Choosing the Right Manufacturing Partner is a Life or Death Decision… for Your Product!

Anyone that has managed or been a part of a hardware development program from the first concept to final mass manufactured product knows that the process is tough. There are all kinds of places during the development of a new hardware product where things can go sideways. There are a number of reasons for this. From my experience, though, there is no place more fraught with problems than the transition from design to manufacturing. This area is just difficult to navigate successfully. I have seen programs languish and die during this transition and never make it to market.

The transfer from design to manufacturing is where your product concept will leave the pristine world of CAD, and rough 3D printed mockups for the real world of mass production. There is no magic button to push to make this happen. Your product will be built the way you want it only by hard work and staying on top of every issue. If you think you will get lucky and things will just work out your way, the odds are not in your favor.

Understanding Your Manufacturing Partner

Many designers have a basic understanding of manufacturing. Most have not been to factories in other countries, seen production tooling for different types of materials, or know how every feature of their design will be produced. I was one of those designers. I thought I knew way more than I did. That overconfidence, coupled with my desire to get exactly the design I wanted was a recipe for trouble. (On the flip side, many manufacturers know little about the creative design process and why designers do what they do.)

During the thirty years as a design consultant, I have seen the results that the lack of understanding between designers and manufacturer can cause. Because mass production manufacturing is the last stage in the process, it is where the problems surface. Unfortunately, it is also the place where the least options are available for solutions. Here is just a short list of problems that have come across my desk. You may have seen these as well.

· Drastic changes required to a design by the manufacturer

· Parts that have horrible aesthetic quality and can’t be fixed

· Parts that break

· Parts that cost 3X to 4X more than estimated

· Massive delays and crucial deadlines missed

· Poor performance of parts

· Nonfunctioning parts

· Catastrophic failures

· Teams that don’t get along and point fingers at each other

· Breakdowns in communication

· Design changes once final DFM and manufacturing have already begun

· Parts built from incorrect databases

· Assemblies that cannot be built as designed

· Designs that are too loud or have unpleasant sounds

· Designs that overheat

· Design with unsightly injection mold flow lines, sink marks, gate issues, and surface blemishes

· Sourcing problems

· Misc. manufacturing problems that never get fully resolved and end up killing the product

It can take years to be an experienced designer, and then you have to learn all about manufacturing every type of material out there too? It might take an entire career to learn even the basics. That is the point though; no one can know all this information and avoid all the problems.

There are some things which are learnable, right now, for everybody, that will significantly improve the success in moving your product design through the manufacturing process. The first thing to do is find manufacturing partners and program managers that are proven experts at what you want to do and listen to them. The hard part here is finding the right partners for your program and listening to them!

Don’t Wait Until the Last Minute to Research and Vet Your Manufacturing Partners

The time to research manufacturers for your product development program is long before you need them to start. Ideally, it would help if you have a team already in place before you start your design program. That way, you can interview them, go to their facility, look at programs they have completed and see if they have the same values, quality, and performance that you have. If you wait until the last minute, stress and deadlines will affect the decision-making process. You may not have the time to do the above steps.

Don’t Shop Around for the Lowest Price at the Expenses of Quality

If you are finding that manufacturing costs are more than you would like them to be, and you can’t afford to absorb the higher cost until your volume rises and costs come down, think about removing features or redesigning the product to make it less complicated to build. If you push the limits of manufacturing, just expect that it will cost more and take longer to manufacture. Even the features you see on current products may be difficult or costly for you to manufacture. Every program is different, and every manufacturer has different capabilities.

The worst thing to do is beat the manufacturers down in price on a complicated design. Most likely quality will suffer and worst yet in areas you don’t notice, but your customers do. Shifting from one manufacturer to another during the process, prototypes in one house, EVT in another and DVT in still another requires that each manufacturer get up to speed and make DFM changes for their specific process. This adds time and often frustration. Avoid it if you can.

Don’t Make Changes After the Production Manufacturing Process has Begun

Design is nimble, and manufacturing is like a slow-moving supertanker. A simple change can cause huge problems in the manufacturing process. Adding or removing features during the manufacturing process is costly and causes big time delays. Take the time in the design process to prove out the design. Make sure it has the features your customers want, none of the features they don’t want and test it sufficiently to make sure it performs exactly as you want. Make all your changes prior to your DVT build. If you are making changes in DVT, you are really still in EVT.

I have been working with the team at PopFoam for many years, and the relationship was built, in part using the advice above. The process we follow has allowed us to manufacture high-quality, innovative product designs. If this is the type of relationship you want with your manufacturers and you think PopFoam’s injection-molded EVA foam is the solution for your next design challenge, download our design guide. PopFoam’s manufacturing experts can guide you through the process of moving your design to manufacturing, so it becomes the success you have envisioned!