In a time of the internet of things, those “things” still need to be made.
The step from prototyping to manufacturing is the toughest part for a hardware startup. Many young companies don’t survive a miscalculation of time or cost in the manufacturing process. If you know nothing about it, you probably don’t know where to start. If you are somewhat familiar, you are overwhelmed by the many moving parts. If you are in the middle of the process, you are probably drinking wine.
Know nothing about manufacturing? In the past year, we’ve visited factories in the U.S. and China and learned a ton. This is your 101.
Design for Manufacturability
Sadly, most prototypes are designed for quick testing, not manufacturing. In other words, you can’t just take a prototype and manufacture thousands of them and expect things to go off without a hitch. Design for Manufacturability (DFM) is simply the (long, arduous) process of designing something to be easily manufactured at scale. This is when you begin figuring out capabilities of industrial machines, the different processes you can use to make your product, and the ways in which you will need to tailor your product design in order to be made by these machines. While there are a number of different manufacturing processes, most parts are made using a process called injection molding. For that, you need to know about tooling.
The largest fixed and upfront cost comes from tooling. This is a mold for all the parts of your product and it is made specifically for you. Depending on what you are making, your product could have a number of different tools for a variety of materials including plastics, metals and glass. The price of tools can vary a lot, but a simple injection mold averages around $6.5K in China and takes about 6–8 weeks of lead time to make. Before any runs actually start, your tooling needs to be made and paid for. You really don’t want to mess this part up because if you run 500 units and realize your tooling is wrong, those are 500 lost units and you will need to pay for a new mold.
Most factories focus on one specific type of manufacturing, like metal, PCBs or plastics. Some of the larger factories, however, may be able to help you with multiple parts of the manufacturing process. While it may seem at first that finding a single factory that can be a one stop shop will be most ideal, make sure you do your homework! If there is a factory that only specializes in electronics manufacturing and nothing else, chances are they will supply you with a quality product. Factories that have newly expanded to different types of manufacturing may be just as good, but come prepared knowing what questions you need to ask in order to ensure they are the right factory for you. It takes a lot to make a product, so no matter what, you can anticipate needing to work with more than one factory. With parts here, there and everywhere, you will need to keep on top of how everything will ultimately make it into your customer’s hands. This is the supply chain!
Supply Chain Management
Know where your stuff is and where it’s going. Supply chain management is a systemic approach to managing the entire supply chain from raw material suppliers through factories and warehouses to the end-customers. Someone who loves spreadsheets and pays very close attention to details should be in charge of this! Apple is known for rocking at this and their products deliver on time and customers are virtually always happy. Knowing where every single neo-pixel is at all times sounds like overkill, but is actually essential.
You can find factories in the United States and around the world, still 90% of the world’s consumer electronics are made in China’s Shenzhen and Dongguan regions. Trust is key in China, so before you bombard factories with product specs, the owner will want to take you to dinner and just talk. There are a lot of cultural differences in China, you will need to learn to setup your documentation in a way that fits their expectation. It is still the most cost effective setup to source materials & assemble in China. However, Chinese factories generally want to work with runs of 5,000 units and up.
To get started, consider manufacturing locally–while it will be higher in price, the time saved on communication and travel will make up for it. There will be issues no matter where you manufacture, and you will be able to find and fix them faster in the same time zone and without language and cultural barriers. Is a wire too long? Are the ribbons on your package too small? You can sort this problem with a 5 minute call rather than waiting 24 hours to reach a manufacturer in a different time zone. Many US based manufacturers are also willing to take smaller runs, this will allow you to really nail your manufacturing process and supply chain before deciding where to go for mass production.
The moral of the story is that manufacturing is a huge process. Educate yourself on the basics, and then consider reaching out to large scale manufacturing companies like PCH Internationaland Dragon Innovation. They can guide you through the process and help you avoid miscalculations. You can also reach out to me, I’m happy to help or point you in the right direction.