Is Your Prototype Ready for Production?
Peter Heuss, P.Eng.
Co-Founder, Berlin KraftWorks Inc.
You’ve created a working design, the next step is to start production, right? The simple answer is unfortunately, no.
Building more than one of anything effectively and efficiently is completely different than building just one. That’s a sweeping statement, but there’s a lot to consider in planning your production. By assuming that you can simply duplicate your initial builds can lead to costly delays, significantly higher manufacturing costs, more frequent redesign, and often considerable post sale costs due to warranty and service issues.
Building one or two units of a new product to prove out a concept is a necessary step in new product development. These first builds, or proof of concepts, help to prove that the idea is viable, can theoretically meet the business goals , and should be developed further. They allow for testing the concepts before spending any significant time and resources on engineering and manufacturing. However, those first units are typically hand crafted, often by the engineers/designers themselves, using whatever parts can be found quickly. Taking great care to make and fit parts, they test out functionality and tweak the design to work and hence, these first builds require a great deal of time and skilled labour to build and commission. Once the first builds are complete, there is a lot more work to do before the product is ready to be built in any volume.
There are a host of considerations that go into a production ready design based around being able to provide a consistent, high-quality product at volume. The business plan will help identify the quantity of units that need to be produced and when. It should also outline the expected cost (profit) goals that will help determine what can and cannot be considered in production.
Custom and Fabricated Parts
Most products are going to be a mix of custom fabricated and purchased parts. If you don’t consider how the custom parts are made, you can design parts that are difficult, expensive, or even impossible to make. You need to select your fabricators and work with them to ensure the designs work for their equipment, tooling, and processes. You can craft a lot of things by hand that can not be made cost effectively in production. Ramping up production over time may also require a series of different designs to suit different manufacturing methods. Machining vs. injection moulding a plastic part is a prime example, you have to consider when does the extra capital cost for moulds make budgetary sense for your unique product.
Additive manufacturing allows designers to get hands-on examples quickly and can be a great development tool. However, 3D printing is currently not a cost-effective process for volume parts and often produces a part that is significantly weaker with poorer surface finishes than other lower cost production options. 3D printing also allows you to create features that aren’t practical, or impossible, to make with other fabrication techniques which will lead to part redesign.
Building Supply Chain Simultaneously with Product Design
Supply chain frequently gets overlooked in the early development. However, sourcing the correct parts from reliable vendors that can be supplied at a reasonable price and in the quantities required throughout the lifetime of a product is critical. Not being able to secure a single chip for example, can mean a PCB can’t be assembled which can delay the entire build and a purchased part that gets discontinued can mean a lot of part redesign to accommodate an alternative.
Logistics and regional requirements can greatly affect your design. If your product contains batteries for instance, there will be special considerations on how you package and ship your product. There are some jurisdictions that will require information on where all of the parts were made and assembled, and that can affect shipping and sales.
It’s crucial that you develop your supply chain as part of the design process (not as a separate activity). Developing your supply chain in collaboration with your product design rather than one after the other not only improves your product design and delivery, but speeds up your time to market. This is a huge topic and we will dive into it further in a future post.
Probably the highest cost of most products will be the assembly. It can also be where the most variability is added to the final product. At the end of the day, every finished product should be as close to identical to the rest as possible, consistency is paramount. Assembly must be as simple and as quick as possible to insure the lowest cost with the fewest quality issues.
The first builds take a great deal of time, skilled labour can do anything with enough time and money, but that’s not the goal behind production. Production has to be the repeated building at the lowest cost to meet the sales requirements (business case).
To optimize assembly, you have to look at each assembly step and ensure that it can be done as simply, safely and as quickly as possible. Parts need to align well without extra effort, tooling should be easy to use and fastening should be common throughout whenever possible. The entire process must be well documented allowing consistent training and the development of quality control standards.
When you have a product idea that can go to production you need to go through the entire DFx process - design for manufacturing, design for assembly, design for test, design for supply chain, design for service before it is truly ready to be made in any volume. Moving from a prototype into production is not a simple journey to navigate and it takes skill sets that are specific to new production introduction. Most companies will need some external support to do it well and efficiently and it’s well worth seeking input early in the process.
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