Spending on design up front can save you from long-term pain
By Bob Merriman
Many creators prioritize speed to market above all else, believing in the famous adage from movie Field of Dreams that “if you build it, they will come.” While getting product into the hands of customers should be a top priority, making sure that product lives up to your customers or crowdfunding backers expectations is just as important.
All too often, creators believe they have seen every angle and considered every option. This can lead down a path of dangerous decision making as it relates to product development.
Balance development with design
If you’re lucky enough to have technical development resources on your team, you’ve likely saved a lot of money on some of the costly, upfront engineering work that makes it so difficult to get hardware products to market. However, it may also mean that you’re allocating too little budget to your design.
Whether your electrical engineering resource is a contract company, co-founder, early employee, or even you yourself, there is a high likelihood that you’re considering that person’s compensation, or equity as the only cost you’ll need until you bring in some real money. Regardless of who is doing your initial design work, you should have some budget set aside for an independent design review.
Don’t stop there, though. You’ve no doubt have a vision of your product in your mind for quite some time, so there tends to be a little more engagement from creators when it comes to the physical design and appearance. However, creators tend to spend far less time actually thinking about how their product does what it’s intended to do.
Electronic, mechanical design considerations moving from prototype to production
An important caveat here is that this refers to your electronic design, e.g. the specific components you’ve selected for your product or the layout of these components on your printed circuit board (PCB). Mechanical design should also be a consideration, but mechanical design generally receives more attention from creators as it refers to the part of the product someone can physically see.
Too many creators settle for a solution that simply works, buckling under cash flow and timeline pressures, rather than searching for the right solution for the long-term. While getting a design that works may allow you to build a prototype and film a campaign video, that same design may not hold up against your cost expectations, or once you move into large scale manufacturing.
This can be a dangerous game to play as many hardware creators also tend to underestimate their true Cost of Goods Sold (COGS), meaning they have far less cash available than they think they will, even if their initial funding round or crowdfunding campaign is wildly successful. Rather than having to face the decision of paying for design work, and then not having enough cash to manufacture the products ordered, or manufacturing products you know to be suboptimal, it’s advisable to have a complete design review prior to launching your campaign.
Verify your bill of materials can scale
After designing and prototyping, the engineering resources on your team also needs knowledge of the components in your Bill of Materials (BOM). Sure, your product has a battery that works, but how many options were considered before you settled on the battery you plan to use? You’ve found a microcontroller (MCU) that works for your project, but did anyone investigate to see if that particular unit was marked End of Life (EOL) by its manufacturer, meaning that version will be supplanted with an update and will no longer be supported?
That may not seem like an issue now, but what happens when you’re ready for a second production run of 20,000 units to fulfill the plethora of orders you’ve received and there are only 5,000 parts available?
A thorough design review can not only help to ensure your BOM is optimized for supply, but it can also help you assess cost. Every penny counts in product development, so how nice would it be to be able to lower your electrical BOM price by 10%?
You’ve reviewed supply and cost. But now, are you absolutely sure you’re using the components that give you the best possible performance for your products features? If you’re using sensors to take readings, are there sensors with higher sampling rates that could give you higher resolution data, without increasing your BOM cost? There are dozens of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) out there making thousands of components so it’s hard for a startup team already multitasking to evaluate all the options on the market. A good design review will compare your BOM and required functionality, with all available options, to ensure you have the right components.
Design review helps you capture new
The final reason to consider an independent design review is also the most important. How your components are laid out on your printed circuit board (PCB), and where your PCB is placed in your device, matter a great deal. Many of today's connected products are using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to send and/or receive data wirelessly. This type of signal transmission requires the use of an antenna to transmit or receive data. Where that antenna is located can have a significant impact on the performance of those components.
While your prototype may have working Bluetooth, has someone with Bluetooth development experience reviewed the location of your Bluetooth module to ensure there is no signal interference? Has someone validated that your Bluetooth module will hold up, in its current location, as a machine places 5,000 of them onto PCBs? Or, are you assuming it will work, and hoping you don’t get emails from backers, complaining that the wireless transmission is spotty (or worse, not functioning at all)?
Spend now, save later
There’s an adage: spending $1 during product design saves you $10 during development and $100 or more after a product’s release. What would the plan be if you don’t have the capital to correct another problem and you can’t get a second cash infusion from new customers or investors until you do?
Rather than risking it, it’s recommended you invest in a design review up front, to ensure you’re launching your campaign with a product that’s been reviewed for optimal price and performance.
Spending the money in the early days may be painful, but the pain of having to halt a production run, disappointing backers, or investing much more than the initial cost to fix a problem down the road is far more painful.