Posted on 18 Dec, 2014 by Russell Poppe
The new product design you have been working on for what seems like a lifetime has finally been signed off. All of the market research you have conducted so far suggests it will become an overnight success. Indeed, your sales team already have a backlog of new orders and your existing clients can’t wait to upgrade their old hardware to your new, shiny, feature-laden version. Sounds fantastic doesn’t it? I guess all you need to do now is ask your Contract Electronics Manufacturer (CEM) to start producing some units.
When it comes to outsourcing the manufacture of something new, however, there are a few extra considerations above those required for a more mature or proven product. At this critical point in the lifecycle stage, it can be tempting to try and jump the queue and rush the prototype build, in pursuit of having your product out in the field, or on the shelves, before the competition or, given the time of writing, Christmas.
However, unless you plan to spend the New Year brushing up on your ‘customer service’ skills or thoroughly testing out your returns procedure, here’s seven suggestions on how not to rush the outsourcing process and guarantee your new product introduction runs smoothly:
- Timescales: Take time to put together a realistic project plan with the help of your development team and your CEM provider. However much you prepare you should always expect the unexpected, so allow as much flexibility as you can. Make sure that you communicate your plan throughout your organisation. You may need support or resources from other departments which will need to be planned into your organisation’s existing workloads and projects.
- Information. Your Electronics Manufacturing Services (EMS) partner will want to verify the data you have sent them and may challenge you on areas of the build pack that they feel warrant further clarity. That’s not a bad thing; though it might feel like it sometimes. To avoid unnecessary delays in answering questions, you need to be clear which member of your development team will be responsible for supporting and resolving these issues as they arise.
- Batch sizes. The traditional approach is to make a small number of prototypes, have at least one ‘pre-production’ or pilot build, then gradually ramp up to full production volumes. However, you need to ensure that you have enough prototypes for your development team to evaluate, for approvals testing, for key customers to look at, for trade shows, test development, and your EMS provider to develop production processes. With all that in mind, you may need more than you originally estimated.
- Tooling. You need to consider how much to invest in tooling and ‘non-recurring engineering’ (NRE) charges for the prototype build. Find out from your EMS partner what your options are and how the costs compare to your original budget. From a manufacturing perspective, it is logical to make prototypes using a process as close as possible to the full volume build process, but this may mean updating tooling if the design changes.
- New Product Introduction (NPI). Take another look at your CEM provider’s NPI processes to reassure yourself that they will catch any build issues and report them back to you clearly, and in good time, so they can be fixed for the next batch. Ensure your engineers are still engaged with the project as, quite often, changes will be required. Depending on the complexity of your product, and where you are in the project plan, you may feel there is benefit in you and/or your team visiting your EMS provider’s factory to oversee some of the production stages. Generally, EMS providers welcome this collaborative approach as it can help reduce delays in resolving any issues that arise and also strengthens ongoing relationships.
- Design changes. Following the initial NPI build you may need to tweak your design, and have another prototype built afterwards. Changes could arise because the product doesn’t quite work as it should, is difficult to manufacture, or fails the approvals process, such as, UL or CE marking. A common pitfall is to get stuck with a design that is inefficient to manufacture because it is too costly to go through the approvals process again. It’s recommended that you involve your contract manufacturer in building prototypes as early as possible. Better still, get them to check over your designs before buying the materials to avoid costly oversights. If you are subcontracting any of the design or testing, ensure you have defined and agreed a ‘statement of work’, so that responsibilities and deliverables are clear.
- Test. It’s a surreal experience when a prototype works perfectly first time, but unfortunately it doesn’t happen very often. Sorting out early design ‘features’ can be challenging enough, and too much precious time is often lost hunting down design issues that turn out to be manufacturing defects. Consider at least a basic ‘manufacturing defects’ test from the start - for example, AOI or flying probe - as it is often a very wise investment even if the design changes and the test needs updating a little later.
Witnessing a new design coming to life after months, if not years, of blood, sweat and coffee breaks can be an emotional rollercoaster. Along the way there will be highs and lows; a real sense of fear at times mixed with exhilaration. However, by considering the points above, and by selecting an EMS provider with demonstrable experience in helping Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) bring new products to market, you can remain in control of the experience.
So, what will it be? Cover your eyes, unbuckle your harness and live life on the edge, or slow the pace down a little for a more ‘relaxed’ and predictable ride? Whichever route you take, make sure it has enough appeal to make you want to jump straight back on and do it (designing that is) all over again!
Image by Ars Electronica