‘Hold on a minute – I’ll just use my Apple Newton to take a message.’
Not something you hear every day. In fact it was never something you were likely to hear because the Apple Newton, an early Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) device which was launched in 1993, didn’t sell. A combination of factors, some of which included its high price and early software problems that hampered the handwriting-recognition feature, prevented it from ever gaining acceptance or popularity.
So it’s true – even Apple can fail at New Product Introduction (NPI). Google has suffered many relative failures too – Google Glass was a flop and Google Hangouts was adopted by some but not by the many, as with the majority of its other services. They could’ve been, they should’ve been – but ultimately, they weren’t.
There are several important things for tech entrepreneurs and visionaries to take into account as they stand on the edge of this exciting and challenging phase of the production process.
High Stakes NPI
When you’re a trillion dollar company you can afford a few mishaps and the occasional bad decision, but what happens to those tech start-ups who have already gone from idea to prototype but fail to introduce their products correctly? An NPI failure at this level usually means the company collapses and everybody down the line – entrepreneurs, angels, crowd-funders and, sadly, employees too – all lose their investment and maybe even their livelihoods.
It’s important to remember that NPI is a very high-stakes part of the process and it’s absolutely critical to get this right. It’s invaluable to have an experienced manufacturing partner who will typically introduce several hundred prototypes into production every year, to advise you through the process, as there’s many steps that go into successfully launching a new piece of hardware. This can range from schematics, prototyping and sourcing, all the way to mapping quality processes and returns processes. As we’ll see, the NPI process is arguably one of the most crucial elements of electronics manufacturing and possibly the most challenging and complex one. That’s why we are committed to providing our customers with a smooth transition from design phase to manufacturing and finally out to market.
Return to prototyping
‘We’re done with this. We need to be first to market!’ Of course you do, but are you sure the product will be accepted? Is that what Apple said about the Newton? Perhaps it’s worth getting a few more people to try them out…just to be certain?
Nobody likes to second-guess themselves too much, but the more people you test your product out on, the more you’ll see them interacting with it in ways that you never thought possible. Watching a user try to destroy your product can actually be very satisfying – especially if they succeed (sounds counterintuitive but it will give you the chance to rectify a problem). You may learn more in a few minutes of observing someone interact with your product than in the years you spent in building and developing it.
Don’t Rush – speed to market isn’t everything
It’s important to remember that consumers and businesses are now more hungry than ever for new electronics that are lighter, faster, smarter and more connected, and you’re always competing with other manufacturers to introduce new technology. However, whilst staying competitive is key, a race to failure is not one you want to win. Lead times are constantly being squeezed in the race to produce market-first products. This poses a big challenge where NPI engineers have to develop tighter than ever controls and processes in order to deliver products which not only satisfy quality, function and robustness, but also deliver speed to market.
Take DfM (Design for Manufacture) seriously
Your prototype might be functional and working, and it might even be manufacturable, but has it been optimised for volume manufacturing, especially if there’s a sudden, high take-up? If your demand curve takes on a ‘shark fin profile’ will your prototypes work within a high-volume manufacturing environment? That’s the crucial test.
DfM is the practice of designing products with the manufacturing process in mind, choosing the best processes, materials and components. DfM addresses this by asking designers to consider not what could be created, but what should be created. For example, have you minimised the use of new ‘active parts’ in favour of standardised, widely available components, as the design of a new part is usually only the best option from a purely inventive design point of view. 3D printing/additive manufacturing techniques are invaluable in the prototyping stages, but are the tolerances too wide for volume production? Are components being selected that come in machine-friendly formats for fully automated processes?
When a customer involves us early they can optimise the product properly using DfM principles. It’s worth remembering that decisions made during the design phase determine 70% of the product’s final cost.
Don’t overlook the supply chain
Product design engineers sometimes struggle to see beyond the immediate prototype or small-batch production stages. We see them focussing on functions and components, which is obviously very important but without fully understanding the challenges of obtaining some of these parts, especially at the moment with some components like MLCC (Multi Layer Ceramic Capacitors) in short supply. Even the most perfectly designed electronics assembly, presenting zero fabrication, regulatory or inspection issues, can create critical delays and costly substitutions if components are not sustainably available. It’s essential to conduct an availability analysis to determine how easily parts can be obtained as well as their cost. At this point, any potential issues identified in the supply chain can be addressed. Having access to BOM management tools that will identify parts in short supply and suggest alternatives is where an EMS partner can add significant value.
Accept that your designs may need to change
We are sometimes presented with a shiny new prototype and asked for the costs of volumising production. It might be the best design in the world but it remains a difficult question to accurately answer because the prototype may still need to change.
New product designs typically go through two building verification phases: engineering verification and design verification. The initial engineering verification is how we test the inner workings, especially of printed circuit boards (PCBs). Once the initial PCBs are validated, additional testing systems are employed as we extend the testing into areas including durability, safety, and reliability. The next build, design verification, will be much closer to how the finished product will look. It’s important that start-ups remain open to product evolutions throughout the NPI process.
The Chemigraphic difference
While NPI is exciting and rewarding we’ve seen that products can fail at this stage if great care isn’t taken to get things right before the green light is pushed. The importance of having a skilled manufacturing partner at your side cannot be overstated. By engaging with customers early on in the design process, we can optimise product designs to reduce cost, make processes more robust and aid the transition through the prototype and production phases.
Our NPI early engagement and engineering team collaborates regularly with our customers on all aspects of design, component sourcing, assembly and test to create an optimal package. If you want to see a good example of our NPI process in action, see here.