“Do you know a place to get this made?” That’s a question I hear a lot from entrepreneurs looking for a manufacturing solution. It’s actually a very complex question.
Hardware manufacturing ranges from designers making 10 products by hand to companies producing millions. This struck me during the last Design for Manufacturing Summit in Brooklyn, where I participated as a panelist during the session, “From Prototypes To Production.”
The ecosystem of existing “maker” types was well-represented among Design for Manufacturing's speakers and audience, but many of us were discussing the same issues. It got me wondering about commonalities and whether there’s a blueprint we can all use to solve our varied manufacturing puzzles, or at least to begin to identify a right path.
In my experience, there are a few manufacturing truths:
- Good manufacturing revolves around strong relationships with your partners.
- To get hardware made well -- within cost and quality constraints and without catastrophes -- you need to understand what you’re trying to accomplish.
- You need to figure out an initial manufacturing approach early in the product design process, because it will affect many design and development decisions.
Essential manufacturing questions
I’ve compiled what I consider to be the 10 essential questions to help entrepreneurs understand what they’re really trying to accomplish so they can figure out their manufacturing approach early. These questions can be applied to any product in development:
1. Do you have the right resources for manufacturing? This is an especially relevant question if you plan to produce off-shore.
2. How important is initial tooling cost versus part cost? This will often influence what processes you end up using, though there are many other factors that come into play.
3. How much labor is involved in product assembly?
Can you make your product easier to make, or is the labor impossible to avoid?
4. How long will you need to make those parts? Do you want to make 20,000 and be done with it, or do you want to still be making parts fifteen years from now?
5. What are your minimum order quantities? The total dollar volumes at stake have a lot of influence over a manufacturer’s interest. Starting production on a product or part requires a hefty time investment from your partner, so it needs to be worth it from their point-of-view.
6. How do you want to pace production? Do you want a few big batches, or lots of small batches? Have you set aside time for pilot production?
7. How critical are the materials used during production? Understanding what is going into your parts and product sometimes requires a lot of oversight and external testing.
8. How important is intellectual property protection? You may decide that you can’t show others certain steps in production or that you need to spread out production among multiple partners in order to protect your ideas.
9. Does off-shore makes sense? Can you wait six weeks for a boat, or do you need to airship it?
10. Who do you click with? In almost every situation, manufacturing requires a massive amount of back and forth and good communication. Making sure you and your partner are aligned on expectations is the most important criteria I have found for success.
Need To Brush Up on Manufacturing 101?
Here’s a hint: If you don’t know where to begin to answer some of these questions, crowd funding websites are great places to poke around and teach yourself some manufacturing do’s and don’ts. There are a lot of interesting examples where the path to production and the subsequent challenges startups are experiencing are completely transparent. It wasn’t too long ago that this kind of information was unavailable to the general public. Now you can live vicariously through some fascinating case studies -- take advantage of it!
The Coolest Cooler is a good example. I know from reading their Kickstarter updates that their tooling budget was roughly a million dollars. Their Kickstarter goal was $150,000. That’s a huge gap! Had that product not gone viral, it’s not clear how they would have been able to go into production. In fact, underestimating tooling, debug, and production costs are some of the most common ways that crowd-funded hardware products fail.