Getting a new product successfully into mass production, so that it is manufactured on time, in high volume, with high quality, and at a reasonable cost, is a substantial challenge. Even when done correctly, it requires a significant amount of time and money. Frequently, a startup will barely have the resources to do this once, let alone having to repeat or redo several major steps. Getting it right the first time is critical.
It often happens that the biggest challenges occur not through failure to design or build properly, but from inadequate planning and organization resulting in the need to redesign products, change factories, or scrap material. These challenges can be minimized with realistic planning, taking into account the different stages of the product lifecycle from the manufacturing point of view.
The Product Manufacturing Lifecycle Overview covers the most important activities that take place and the pertinent issues to address in your planning. Please note that this is a high level overview and in future posts we will expand upon each stage accordingly.
With the assumption that one has developed a functional looks like/works like prototype, the follow-on activities can be roughly broken out into five stages:
- Product design and engineering
- Getting ready for production
- Mass production
- Updating, maintaining, and improving the product during mass production
- Product end of life
Product Design and Engineering
The outcome of this process should be a set of design documents which can include PCB board layouts, CAD drawings, part specifications, and firmware that are complete enough for manufacturing (often much more detailed than you might assume), describing a product that can be sold, and that can be built at a reasonable cost with a sufficiently high level of quality and reliability to satisfy the customers. Proving the capability and quality of the product with prototypes at this point is often vital.
Problems or errors in the product development process will have an inordinately negative impact later on in the process - this step has to be done right, or you will spend a lot time and money later trying to recover. For example, if after molds have been cut and prototyping started, a part is found to have a problem so serious that a new mold is required, then a delay of 4-8 weeks and a significant additional expenditure may be required to cut the new mold and prove out the new parts.
Getting Ready for Production
There are two steps in the process of getting a product ready for production:
- The ‘Request for Quote’ (RFQ) process
- The ‘Introduction to Manufacturing’ process
During an ideal RFQ process, competitive bidding is conducted among a group of candidate contract manufacturers (CMs), who compete on the grounds of cost and schedule, in addition to other considerations such as contractual terms and warranties.
Keep in mind that when selecting a manufacturing partner you are committing to a long term relationship that has to be profitable for both parties, and that, like a marriage, it can be time-consuming and expensive to deal with should you change your mind.
One important step is the negotiation of a detailed contract (The Manufacturing Services Agreement / MSA) that covers all eventualities so both parties understand what is expected of them, and that each feels that its interests are protected.
Introduction to Manufacturing
During this process, the following key steps take place:
- The design documentation is transferred and reviewed.
- Tools, dies, and other fixtures are manufactured.
- Multiple rounds of production intent prototypes are built and tested.
- The product is tested and certified to the required regulatory standards.
- Test procedures and fixtures, and quality control plans, are developed and tested on the prototypes.
- The assembly line is set up, work instructions are created, and the workers are trained.
- A pilot run of perhaps 1,000 units are built with the assembly line to prove out the manufacturing process.
It is very important that you do not move on to the next step, mass production, until all non-trivial problems are solved, or you will merely be mass-producing trouble and expense.
It might seem that after all of the hard work of product development and introduction of the product design to the factory, that mass production should be simple and straightforward, but in reality it can be quite challenging. Forecasting, planning, and committing to the levels of production needed to satisfy demand for the product can be complex given key constraints such as:
- The factory is limited in how fast it can increase the production rate
- The factory is most efficient when it operates at a steady pace
- The lead time to buy material, build and test the product, and ship it to you, may be significant
- Demand for your product may be hard to forecast
- You have to pay for the manufactured product long before your end customer pays you, and this level of capital investment has to be carried by you
- You are likely to experience quality issues that can delay your production
Updating, Maintaining, and Improving the Product
While the product is in mass production, there will be times when you will need to make changes to the product. Changes that would have been made easily during development will become high risk activities during mass production due to the chance of shipping bad product in high volume.
Even a successful engineering change will have to disposition obsolete material, buy and stock new material, change procedures, train workers, along with retesting and validations, etc., all of which requires careful planning.
All products will eventually become obsolete and you will have to end production. This needs to be done carefully to avoid having to discard or destroy excess material that could have otherwise been utilized with proper planning. You might also need a last production run of spare parts to support customers during the remaining life of the product.
Teams often believe they have overcome the major hurdles by getting the technology to actually work and raise enough money to start production. Companies that do not underestimate the challenges of each of the phases, will more quickly launch with higher quality and less expensive products. In future posts, we'll provide additional details on how to address these complexities.
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