How Much Does a Prototype Cost?

Article Technical Rating: 6 out of 10

One of the first steps on the road to developing and marketing a new product is the creation of a prototype. The cost of a prototype can be broken into two parts: the engineering cost to design it, and the actual cost to produce it.

The total cost of the prototype (assuming an electronic product) usually includes the cost to manufacture the custom Printed Circuit Board (PCB), plus the cost of assembly, plus the cost of the components, plus the cost of the enclosure prototype.

Engineering costs vary greatly depending on the product complexity, engineering specialty required, product size desired (smaller usually takes longer and thus costs more), location, etc.

For more details on all the costs be sure to read my really in-depth article on the costs to develop, scale, and manufacture a new electronic product.

Most engineers work on an hourly basis especially on larger projects.  Be warned though that it’s impossible to quote the development time for a complex product exactly down to the hour. So you should expect your costs to exceed what is initially estimated.

The hourly rate charged by design engineers varies depending on years of experience, education level, area of specialty, success with previous projects, etc.  According to the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) the national average rate for an independent contract engineer is $125/hr.

 

According to the IEEE the national average rate for a freelance engineer is $125/hr.Click To Tweet  

Roughly, hourly rates for an engineer can vary from $100-$300/hr.  This is a big variance but once again it all depends on the experience level of the engineer, and you usually get what you pay for in this case.

NOTE: If you're serious about developing a new electronic hardware product then download our free cheat sheets - 15 Steps to Develop Your Electronic Product and Summary of the Costs to Develop Your Electronic Product.

For example, a more expensive engineer may be able to work twice as fast and produce a higher quality of work, both of which will lower your overall cost.

Although it may be tempting to use cheaper offshore engineers that is usually a mistake. With lots of experience you can safely outsource small, well-defined tasks to offshore engineers, but never the entire development. And never unless you actually have the skills necessary to do the job yourself, otherwise you have no way to confirm the quality.

PCB Production Costs

The cost to produce a few blank PCB boards usually runs about $750.  This assumes their most basic manufacturing process, and if you want a super small board then more advanced, more costly processes have to be used.

To produce a prototype PCB I use a company called Sunstone Circuits.

If you are familiar with the basics of PCB design then you can use Sunstone’s PCB Instant Quote tool to estimate the cost.

Most boards require 4 layers. Adding more layers can help reduce the board size but at a higher cost. Although the cost decreases as the board size decreases, the number of layers has a much greater impact on cost. So bigger boards with few layers are cheaper than smaller boards with more layers.

Advanced PCB technologies, like blind and buried vias, can also be used to decrease board size even further. But these technologies will add thousands to your prototyping costs so only use them if absolutely necessary.

Wearable tech, for example, is extremely size sensitive and must be as small as absolutely possible. So with wearable tech I normally start with a larger than desired board size for the first prototype version.

Starting with a larger board accomplishes three things. First, it lowers the production cost of the boards. Second, it lowers engineering costs to develop the boards, because a bigger board is quicker to design and easier to debug. This means less engineering hours.

After the basic functionality has been confirmed then you can squeeze the board size down, if you really need it super duper small.

PCB Assembly Costs

For a couple of boards with say 30-50 different components the cost is approximately another $750 – $1,000.

For assembly (which means soldering all of the electronic components onto PCB) I use a company called Screaming Circuits.

Cost of the Electronic Components

In addition to the board production and assembly costs, there is the cost for the electronic components.

But for most products the cost of the components is minimal and usually totals less than about hundred dollars for a few boards.

Enclosure Prototyping Costs

As for the enclosure (a.k.a. the case) the cost depends if you want a custom design or if you can get by with a stock enclosure.

A stock enclosure will usually only cost a few dollars.  A custom enclosure will cost several hundred dollars depending on the size, complexity and number of pieces needed.

For prototyping any custom plastic or metal parts I highly recommend Proto Labs.  They offer various prototyping services as well as creating low volume injection molds that allow you to produce a few thousand parts.

Try to get by with a stock enclosure as long as possible to save money and complication. However, most products eventually require a custom designed case so you can’t delay that complication indefinitely.

Summary

Keep in mind that all of these costs will reduce significantly as your production volume increases.  Even going from 2 units to 20 units has a huge impact on the unit price.

What costs you a thousand dollars for a single prototype may only cost a couple of dollars once you purchase much higher volumes.

NOTE: If you're serious about developing a new electronic hardware product then download our free cheat sheets - 15 Steps to Develop Your Electronic Product and Summary of the Costs to Develop Your Electronic Product.

Leave a Reply 10 comments

Gate - June 14, 2017 Reply

If your board is small and you want few boards, take a look at OSH Park (https://oshpark.com/). They charge $5 per square inch, provide 3 boards, have ENIG (gold) plating, and ship free anywhere in the world. If you want large boards and low cost or more than just a few boards, Seeedstudio Fusion PCB https://www.seeedstudio.com/fusion_pcb.html will be your best alternative, US$4.90 for 10 boards up to 10*10cm, they are the cheapest

hubert - February 19, 2016 Reply

I’ve used http://www.pcbnpi.com Service a few times and was quite pleased with the turnaround time and overall quality. They offer several different packages including full assembly service. That’s really save my time and money.

vitkacy - June 23, 2015 Reply

Creating a prototype is the best part of all “creating”! In mu opinion good solution will be using an advanced technology, like 3D printer (someone said that before). Then you can see how it’s gonna look, also you can do some test on it. In my company ( http://www.vocean.co.uk/ ) we always works on prototypes made by 3D printers 🙂

kunter erdonmez - May 26, 2015 Reply

Hi John, I am an industrial engineer from Turkey and have a question. Do you send the prototype which I want to Turkey? I want to tell about prototype according to your answer. Also thnx for free e-book.

    John Teel - May 27, 2015 Reply

    Yes, I can send a prototype anywhere you wish. I have clients in India, Turkey and the UK in addition to my US clients. So no problem.

Frank Eiter - March 13, 2015 Reply

Thanks for the free downloads, John. A lot of good information. Any idea what I could expect to pay for an Industrial Designer who does mechanical engineering as well ? Thx.

    John Teel - March 13, 2015 Reply

    Thanks Frank. You can expect to pay anywhere between $50/hr to $300/hr. I know that’s a big range but it really can vary that much depending on experience level, and how long the line is for their services.

Jennifer Kline - November 3, 2014 Reply

Do you think it is cheaper to buy your own 3D printer and print out a prototype, or is it cheaper to go with a company that does that amongst other things for prototyping? THanks for any feedback.

    John Teel - November 3, 2014 Reply

    Generally I think it is best to use a prototype shop instead of buying your own 3D printer, at least for your first product. Once you have a profitable product, and are developing multiple other products, then owning a 3D printer probably makes sense. Of course, some entrepreneurs may like having their own 3d printer, and owning one does allow you to make fast revisions. As for cheaper, using a prototype shop is initially cheaper, but if you do lots of revisions then buying one will pay for itself quickly. Thanks for the comment!

      JOHNSON - January 30, 2016 Reply

      Your article is really invaluable. Do you also prototype hardware machines & what sources of funding do you suggest for a nigeria-based startup innovator?

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