(This article was first published at Entrepreneur.com.)
“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 ten products by hand to companies producing millions. This struck me during the Design for Manufacturing Summit in New York, where I participated as a panelist during a session called “From Prototypes To Production.”
The ecosystem of existing “maker” types was well-represented among Design for Manufacturing’s speakers and audience, and 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:
Truth #1: Good manufacturing revolves around strong relationships with your partners.Truth #2: To get hardware made well — within cost and quality constraints and without catastrophes — you need to understand what you’re trying to accomplish.
Truth #3: You need to figure out an initial manufacturing approach early in the product design process, because it will affect many design and development decisions.
Ask Yourself These 10 Questions
I’ve compiled what I consider to be the ten essential questions to help entrepreneurs assess whether they really understand what they’re trying to accomplish. These questions can be applied to any product in development:
1. Do you have the right resources to handle 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 has a lot of influence over a manufacturer’s interest. Starting production on a product or part requires a lot an investment of time from your partner, so it needs to be worth it.
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 break production up with multiple partners 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 we have found for success.
Teach Yourself 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 detailed case studies.
Take the Coolest Cooler. 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.
They clearly did not ask and answer the questions above at the beginning of their process. Trace their journey backwards to figure out where they — and other Kickstarter campaigns — went wrong, and learn from their mistakes.