent documentation that makes sense to all parties involved. 

5   We pattern the parts for computerized cutting.

6   We establish prototype production procedure for the production crew, and we share that with the customer as a redundant system to find out if we have missed something.

(see more about collaboration at this link) 

7   We build the prototype.

8   We document the time to build the prototype and the changes in procedure necessary for a production run.

9   We ship the prototype and receive final payment before shipping.  This is why we like to use credit cards for this prototype payment process

10   We follow up with the customer to see how well the problem was resolved with the new product.  

The engineering concept

Jpw has worked with a number of fabricators and engineers.  These types of customer understand the costs involved in design.  In large organizations, engineers are disconnected from the people who pay the invoices, and the accounts payable people often have to get information on why these costs need to be paid.  Engineers are on our side of the issue because they understand what it takes to design something.  On the other hand bookkeepers and accounts payable people operate by accounting and payment rules that engineers do not operate by, and this can cause payment delays.  They also may be the ones trying to stay within a budged, and the engineering department may not be controlling the purse strings on that budget.  Therefore, internally in the prototype customer’s organization there can be issues that we need to understand.   Other than that, it is a pleasant and enjoyable experience to work on product development with engineers.  I have learned so much about the design process being involved in Web EX meetings with some incredibly intelligent people who have some incredible engineering tools at their disposal.  Engineers are not formally trained in the outcome that inflatable products produce.  They have to be educated in those outcomes just like everyone else.  It is after all a different medium that produces different and sometimes unexpected results.   Getting engineering help for complicated projects, especially computer modeling where stress is concerned is something that we highly encourage.    

The China syndrome

I describe the China syndrome as a problem where potential customers go directly to a Chinese company to get a prototype produced.  I feel that there are some problems with this.  There is the communication issue.  In China, quality and price have different meanings.  It seems that the Chinese are so concerned about getting you a good price that they seem to forget the function of a prototype is to determine marketability of a product.  That includes price and quality and expected value from the ultimate consumer’s point of view.  There is the quality and longevity issue in the prototype (think about the Chinese made blender that you purchased last year).  Most Chinese inflatable products are still glued together and often with 1 part adhesives that do not hold up over time.  If you need your prototype for years to do your market survey, this could cause problems.  There is the time factor, and shipping cost.  If you send your idea to a Chinese manufacturer, there is no guarantee that they will not produce your idea for someone else.  They do not recognize US patents, only Chinese Patents.  You can patent a product in China but I would recommend doing that only when you want to sell in China.  If you have a patent in the US, your designs are protected when they land in the US.  Taking the time to find what port they are landing at and nipping that in the bud could be costly.  I learned these things by talking to US dept. of commerce people after a Chinese company stole our company web site.  It may be highly opinionated because of my experience.  I welcome feedback from people who have a different point of view.  

However that is not what really bothers me about the China syndrome.  What concerns me is that when a customer is finally disillusioned by the Chinese prototype process they have spent most of their budget on that part of the project.  The customer tends to be tapped out at this point without the products he was hoping to take to market.  If he contacts us, the quality of the information we get is not substantially better than if he had not gone to China in the first place, and he does not have the money left to proceed the next level.   

Borderline reality

Borderline reality is a term we use when there is a prototype project we are not certain we can bring to a successful outcome.   These are high risk and high reward projects.  Borderline reality customers stand to make money.   They should attempt to patent the concept if the item shows signs of success.  If the project does not work, customers stand to lose all of the money that they have put into the project.  JPW is not the owner of the product the designs, nor the rewards.  We just get paid for trying our best to make it work.  We will inform customers if we cannot make something work, and sometimes we talk to customers about those kinds of projects and they can turn into a borderline reality project.  We can’t assume we understand everything about some projects, and other materials may be used that bring it into reality.  Borderline reality projects need to have a deposit before we start.  We also need well defined benchmarks to determine when the project should be abandoned, or if it should move forward for more testing.  It can be the kind of project that needs a huge amount of R&D, and depending on how invested the customer is will depend on how much time we spend finding solutions to the problems presented.   

