Young artist drawing comics at the table

I often hear other students ask me how I actually got started on making my lamps. It's a good question.

So many times in class we are talking about products from a big picture view, or with products that are “pre-built” for us to work with, but how does someone take an idea for something that exists in their head like an app, or widget, or gizmo and make it exist on the table in front of them.

The good news is that we live in one of the best times for rapid innovation.

STEP 1: Write it down

I always say that the first step to prototyping is to write down the idea on paper and then do a rough sketch of what it would look like. That step is really simple and obvious, but it is also one of the biggest roadblocks for some people. It takes something and turns it from an idea to a design. Now when you talk about it, it isn’t an idea you have, it’s a design you have.

STEP 2: Google It

Google is your friend.

Anyone who owns a computer knows this. Google’s help with prototyping is immeasurable. For example, let’s say you have an idea for a new type of tray that will be able to let you carry wine, martini, and other poorly designed glasses without spilling them. The first thing I would suggest is that you google what the product is.

If nothing seems to jump out at you from the results you may just have a new product to get rolling with.

The lack of an obvious product doesn’t mean you won’t have any competition or that there isn’t already a product that does what you are looking for, but it may mean that your competition either doesn’t have a product that is big enough to get media attention, or they don’t have enough marketing to make their product relevant. Even if there is a product that does what yours will, you may still be able to make yours work. Remember that IBM was a computing giant and that Dell was a little dorm company at one point. The trick to making yours beat the little guy is that your method of making them, your design, your marketing strategy, your target user, or something you do must make your product different, and ideally, better.

STEP 3: Draw and Redraw.

When I started the Vialamp project, I had this tiny little vial of glow powder. That’s where the name comes from. I called it my vial lamp, figuring I would come up with something better later, but it just stuck. I had envisioned a small little glass vial with an LED, switch, and watch battery in it on a necklace. It was something that would have made my younger, Disney movie Atlantis loving, heart happy.

I actually had a friend of mine who is a better artist work up these drawings based off the little glass vial I had.

After I had these drawings I had a better idea of the things I would need to make it work. I began to search for the components online, such as the glass vial, the battery, the switch, and the glow powder.

What I found was that the cost of the various things from the various places was going to be pretty pricey considering what I wanted to charge for them, but the bigger issue was that I didn’t know how to coat the glow powder in the glass evenly.

I also didn’t have a good design for the cap, since it needed to have some custom designing to hold the battery and the other circuitry. So I decided to change the idea a little and solve one problem at a time.

The hope was that I could come up with a method to coat the inside of a larger glass bottle, make larger lamps, and then shrink the process and product to the little lights later when there was more money to design.

STEP 4: Experiment

The experimenting began with me in the labs at Concordia with a whole bunch of glass bottles and several different mixtures of glues and glow component. After many different attempts at rolling, spinning, spraying, and dripping I had really hit a wall. I wasn’t able to get the coating even enough to make it look good.

So I went back to the drawing board and moved away from the glass bottle and onto plastics. I still hadn’t solved the specialty electronics problem yet. So I looked into 3D printing.

For those still wondering how 3D printing works there are three major methods.

One is where a printer head is moved around a platform laying down layer after layer of melted plastic (or nylon, ABS Plastic, PLA, even wood) essentially working like a hot glue gun with a robot arm. We have a few of these at Concordia, you can get them online for less than $500.

The second major type of printer is based on light sensitive resin and a projector. Its called Continuous Liquid Interface Production or CLIP. The black platform is dipped into the resin and then a laser light or projector flashes an image on a specific area of the resin causing it to harden. The platform is drawn out of the liquid and more layers a flashed with light. This method can be much faster than the first method but is limited in the materials available to print in.

The last method is Direct Metal Laser Sintering, or DMLS. This method is how manufacturers print in metal. A fine layer of the metal powder is applied to the printing surface and a tiny laser is moved around and heats the metal to it melting point. When the first layer is applied, a second layer of the powder is laid down and the process is repeated. When the part is finished, the excess metal powder is poured out and reused. A good video of the process can be found HERE.

