Electronic Product Design

24/01/12 On the way to production

measuring device

Three steps to avoid the biggest bear trap

After you have a prototype of your product, the next step in the chain is production. It is a salutary warning that statistically more potential products fail in the step between prototype and production than at any other point in the chain. So what goes on here and what should you expect from your design team?

1. Test, test, test

There is a feeling amongst many that once the prototype is working then “that's it”. Products, whether they are for business, industrial application or consumer use, are used by people. People all have different views on how things are done. The new product is new to them and they will not have grown to know the intricacies of the device through the weeks and months prior to its launch.

The implications of this lack of familiarity are many. It is commonly acknowledged that people only resort to reading the manual as a last resort (if at all). Perhaps more than anything else the “field trials” of some description are the most important aspect. If you cannot let the product out of sight until launch day, then employees or trusted family or friends might be the way to go. You might be surprised to know how valued a customer feels if he is invited to be part of the unpublished program.

“Field trials” are often skipped for reasons of commercial pressure (too costly, not enough time). The bottom line is that the product is going to be tested and trialled one way or another. The trials and tribulations of early product or the first draft of the manual will be assessed. Anything that goes wrong or is awkward or is not intuitive will be the fault of the product or “the idiot that wrote the manual.” Users (aka other people) do not blame themselves. You can elect to have this process under close control or have the full force of market opinion deliver their “paid for” verdict.

2. Pre-production run

Costs related to a product increase at a dramatic rate as you move from the design to manufacture. The ultimate costs are often in the marketing. Whatever the cost structure, the step to production is an important one. There is often a price break where large quantities can be purchased for less unit cost. The temptation to dive straight in with a big order is great; the price is better after all... or is it?

Normally the best approach is to run enough production to satisfy the smallest possible requirement. If anything shows up in batch variation, manufacturability or durability then it is far more cost effective to sort this on a limited run rather than a full run. The alleged cost savings of the higher volume are quickly over shadowed by the added cost of any error – it does not matter whose fault or why, it is just a commercial reality from which there is no hiding.

3. Design team input

Your design team should have considerable experience in taking designs from the bench to successful large scale manufacture. Preferably this will cover everything from high volume, low budget to small volume high value. You can tap into this experience to assist in the decision making process for your specific needs.

Designers need to be pedantic in the detail as this is the substance of design. However, a practical approach is also required. The buyers of the parts and services required for manufacture will adhere to the designer's information. Good designers will respond as reasonable human beings and invite queries for alternative parts if some are elusive or on long lead times. Practical advice is also highly useful.

The manufacturing team may not be able to interpret everything from a stack of drawings and files. Communication between a helpful designer and “the factory” is a sure fire way to speed up the process and reduce costs. Assembly plants charge for throughput. If they are stuck and need to spend time resolving issues they may well have to charge extra. A quick call can save most, if not all of this cost.

Designers design circuits and products. Other people have to build them. It is the cohesion and communication between these skill sets that sets the tone for the future. Good designers know this and will support both you and the manufacturing team in the transfer to full scale production.

Posted by: Peter Hawkins on 24/01/12.

Image: Surachai / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

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