The need for non-disclosure agreements

A borderline reality project usually needs a non-disclosure agreement.  Other projects may need non-disclosure agreements too.   We recommend that you ask for ours, because we do not have to read it, and it suits our style.  One thing we do not want to do is sign a non-disclosure agreement for products that we already make, or for market areas we already participate in.  Therefore if you have us sign a non-disclosure agreement, and we find out that we are going to be making a product that we already sell, that non-disclosure is Void.  The reason is because our product is already in the public domain.  This is not a great way to start a business relationship.  We will decide we do not want to work with you.

On the other hand, we understand how difficult it is to market products because we do that too.  We are not interested in marketing your product unless it is in our market area and we already market similar products.  We will do all kinds of things to help you market products that we already make, or variations on those products.  If your product does not fall into our market area, you should not be worried about us selling or giving the idea to someone else.  We want you to market it, and we want to produce it. 

If you build a better mouse trap, the world will not beat a path to your door.  There are so many products (so many mouse trap variations).  You will need to market your mouse trap, and it takes effort.   We are not interested in marketing your product in an area that is not our understood market, and we will let you know one way or the other when we start the relationship.  For this reason you should not be afraid of letting us know a little about the product before we start the NDA process.  It is just a show of good faith, and we start out on a good note with a potentially great relationship.

Examples of successful prototypes

Heli lift bags:

Heli lift bags are an add on to a product that solves a problem with helicopter transport to and from the hanger.  The idea took some time and some design review for me to understand what the customer wanted. But through the preliminary design process, we were able to understand what the important issues were with the design.  We were able to get his product to him within 10 days and he made it to a trade show where his best customers for his product were across the aisle.  We are hoping for great success from this project.   Our customer has agreed to amortize the design cost through 4 sets of lift bags.  We agreed to do that because the size and style may change.

See the 3 d computer model on a 2 d immage   

Rope ascender floats:

These are designed to float a product called a rope ascender in a neutrally buoyant situation so that commandos from different countries can use the rope ascenders to retake ships that have been taken by pirates.  It is a complicated Idea, but the product is relatively simple.  We received solid works models of the rope ascenders, we added our inflatable, and made features to make it work for the customer.  We made 2 prototypes and the prototype did not change, because the computer modeling was that accurate.  It described all the issues and problems we were trying to solve, and we were able to make out part work before we ever made a prototype.  Including minimum and maximum buoyancy issues and things like that.  We did not need any engineering help.  The Ascender people are great engineers, and it was relatively easy working with them.  They paid The design cost for the first 2 units. We were able to give a firm bid on the price after that.

Patient simulator Lungs and Bladders:

We make lungs and blood bladders for computerized patient simulators.  The engineers involved with the project actually came up with a method to get maximum volume in the chest cavity where the lungs go.  It was an amazing out of the box collaboration using Solid Works design software to solve this problem. 

Rapid deployment Spill containment:

At first we tried to make something that was extremely inexpensive, but we finally came around to the concept that each time they did not use one of these to catch a leak the company was being fined about 10,000.00.  Then we started looking for something else they would work better.  The end result was something that has saved this Oil and Gas Company tens of thousands of dollars in cleanup costs.  Not to mention the environmental damage that happens when accidental spills happen.

Cirque du Soliel products:

The Cirque du Soliel people were convinced we would have a contract to make battle harnesses that would cost them 20,000 per year.  That was 10 years ago, we may have made it to 20,000 this year.  That is because we worked with the proper fabric type and kept improving the product.  They have rewarded us with other highly interesting projects like the inflatable refrigerator skeleton, and the astro cape dummy

Unsuccessful Projects

A military project:

I can’t show this project, because it is still under an NDA.  However it was designed to be a military product.  Everything was going well.  We were about to go into production.  The customer had paid for the design work.  They asked how much it weighed, and I came up with a figure of about 50 lbs.  I had no idea that that was too heavy, and the project would die because of it.  I could have saved the design cost if they would have asked for an anticipated weight and we would have had that discussion.  The people were gracious enough to pay for the design cost.  I am not complaining.  It is an example of JPW and the customer not recognizing a crucial issue early enough in the process to save the customer form paying the design cost. 

Areo Bumpers:

The NDA has run out on this project, and the customer did not pay 2,000 of his last bill.  It is a project that we had outside engineers work performed on to examine the air flow around the inflatable bumper.  The customer visited us (without asking) and we worked on his project, delivering everything he requested.  The product got shipped to a coating facility in Denver, and they shipped it out to the customer before we received final payment.  We have tried to collect, but for one reason or another, the project failed on his end.  It actually worked to reduce the fuel consumption on long haul truck rigs, but we will never know if the 6% our customer claimed was realistic.  I was unwilling to work on the project until outside engineering confirmed a substantial fuel savings with computer modeling. 