But to be able to 3D Print you need a 3D computer design.

STEP 3.5: Computer Aided Design (CAD)

 Yes, I know I went backwards a little, but that is part of prototyping. You make a little progress down a path just to find that it is a dead end. Don’t be discouraged, just because the way you wanted to make your idea work may not be viable, the idea’s essence is untouched.

Back to 3D.

Computer Aided Design is the process of designing things in a digital 3D space. It can be tricky, but almost all programs work in a very reasonable way. You draw a 2d profile of something, then you tell it how thick to make it. Then you can remove certain parts of it, or build several of your parts together to get a final design. This design is exported as a .STL file (stereolithography file for those curious) which is fed into the software that drives a 3D printer.

There are many options for CAD software. Here is a good list of them

The ones I’m going to advise you to use are:

Solid Edge is a really great piece of software and I would use that exclusively if it would run on my mac (only runs on Windows) and didn’t cost $100 a month for the most basic option. The interface is easy to use, and there is good videos for it. The good news is that students can get a free version (which is the full software).

FreeCAD  is an open source option, that is free and runs on all platforms (Mac, Windows, etc.) but it is not as professional looking or as easy to use as some of its competitors. 

Blender is the best of both worlds…Sort of. It is always free, and open source (supported by the Blender Foundation) and it works on all platforms. It is designed for animation though, which can be good if you want to make an animation of your product being displayed, but means that it isn’t primarily good at designing a part. It does have the most amazing collection of how to videos on youtube though as well as a rich user base to answer questions that you can google.

Finally if you are looking for a part that may be already made, you can check on 3D printing libraries such as Thingiverse or GrabCad, although these places may have restrictions on using the designs for commercial use.

STEP 5: The Product

Once you have your designs, whether they are on the computer, or on paper, and you have done your experimentations on how it should be made. You finally have something that may be a final product. You need suppliers.

Once again… Google is your friend.

First I would check if you can get the pieces you need from Alibaba. Alibaba is a marketplace where all the Chinese manufacturers sell everything under the sun for wholesale prices. (AliExpress is if you’re only looking for one or two). When you find what you may be looking for contact them. These are people use to negotiating so I always write my proposals this way:


My name is Colin Murdy, project manager for Murdy Global LLC. I am looking for

(number of units) units of (insert name of product) at (price you think you are

willing to pay * 80%) USD per unit. I would need these products shipped using a major carrier (UPS, FedEx, DHL) and I need the price for shipping included in the

quote. I also would need to be able to pay using Paypal. Please contact me at (email address) with your quote.

Thank you

They will likely answer with a quote along with some statement about how they aren’t able to produce it at that cost. Now while that may be true, if you send it to several providers (and there usually will be many on Alibaba) you should be able to pit them against each other to give you the best price. You can request samples although they will likely want you to send them money for the shipping.

I always prefer to use Paypal as I know it is secure, although my suppliers have asked that I pay the fee the Paypal charges them if we do that. I understand and am willing to pay since I am the one requesting it.

So now you have your product and your suppliers. This will help finalize your costs Which should help you when you develop your business plan.


With this whole process you will want to keep your ideas protected. Writing things down digitally in a very complete way will help you prove ownership since most of those files have a timestamp if there was ever some concern about who invented what first.

With your suppliers in China, I prefer to have them make sub-parts and then construct it myself here since there is really no way for me to stop a company in China that has the full design from selling it themselves.

Also if you start telling your ideas to people, make sure they sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement with a Non-Compete, Non-Circumvention clause. This basically says that whatever you tell them is secret, they can’t do it themselves, and they can’t try to get around the agreement. Here is a good template

There are also companies that will do all of this for you. One example is but it is always good to be on your guard with these companies to keep what is yours.

Keep coming back to the blog as there will be future posts about how to prototype your app and get it on the app store, and other useful posts about things like Kickstarter and Crowdfunding, and how to build a business model for something brand new.

— This story is written by Kali Thiel, director of university communications for Concordia University Wisconsin and Ann Arbor. She may be reached at or 262-243-2149.

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