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Electronic Product Development: Concept to Manufacturing
Designing a new product and taking it through the various development stages to finally hit market shelves is not a walk in the park. There are several iterations and learnings that come about from the journey of product concept to manufacturing.
We believe knowledge is power. By being armed with information about the end-to-end process, the players involved, the possible challenges and factors contributing to cost, we believe product innovators can make better, informed business decisions that can lead to successful product launches.
This blog will focus on the initial part of the product development cycle, from Idea to Transfer-to-Production.
The Ecosystem Players
First, let us understand the players in the product development ecosystem: End User, Product Innovator, Product Development House, Manufacturing Group.
In this context, we have considered manufacturing group as a slightly broader category that would also include contract manufacturers, supply chain parties (electronic component manufacturers and distributors, plastic, metal), certification and accreditation labs like Nemko and TUV SUD, product distribution and field support (See Fig.1).
The players are connected in a cycle which if successful creates a sustainable vortex to influence and even create new markets.
Fig. 1: Product Development Ecosystem
The cycle starts with the end-user:
- The End-user expresses a need;
- The Product Innovator perceives this need, sees an opportunity, and finds a solution to satisfy the need. The Product innovator connects with a Product Design/Development House to realize the solution in the most efficient manner;
- The Product Design House develops the idea, designs the product, and generates blue prints necessary for manufacturing. Together with the Product Innovator, the Product Development House engages the Manufacturing Group;
- The Manufacturing Group transforms the design files into a product ultimately offered to the market;
- The End-user interacts with the new product and generates feedback that can be used for future product innovation and advancement;
- The cycle may sustain itself going through few iterations of the product eventually generating new ideas, products and new market opportunities.
Why Hardware Start-ups Fail?
The reality today is that a vast majority of hardware start-ups fail, while only a few go on to achieve unicorn status. A study from CB Insights found that 70% of upstart tech companies fail usually around 20 months after first raising financing.
Some of the key reasons for these failures that we have identified from the product development standpoint are as below:
- Product owners do not understand or accept the complex reality of the product development process. Instead of applying careful due diligence, they prefer to cut short the path from concept to production, forcing unrealistic product development and manufacturing schedules, resources, and cost.
- Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, once said that: “If you’re not embarrassed by your first release, then you’ve launched too late.”
- While some may advise to launch as early as possible, one cannot bring a sub-par, ill-conceived product into the market.
- The product concept calls for technology that is not mature or proven well enough, thereby starting product development with an unacceptable technical risk level.
- While there are many ways to skin a cat, there are only a few design processes that have been proven to work consistently.
- The development process is very long for hardware as compared to software. In software, little patches can be deployed OTA in 24h, whereas a hardware “update” cycle can take months.
- The hardware development process is most of the times an iterative process and because of the complexity (several players involved) and time required it can become very cumbersome to manage.
- If a company fails or are not capable to recall units, the trust built over time is lost. Recalling units is also impossibly expensive and the company may not survive this expense.
From the above reasons, one point is clear – A proven development process, involving sound engineering principles is key to success.
Product Development Journey: Concept to Manufacturing
A typical product development journey comprises the following stages: Ideation, Product Definition, Architecture, Design, Prototyping, Validation and finally New Product Introduction.
Fig.2 below depicts a typical product development process with the graph displaying risk mapped against development stages.
Fig 2: Risk Level Vs. Development Stage
The ‘risk’ mentioned in this case could include schedule risk, budget risk or product risk, among others. The graph displayed is qualitative and illustrates the intended evolution of the risk level for a given project.
A proven product development process is meant to reduce the risk by following good engineering practices, and a set of well understood and tested phases. In the end, a good design process is all about risk mitigation and applying good engineering practices, in a coherent product development process.
Fig 3: Product Development Lifecycle
Fig. 3 is a high-level diagram of the product lifecycle, with the columns displaying the development stages, and the rows depicting the 4 major ecosystem players.
Let’s take a brief look at each stage and the various activities involved:
- The End-User expresses a ‘need’ or a Product Innovator identifies a ‘need’.
- The Product Innovator validates the ‘need’ with market research and business activities.
- Market research:
- User Needs Exploration
- Competitive Analysis of the Market
- Positioning of the intended new product and the business
- Product Market Fit
- Needs-Benefit Analysis
- Set priorities and assess business risks
- Allocate budget
- Allocate resources
- The next stage is ‘Product definition’ which is usually initiated by the Product Innovator and completed and complemented by the Product Development House. This phase typically takes anywhere from between 2 weeks to months and is where careful planning takes place for features and functionality.
- Some of the processes in this stage include:
- End User Site Visits
- Product Concept
- Drafting System Requirements Document
- Functional requirements
- Mechanical, Industrial Design, Hardware, Software, UI/UX requirements
- Regulatory standards that the new product has to comply with
- Environmental requirements
- Out of scope features
- Order, dependencies
- Length for each task
- Milestones, gates
- Analyze critical-paths
- Outline risks
- Risk mitigation and planning
- Next, the Product Design House works on a Proof of Concept to validate product viability. Do note that the Proof of Concept can be completed even before the Product Requirement Definition stage when the technology risk is high. Though not mandatory, it is highly advisable to complete the Proof of Concept at the beginning of the development phase as it can unveil several unknowns.
- What is a Proof of Concept?
- The Proof of concept is a work-alike and not a look alike prototype of the product concept.
- It is an early representation of the new product and can be built with anything available including duct tape. PoCs are usually built out of development boards and there is minimal Hardware development, usually no custom PCBs, although there are cases where even custom PCBs are justified. It mostly involves Firmware and Software implementation.