Running out of money because of the China syndrome:

We started to work on an all welded Stand up paddle board, because all of the boards made in China were glued together.  Now because of the extensive pressures inside the drop stitch, and the glue causing problems in the joints whey are starting to come apart.  So when we were approached a couple of years ago to do a new prototype for a stand up paddle board, I make a point of making it welded.  We were reasonably successful, and we had a deposit on the project of about half of what it took to do the first one.  However the customer was taped out because he had already spent 14,000 on a prototype design in China.  He did not even have a prototype yet.  He could not pay us, and we took what we learned and finished the project.  Now we make the only all welded stand up inflatable paddleboard on the market.  Besides that we learned how to repair the glued ones so they are welded too. 

Projects that really did not work in a big way:

I have numerous projects I have worked on where we have given customers computer models and then asked for payment.  I do not know if they took those models and went somewhere else to have them made or not.  However we did not get paid. 

I have developed projects for customers and been ready to start production for months, to find out that they did not have the resources to start a project.  That is a lot of design time we hope we can sell to someone else with a similar product.  

No Skin in the Game:

The largest loss is embarrassing, because I did not see this coming.  It was such a good idea, and a whole new market.  We had a marketing and sales agreement, but my customer had no skin in the game, and refused to do so.  Because I was so heavily invested in the design, I kept pushing the project, and it ended up costing us about 20,000.00 to make products that do not sell because our customers partner backed out 2 days after delivery, They take a lot of time to install, and the product testing and the marketing that they promised us did not happen.  There was no skin in the game for them.  So we have 20,000.00 worth of prototypes that we cannot market because it is not our market area.  We will retrieve the product, and find something to make out of it, or it donate to charity. 

This is the reason why we require money to work on projects because it is not just about doing work for free.  It actually costs our business money unless we do.  Perhaps if skin were in the game the marketing would have happened, and we all would have had a product and another income.  Quite possibly it could have been better for everyone involved. 

Ideas you should consider (faq)

Can we help build our product at the JPW shop?

We do not want you to work in our shop on your product development.  If you show up unannounced, wanting us to work on your project, you may as well turn around and go home.  We will not talk to you.  Imagine a customer who comes into your shop, learns everything he can and goes home and starts his own shop.  That is unethical and dishonest.  That has happened more than once.  Now imagine that customer attempting to hire your crew.  That has happened once also.  After these bad experiences, we do not allow customers to come into our shop and work on their product designs.  Besides we have a production schedule to keep.  Just popping in like the Areo bumper guy did will get you a serious cold shoulder, and we will reserve the right to charge you with trespassing.

How about a visit just to see our facility? 

I will show you loads of pictures and lots of capability, but we have a production schedule to keep, and this is not something that we do lightly.  Keep in mind that we have a history of potential customers taking our proprietary processes and becoming out competitors.  

What about teaching us to do the work?

This is something we can negotiate.  We have sent customers to suppliers to find solutions to their problems, but we feel it is necessary to have some kind of relationship, and be compensated for our work.  All of our skills have been accumulated in an honest manner.  We have never stolen information from a competitor, or used industrial espionage to find out how things work.  We have traded information with our competitors.  Our main competitors are quality businesses that perform quality work, and I am certain that they feel the same way we do about letting go of their trade secrets. 

It is possible that we would enter into an agreement to train a customer to build products if they have a successful outcome.  If a product is wildly successful, we will definitely think about how we could be a part of that, and what the customer is willing to give us to set up a production line. 

Can I take the project to another company or off shore?

Yes if you have followed our agreement outlined in the Prototype production policy, it may be the only way you can get the price down to the market’s perceived value.  However I will resist going to China to meet with any production people.  I can send patterns, but I will not send anything that I feel is a trade secret. 

Please see our ProtoType Production Policy

Thank you for reading this!

I will be happy to answer any other questions that you may have and include them in this FAQ.  Thanks for reading this document, and we look forward to working with you to make money in the prototype development process. 


Jack Kloepfer

President -JPWinc


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