Going from 1 prototype that works to 10,000 finished units that meet certifications, deliver on their requirements, and satisfy customers while staying on budget is not an easy process.
Many companies find the prototyping to production process confusing; this is especially true for those companies that designed their electronic device and had a prototype production process away from the Chinese manufacturing ecosystem.
More on the above later.
After going through the prototyping production process and making it work successfully, many expect a smooth and simple transition into production.
Some believe that in a few days or a few weeks they’ll find a contract manufacturer willing to take on the final production process, at a cost that won’t hurt their profit forecasts, and in a few months, they’ll have working units ready to sell.
Let me break it to you, in most cases it is not that simple.
From Prototype to Production – The Problem
The problem is that during the prototyping production process many off-the-shelf components and parts were used; Arduino boards based on an Atmel MCU were included in the process to develop hardware.
Many times, the components selection was done without taking a look at the lead times, getting your hands on a dozen or hundreds of them is easy, but thousands, not so much.
Moving a product from prototyping to production using the components and parts of the prototype then becomes impossible due to the high costs and lead times.
Now, you have a redesign issue, before moving into mass manufacturing the product has to be redesigned to use components and parts that are cost-efficient and more importantly, adapt to the technical capacity of the manufacturing plant.
Here’s where some might think, okay, I’ll contact a contract manufacturer in China and let them optimize the design for manufacturing.
Here’s what you should know, contract manufacturers are not design-oriented, they are manufacturing-oriented and managers care about one thing, keeping the machines running.
You’ll have to do a lot of redesign work, choose cost-efficient components and, if you used an Arduino based around an Atmel MCU then most likely you won’t be able to use most of that firmware.
How to do Prototyping Right?
What we mean by doing it right is building a prototype whose parts, components, and firmware can be carried into the manufacturing/production process without having to do major redesign changes.
There’s only one way to accomplish this, it’s called, design for manufacturing.
Design for manufacturing is an approach that dictates that all design decisions must be done considering the manufacturing capabilities of the plant that will be in charge of the production process; you must as well involve components suppliers to know which are the components that best adapt to your timeline in terms of lead time.
If Design for Manufacturing is not done during design and prototyping then expensive re-design cycles will have to be made once you realize that the manufacturing equipment of the production plants does not align with your design.
You might think, well, isn’t their job to get the equipment and work on their processes to manufacture my thousands of units, I’m a paying customer after all.
It doesn’t work like that
If you’re Apple or Samsung then yes, design anything you want and have the factory adjust to your needs, but if you’re a start-up, you are the one who has to adapt to their conditions.
Setting up a new production line is extremely expensive; manufacturing plants won’t go through the hassle of opening a new line for a product they might not receive a second order for.
If they do, you’ll be charged with the costs, how will that impact your unit price? It will increase it tremendously.
So, remember, for a smooth transition from prototype to production you must take into account the manufacturing capabilities of the plant from the start.
From Prototype to Production Steps
- Design and Build a POC Prototype
POC stands for proof of concept and you should use off-the-shelf components for this, the sole purpose of a POC is to test your market hypothesis; it seeks to answer, do people need this? Can they figure out how to use it or what it is for?
Don’t even worry about having a prototype that performs all product tasks.
Once you gather enough data to ensure there’s a market need move to the actual design
- Industrial Design
Now that you know that there is a market opportunity, get serious about the aesthetics and ergonomics of the product; Design for Manufacturing must already be a consideration.
You must find a balance between the best design for your target market and the manufacturing plant capability, think of the materials you’ll use for the casing and injected molds.
- Mechanical Design
No matter if there are a few or many moving parts, mechanical design expertise is needed to make sure everything will fit and move as necessary, then again, the manufacturing plant capabilities must be taken into account.
- Electronic Product Architecture
The electronic engineers will design the board and choose the electronic components needed for the product to perform its requirements and guess what, the manufacturing plant processes must also be considered here, what kind of PCBs can they handle?
In this stage, extra care must be placed in components selection as many have long lead times that can easily delay your product launch.
As you can see, all engineers in the design stage of the product must work together with the factory, and among them, that is what design for manufacturing is about, every decision is made carefully thought for a smooth manufacturing process.
Prototyping – Last Stages
The combined work of the engineers together with the insight from the manufacturing partner and supply chain vendor will culminate in pilot run units, the pre-production samples.
No 3Dprinted housings can be used here as they brittle easily and won’t allow you to do drop-tests or water and dust ingression tests.
The prototype, after all the testing is done and product changes were made or even features were dropped, becomes the minimum viable product.
This is a prototype that has been highly optimized for manufacturing and meets the minimum set of core features to make customers happy.
Now you’re ready to simply scale.
How to Go from Prototype Production – Who Can Help?
The best way to ensure a smooth transition into mass manufacturing is to have a group of experts involved, by experts, we mean people that have experience not just in industrial, electronics, and mechanical design but also in dealing with manufacturers in China.
Why do we say China, well, because it is still the place where it makes more sense to have electronics prototyped and manufactured.
If you truly need to have your device prototyped and manufactured outside China, then Taiwan becomes a good option.
If your core strength is not design, prototyping, and manufacturing; you might want to try contacting design houses in the USA that have experience operating with manufacturing partners in China or Taiwan.
One that meets such criteria is Titoma, Design for Manufacturing Asia; which seems to have good customer reviews.