You are part of a new breed of entrepreneur: the startup generation who takes workhorse ideas and turns them into unicorns. Through your ideas, we are seeing manufactured products that are changing the world – from miniature drones to solar-powered water heaters to smart earplugs.
Now these products don’t just materialize. They take hard work, design expertise, multiple prototypes, and testing before you can even think about commercialization.
So how do the pros do it? Once your idea is complete on paper, what are the next steps for creating a functional prototype and commercial product without relying on “Shark Tank”-style funding? Here’s how:
Lock-in Your Prototype and Materials
Once you have an approved design file, you will want to create your first physical prototypes for testing. This helps minimize or potentially eliminate design flaws, quality issues, and other risks by optimizing your design prior to production.
Some entrepreneurs consider skipping the prototyping phase because of the upfront cost and time required, but this is a bad move. Without prototyping and testing prior to launch, promising products can fall victim to poor usability and design. Furthermore, prototyping is often crucial to lock in the design for manufacturability. Skipping this step could mean that undiscovered problems remain hidden until it is too late and addressing them would prove too expensive and delay the product’s launch.
A number of methods can be used to create prototype parts, including modeling, 3D printing, CNC machining, and rapid injection molding. Each method serves a distinct purpose. Some help make very early prototyping concept models to test form, fit and function, others can make short-run production that bridges the prototype-to-production gap easier, and some are best saved for manufacturing finished parts.
You may use multiple methods before you get to your end product. Understanding how and why you use each method will improve your design and save time in the process:
Depending on your product, you might create a physical working scale model, an appearance model, or a computer-based virtual model. This is most common for testing aspects of a product against user requirements or base functionality.
Additive manufacturing works well for intricate designs and multipart assemblies. Four primary methods include stereolithography (SL) for thermoplastic-like parts; selective laser sintering (SLS) for industrial-grade nylon components; fused deposition modeling (FDM) for extrusion-based thermoplastic parts; and direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) for dense metal production. 3D printing is ideal for rapid prototyping and testing, and it accelerates development because it does not require the creation of molds. In some instances, 3D printing can also be used to build small quantities of functional, end-use parts.
Milling and turning parts are subtractive manufacturing processes. It is ideal for form and fit testing, functional testing, and end-use parts. It is also a good approach for making jigs and fixtures when you are ready to tool up for production. CNC machines are compatible with many different plastic and metal materials so you can often create prototypes in the actual materials you would use for the end product.
Molds, in addition to high-volume production, can be used for functional prototyping, bridge tooling, and low- and high-volume end-use parts. By using aluminum tooling, tens of thousands of parts can be made from hundreds of different materials, whether they are thermoplastic resins, liquid silicone rubber, or metal. This flexibility makes injection molding an ideal solution for low-volume production once a product has been tested and has a final design.
A good manufacturing partner will be able to look at your designs and offer advice on design modifications for better production efficiencies, as well as offer ideas on the best materials and methods.
Compare Costs and Keep Things Local
When looking for a manufacturing partner, most entrepreneurs assume that it is cheapest to look to China. And they would be right if volumes are very high and “per unit” costs are the most important aspect of your upfront costs. However, they are not and here’s why:
Be Realistic About Your Volumes
When starting out, entrepreneurs can lose sight of the market and potential sales in the excitement of the product launch. Before deciding on a first production run volume, take certain factors into consideration, like sales cycles, inventory costs, and production speed. Do not be pressured into ordering too much too soon because of volume pricing. Consider a prototyping partner or on-demand manufacturing that can do your first, short-run manufacturing to reduce upfront financial and design risks.
Know Your Total Costs
Most traditional manufacturers that use steel tooling have high minimum-order volumes – often many more than you will need for a first run, and probably even more that you will need in the first two years. To understand your true costs, you need to calculate total production costs (TPC) based on actual order volume. TPC takes into account the cost of tooling, physical units, shipping, inventory/storage, potential write-offs, etc. In many cases, a cheaper “per unit” cost that requires a high mold cost and high order volume can lead to a higher TPC, which is a poor financial move at the outset when demand is unpredictable.
Explore Crowdfunding or Apply for Grants
Many early-stage businesses have had success funding production manufacturing with a Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign, but it is also worth exploring grants and other partnerships with established manufacturers. At Proto Labs we offer a service grant called the Cool Idea! Award, which helps promising startups manufacture prototypes or even kick off production. These alternative funding methods can also spark product interest and help you analyze market demand.
Do Some Comparison Shopping
Take prototyping services and support into consideration, and look at material availability and overall costs along with the ability to do small runs at competitive pricing. Look for a true partner that can support you through each phase of your product life cycle, not just the one you hope to be with two years from now if everything goes gangbusters.
Get Early Design Feedback
The way to prototype efficiently and cost-effectively is to find a manufacturing partner that will provide you with manufacturability analysis and feedback early and often during the prototyping phase so the process is efficient and affordable.
Get Some Good Advice
When you have your first working prototypes in hand, you want solid, truthful advice on what will make it a best seller. Does it work as expected and have the price right? How do we create rapid demand on par with the latest Fitbit or hoverboard?
Do not be afraid to listen to others, whether it is your manufacturing partner, your investors, your marketing team, or your prospective customers. Chances are that many of these teams, and even some of your employees, have been through this before, and they have perspective on factors of the business that might be new to you.
Test with Actual Customers
It is easy to test products with friends and family members, but entrepreneurs often forget that this is a biased audience. No matter how they feel about a product, they are unlikely to give you a completely honest opinion. If you’ve seen the show “All-American Makers,” you know that they bring in unbiased potential buyers to test products and discuss price points. You should do the same.
Tap into Social Media
To get a lot of opinions in a short period of time, test the social media waters. Whether it is through a crowdfunding campaign or just asking your local neighborhood group to test your products out, you can get more data, more quickly by leveraging your social networks.
After you have found the right manufacturing partner, created cost-effective prototypes, and tested your approved design with stakeholders to refine your new product, you are finally ready to go to market. Congratulations – you made it through phase one of creating a new product!