The fully functioning prototype that everyone loved on Kickstarter is not the one you take to the manufacturers. In fact, a working prototype is far removed from a product designed for manufacturing. Taking a product from prototype to manufacturing is a challenging, lengthy and often frustrating phase for hardware startups.
Design for manufacturability
During the prototyping phase, the focus is on building and testing different iterations of your product as quickly as possible using fast prototyping boards like Arduino. Having arrived at your workable prototype, the focus changes. When you design for something at scale your tools and components change – you now need to work with microchips and advanced embedded software. With production at large scale the manufacturing process and the limitations of manufacturing equipment become a central issue.
Design and manufacturing can’t be separated. Design for manufacturability (DFM), the art of designing products in such a way that they are easy to manufacture, is key to a good product. To arrive at the best workable design, startups need to become familiar with the manufacturing process and working with contract manufacturers (CMs). Failure to do this will eventuate in serious time delays. The quality of the manufactured product is directly related to the quality of the design.
This is a tricky part. The general advice is to use standard components as far as possible as non-standard components make it nearly impossible to manufacture on a large scale. In addition the use of non-standard parts will definitely add to the costs. When sourcing components it’s important to keep in mind the delivery times as well as the life cycle of components – make sure that components you plan to use are not in the process of being phased out!
Pre-manufactured prototyping components like Arduino will no longer suffice – you’ll need a custom-designed circuit board that is optimized for your product and its functions. There’s a growing community of companies, individuals, and groups designing and making open-source hardware available which is a great resource for hardware startups. Fritzing is one of many examples of an open-source initiative that facilitates the process from physical prototyping to actual product.
Bottom line: you don’t have to be a lone explorer of unchartered regions. There are a myriad of resources available for hardware startups, both online and offline. At every step talk to other hardware startup founders, industry experts and manufacturers. You’ll find out what you need to know and also what you didn’t realize you need to know.
To say that this part is tricky would be an understatement. Unless you have first-hand experience of manufacturing processes, or have someone on your team that does, you are in for a challenging time finding an efficient and trustworthy CM that understands and buys into your requirements.
While a trip to Shenzhen in China is a real option, doing business with a manufacturer from another culture comes with added challenges and difficulties. The fact that there are many large and small scale factories, doesn’t mean the choice is simple. These enterprises have traditionally taken on work for large companies, churning out thousands of products, devices and gadgets for the mass market. When you arrive with a complicated, top-end design, they may not be able to adjust to your requirements.
It may just be simpler to opt for a local manufacturer where you’ll be able to have a presence on the factory floor. You might also find that one manufacturer can’t complete the whole process. At any rate, whoever you end up working with, this is a crucial relationship. It would be best to find someone you feel comfortable with, can talk to and feel you can work with and build a relationship from there. It will serve your endeavour well if you’re able to impart your vision for your product with the company responsible for physically making it. Talk to a number of companies and go for the one you can take with you on your journey. If you can get them to really understand your product, getting it off the assembly line will be more than just another item on the factory task list.
Again, consult with other hardware startups to find out if they can recommend someone and don’t forget innovation platforms like HWTrek that put hardware startups in contact with reliable manufacturers in Asia who can also help you with finding suppliers for mechanical and electrical components.
In this post we have covered design for manufacturing and the importance of contract manufacturer relationships. Getting an innovative product off the assembly line is a complicated and a lengthy process that’s impossible to cover in any written format. In the end, the proof will be in the pudding: in getting out there and doing it and learning as you go. Good luck!