Part 3: I Have a Prototype and Some Money – How to Scale from Small to Large-Volume Production
In a podcast conducted with Electronic Product News, Robert Webber, Field Applications Engineer at Harwin, discussed how to build a ‘proof of concept’ (POC) prototype and then tackled the question of where to get funding. Now comes the third stage – production. “Going from a proof-of-concept to something that could be manufactured in volume presents a lot of challenges,” says Robert. While this may not be news to you, it is important to understand the scale of the task ahead.
The initial step, suggests Robert, will be to go about customising your product. The idea of a custom PCB or circuit board is to integrate everything onto one board, in the most efficient way possible. While it is possible to use an open-source hardware module from, for example, Arduino for small-volume production, it isn’t the most economical of approaches. A custom board can be optimised for power consumption, size, shape, specific functionality, security and cost. Beware of customising too much, however, as Robert cautions: “The more of that you do… the more expensive it’s going to be.”
Whether you subcontracted the design at the prototype stage or decide to sub it out at this point, choose an electronic manufacturing services (EMS) provider carefully. Among the questions to ask are what experience they have with relevant technologies, what in-house support can be expected and what contacts they have. Notably, some EMS providers’ business models are geared up for attending to low-volume requirements, thereby offering the flexibility and agility needed during the early stages. To complement this, they may have relationships with large-scale manufacturing partners and be able to help with the handing over of required design files and test procedures, after they have created and tested the design. A truly engaged EMS provider will not only optimise your PCB layout but will help reduce your design iterations, advise you on component selection (ensuring you avoid choices that are near end-of-life) and realise economies of scale with other builds.
In the podcast, Robert uses the example of a drone incorporating air-quality measuring equipment, and points out that the core objective of a custom design would be to minimise its size and weight, in order to save on manufacturing costs as well as maximising its time in the air. This will also have an impact on product shipments; the smaller and lighter the device, the smaller and less costly the enclosure and retail packaging will be.
The previous point brings us smartly onto the subject of retail packaging, the design of which is now almost as important as the device itself. Robert, who previously worked for Sony’s TV manufacturing department, notes the amount of effort the company put into the customer experience of unpacking a new TV: “They made sure that it was given just as much care and attention as the device itself. And that’s the way that the market has gone now, for all consumer off-the-shelf products.”
Retail packaging, the instruction manual, even accompanying software and channels to market are, as Robert notes, occasionally left until the last minute. He warns that it is easy to get drawn into the technical specification of a product and ignore other equally important aspects. Once you have the outline product and the money, your objective is to get to market as quickly as possible – and therefore you’ll need to co-ordinate these processes so that they happen in parallel to design and mass production, rather than at a later stage.