The Ultimate Test: Turning Your Cool Idea Into a Great Product

Developing careful manufacturing design guidelines and specifications along with continuous reviews will help ensure you deliver on what your customers desire.


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Every entrepreneur has one of the epiphany moments: "There needs to be a solution for [insert problem here]." After launching five consumer electronics products with TrackR, we have found the biggest barrier to bringing a creative product to the world is designing for manufacturing (known as DFM).

This is the process whereby a prototype is designed or redesigned to be manufactured at scale. While simple designs can be manufactured without changes, most prototypes undergo a collaborative design process between the product design and manufacturing teams so as to prepare for mass production. The changes can be basic (such as altering the circuit board layout) or major (involving the product materials and industrial design).

Beginning a project with designing for manufacturing in mind is crucial because changes later on will alter the cost, delivery time, look, shape, feel and ultimately affect the product's marketability.

Related: When Manufacturing in China, Face Time Can Be Critical

Four critical assumptions will determine the success or failure of your product when it comes to designing for manufacturing:.

1. What is the customer experience that the product is expected to deliver? The first step is to define the product your customer actually wants. While this might seem obvious, the designing for manufacturing process can result in decisions that lead teams away from this goal. Beforehand, acquire an understanding of what is most important to your customer through market research about key features and their price tolerance. Create guidelines that will deliver on the customer's expectations and ensure the production product meets these guidelines.

Clear design guidelines will inform an approach to realize the solution. For example, when we worked on Wallet TrackR, the product requirements document (PRD) outlined key requirements of our customer. The document is long and mundane, filled with sentences such as "the device must be no larger that 4 millimeters in thickness" or "the device button must be recessed so it is not pressed when sat on."

By specifying on paper even the smallest requirements, entrepreneurs will ensure that they deliver on key features desired by customers and know when they are moving away from their goal. The more complete and rigorous the documentation, the more obvious the correct design choice becomes when facing key design trade-off decisions.

Related: The Secret to Successful Product Design? Simplicity.

2. What is the cost to your customer? When you have the list of your customer's priorities, set the price constraints for the customer. Take into account the cost of logistics, support and the markup a retailer or distributor will take. Price constraints often lead to some of the most critical decisions for your company's product and distribution strategy. A rule of thumb on cost restraints is to take the customer's target price and multiply it by 30 percent.

3. How will the product be built? Build models and define the specifications that fit within the design guidelines. In this phase, you create all the documentation, 3-D files, color and circuit drawings needed for the product to be manufactured. It is key to have an open dialogue with the manufacturer as early as possible and communicate the design intent and understand what is possible from the manufacturer's perspective.

4. How will your product break? Thorough and continuous testing of the design assumptions is critical to the creation of the product that you and your customers expect. Work with your manufacturer to create a complete, thorough list of product-testing requirements to ensure that production units will meet your standards.

When we created our first product, Phone Halo, our calculations showed that the plastic key ring would be very strong. But the first manufacturing samples we received showed the opposite; the key loop of the injection-molded plastic was brittle and would break because the molded plastic part was cooling too quickly. By increasing the loop thickness by a few thousandths of an inch, we were able to triple its strength.

Differences as small as the width of a human hair can have a huge effect on your products usability, look and feel. The designing for manufacturing process is one of the most challenging issues that entrepreneurs will face when working with their manufacturing partners. By laying down a clear understanding of your customer's expectations, knowing all the price restraints, engaging with your manufacturer early in the design process and implementing quality assurance processes, you will be able to deliver products that your customers love.

Related: How 'V-Commerce' Could Be the Next Big Trend for Startups

Chris Herbert and Christian Smith

Entrepreneur, Phone Halo CEO and Co-founder of TrackR

Chris Herbert and Christian Smith are the co-founders of Phone Halo, based in Santa Barbara, Calif. Their product, TrackR, provides a solution for the time-consuming task of finding misplaced and lost items, including keys, wallets and bikes. 

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