- Only the critical core to performance functionality of the new product is included at this stage. One should aim to prove the idea in the spirit of “Fail fast, fail often”.
- The scope is to de-risk product development, by validating the “idea” to prove that it works before engaging in full product development cycle.
- The engagement at this stage is typically a T&M model as:
- There is no certainty that the idea works, and
- The defined timeline is an estimate - the fact that the idea works should be proved before starting the actual development - i.e., in Capability development mode.
- What is Capability Development?
- Capability Development involves expertise garnered through research and learning that are undertaken by R&D facilities for technology advancement and is critical for New Product Development (NPD). An organization that wants to innovate needs this knowledge and has two choices – to build this knowledge in-house or outsource this part of the business. This is the main advantage of working with an experienced full product design house that has built this knowledge over years of working with multiple projects across various industries while also having an active internal R&D team. By engaging with an experienced product development house, the product development cycle can become much more efficient and can jumpstart the project much faster with lower risks.
- After the Proof of Concept stage, we come to the Architecture Design stage, which is the first phase of the actual new product design. This phase requires anywhere between 2-3 days to a month. This phase involves:
- Selection of technologies
- Selection of main components
- Definition of new product parts and sub-assemblies
- Include Partners (component manufacturers, distributors, certification labs) to validate the architectural solution and verify components availability, component life cycle stage and the standards to design against.
DESIGN, PROTOTYPING, VALIDATION
- At this stage, Alpha Design is the initial detailed design, which includes:
- Detailed custom Hardware, Mechanical, Industrial, UI/UX, Firmware, Embedded Software, App design
- Selection of all materials, cases, cables, and electronic components
- Following this, we come to the Alpha Prototype stage:
- The Alpha Prototype is a work-like, look-like final product that should achieve about 80% of the final product functionality & performance.
- Usually, 5 to 10 prototype quantities are built, however if the system is large (i.e. a kiosk) there might be only one prototype built. These are the most expensive units of the new product one will ever produce.
- The Alpha Prototype is used for:
- Design integration
- First round of QA by the design house
- Testing with end-users for feedback gathering.
- Pre-certification tests by certification laboratory
- Usually, the Alpha stage takes anywhere between 3 months to a year.
- After gaining end-user feedback, pre-certification and in-house functional testing for Alpha Prototype Validation, we move to the next stage of designing the Beta Prototype or Design iteration.
- Based on feedback from the three tests mentioned above, a list of improvements is defined for Beta Prototype.
- Detailed custom Hardware, Mechanical, Industrial, UI/UX, Firmware, Software, Application Development, Design update.
- Beta Prototype
- Beta Prototype should target to meet 100% of the final product requirements.
- Usually, 25 to 50 pieces of prototypes are built at this stage. If the system is large, only 5 to 10 are built.
- The Beta Prototype is used for:
- Design integration and QA by the Product Design House.
- The customer tests around 25-30 units on beta users for feedback.
- 2- 5 units are used for final certification and full compliance testing.
- The Beta stage requires anywhere between ¼ to ½ of the duration of the Alpha stage, but exceptions are possible.
NEW PRODUCT INTRODUCTION
- Pilots are the first units manufactured through the actual production process.
- Based on the three tests described above (Beta Prototype) and feedback from beta users, a list of changes and corrections is further defined and now the design can move to the first production run: the Pilot run.
- In this phase, the design is transferred to manufacturing. There is a consolidation of the supply chain at this point.
- Feedback is received from the manufacturer based on experience and infrastructure/processes.
- The volume produced is based on the new product size and complexity and can range from a few hundred to thousand units.
- Usually, the Pilot stage requires anywhere between 1 to 5 months, depending on the system complexity and component availability.
- The final stage is Manufacturing where production takes place as per the blueprints generated by the Product Development House.
This was a quick overview of the entire product development lifecycle for New Product Development. It is interesting to note that on a case-to-case basis, the Design, Prototype and Validation stages can iterate and repeat a few times before final New Product Introduction.
While we will not get into further details, here is a list of some of the other tasks that one should consider as early as in the beta stage for a successful product launch.
- Marketing & Sales
- Defining and Finalizing on Distribution Channels
- Define promotional vehicles and launch plan
- Service & Field Support
- Dedicated team for servicing the new product in the field.
- Training of the service team
- Eventually, development of a system debug manual (this should be part of product development work)
- Product Sustenance
- Based on the Service and Field Support teams’ feedback, the product innovator will have to note:
- CAPA: Corrective and Preventive actions
- Ideas for a new, improved product or a new-product variation
- The cycle restarts again from the Product Definition stage
Cost of Design Change
Before concluding, we would also like to address the cost of bringing about changes in the design cycle. This is a common scenario that plays out in product development, and it is important to understand the consequences of design change requests.
Bringing about a change in the design at any stage of the development process can result in delays and can exponentially drive-up costs. This is a fact that many product innovators fail to realize or fail to take into account during the product planning stage. The design changes in question can range from a requirement change, bug correction to even component obsolescence.
Fig 4: Cost of Design Change vs. Stage
As suggested in Fig.4, while in the design, prototyping and validation stages, the affect/cost of changes can be absorbed easier, it becomes extremely challenging when changes are requested at the pilot or production stages. If not handled well, this situation could result in product recalls which may not be something a business can handle.
With over a decade of experience in product design and embedded electronic development, NeuronicWorks has taken more than 400 projects from concept to manufacturing. There are projects that have been extremely successful, while there are some that have failed to reach market success. This blog is based on our learnings and reveals the crucial elements we as an organization consider and suggest to our clients to minimize risk and maximize success.