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Designing Hardware is Hard


We often work with inexperienced teams at startup companies, and we try to advise them about not only the product design work that we do, but the manufacturing as well. The process of transferring designs to manufacturing is not simple, just like the process of designing a product is not simple. There are many things that have to go right in order to be successful. Failure in only one stage of the process can be expensive or can even threaten a startup company’s existence.

Many people, including many engineers, think of product design like Edison tinkering in his lab to invent something. Early phases of design are often like this, but most of designing is the process of creating documentation so a contract manufacturer can build the product. We must meet a schedule and a budget while designing and documenting a product that has not been built before. Even if the prototype works fine, if we don’t do high-quality documentation, the manufacturer may have trouble building the product.

First Shipment from Chinese Contract Manufacturer

There are true stories about small firms that got their first shipment of their product from a contract manufacturer in China. When they checked out the product, they found it did not work. At that point, they were faced with difficult choices:

  1. Send perhaps a cargo container full of product back to China for repair, which is slow
  2. Repair the devices in the US, which is expensive
  3. Throw away the product and start a new batch. The lost time and money from one manufacturing problem like this can be larger than the entire cost of developing the product.

How to Avoid These Scenarios

There are well-known strategies that can be implemented to avoid these kinds of problems. The documentation must be complete and accurate. If a part is to be purchased and installed in the product, it must have a complete part number, and sometimes there should be an alternate source specified. Some products need carefully written assembly instructions. They must be written so a non-technical person who does not know English very well can follow them easily.

When designing a product, the designer must take into account that all the parts will not be exactly the same. There is variation from part to part. The product must work well with any of these parts. Making one prototype that works properly is not enough. Calculations must be done to verify the product will work with any combination of parts.

Each contract manufacturer has specific requirements that make it easier for them to make the product. These are requirements that need to be included in the design. Electronic products need to be tested before they are sent to customers. The design company needs to work with the contract manufacturer to decide how the product will be tested and to design in ways to test it adequately. This is called Design for Test (DfT). Failing to follow these steps thoroughly has caused companies serious loss of money and market share.

Highly Successful Engineering Design Projects

There are other strategies, such as Design for Reliability (DrR), which are important as well. The product must be tested over the temperature range, humidity, altitude, and mechanical shock (such as dropping it) to which it will be subjected in normal use.

Voler Experienced in Transferring Designs into Manufacturing

With careful design and transfer to manufacturing, you can have highly successful product launches and smooth production. As an example, we recently designed a consumer product that went quickly into volume production. In less than six months, they made 500,000 units. There were only 500 that didn’t work (0.1% failure rate). It is crucial to work with experienced designers who know how to transfer a product into production and to select a manufacturer that can build the product well.

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