Developing a hardware need to read this!

If you are in the process of developing a hardware product or planning on developing one, you need to know about DFM, three little letters that can cause a world of hurt. For those of you who don’t know what they stand for, it is design for manufacture. But what it actually means for your specific product and how to do it successfully can take decades to learn and a whole book to explain. There are lots of designers and engineers that talk about designing for manufacturing, but to fully understand how to successfully design your product and then transition to manufacturing requires in-depth knowledge and experience of BOTH design and manufacturing. And ideally you have gone through the design and manufacturing process a lot of times. You see, it is rare that you run into the same problems on every program. Having exposure to many different types of product development programs can help in knowing what problems may arise. And there are literally hundreds of ways your product can hit the skids once it reaches manufacturing. We have seen all of the following occur:

·         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

·         Non functioning parts

·         Catastrophic failures

·         Teams that don’t get along and point blame for problems

·         Breakdowns in communication

·         Design changes once final DFM and manufacturing have already begun

·         Parts built from incorrect databases or down rev. designs

·         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

·         Manufacturing problems that never get fully resolved and end up killing the product

And the list goes on and on. With all this attention to designing for manufacture these days, how come all these problems still exist? Well, here are five things we have found that it pays to watch out for during your design for manufacturing program:

·         Don’t underestimate the difficulties of product development. For one thing, hardware design is, hard. It can seem simple enough; after all it’s just hardware. But that is where one of the problems happens, thinking that the risks are less than they actually are / underestimating potential issues and taking shortcuts in engineering and prototyping to reduce costs or to shorten the development timeline; even a lack of understanding of what can actually go wrong in manufacturing can come back to haunt you. Unless you have successfully completed a lot of products, seen them all the way through to the very bitter end, researched and visited factories of all kinds, and evaluated past programs on a consistent basis to find problem areas and asses how to make improvements, you are probably going to run into some issues that will cause you heartburn and gray hair. Get people on your team that have been through the process and have the experience to guide you. Be leery of anyone that discounts risks and has no allowances or contingency plans for manufacturing the more complicated parts of your product.

·         Don’t push manufacturing to its limits. Design deals with the clean and perfect world of CAD, and manufacturing deals with real materials, like metals and plastics. It is always harder to execute properly in the manufacturing world. Unless you have the time, budget and stomach to troubleshoot your product design until it is right, don’t push manufacturing to its edges. And it is very easy to push manufacturing past its limits. You may think your design is simple to manufacture, but it may not be. Stick with more conservative, simple design solutions unless you really know what you are getting yourself into. And yes this may mean that you have to simplify your design and remove some of the less critical features in order to do this.

·         Be prepared for higher initial unit costs. No one has ever come to us and said they wanted their product to cost as much as possible. We usually start every program off with a cost target that was arrived at based on a marketing analysis.  The problem is always that manufacturing costs vary quite a bit for any number of reasons. Startups or companies without bargaining power with their manufacturers will usually pay higher costs because the new product is an unknown entity. We routinely see manufacturing prices drop over time as we continue to order more product. The take away here is to be prepared for higher manufacturing costs initially as you ramp up your production and try not to sacrifice quality to achieve an initial lower cost. And do not assume because you saw a similar product to yours for a particular price, that you too can get that price. There is no exact formula for what a manufactured price should be; only what you have the bargaining power to negotiate based on how much the factory stands to gain from building your product. Moving your product from factory to factory always searching for a lower price has costs associated with it too as well as potential quality problems.

·         Choose your manufacturing partner early. We have all heard this and done it. But here is something that you may not have run up against. Manufacturers brought in early but not guaranteed the project or paid for their time may not give you good advice. Do not assume that a manufacturer that sits in on a few meetings or conference calls during your engineering process is really up to speed on your product. Keep in mind that the design process can take seven months or much longer. That is a lot of time for you and your design team to be very familiar with all the aspects of your design. Manufacturers are not super humans who can look at your product and understand everything at once. It is not that manufacturers are intentionally giving wrong advice; they are just unable to spend the proper amount of time to fully understand all the ins and outs of your program. They may want your job, but they also have lots of other potential programs they are seeking to land. There is just no way that you can get the real in-depth advice you need. And if you place your program in the hands of misguided advice you can really go down the wrong path. The solution, decide early on what manufacturers resonate with your company and hire them, give them a purchase order so that they can bill the time they spend on your product design and assure them that they have your business. This will also allow them to be very familiar with your product once it makes it to manufacturing, another huge plus. 

·         Sending preliminary designs out for manufacturing quote estimates to find the best price is a waste of time. We have all sent preliminary designs out for production cost estimates, before the designs are finalized in order to see if the design is on cost target and to see who offers the best price. This rarely provides any real value for two reasons; #1) the unfinished details are usually where the big costs wind up, and #2) factories will often quote low on preliminary estimates to keep from scaring you off and they know that when you submit the final design they can re-quote and give a higher price based on the rationale of item #1). Manufacturers will need time to get up to speed on your product, and that usually means more than a week or two during the quoting process. And they can often miss important problems, which they will later require changes to address. And those changes can lead to a product that you don’t want, and one that you may ultimately have to live with. Work with a really good manufacturer throughout the entire process and design the best possible product, optimized for their factory. Ultimately that is how you get the best quality and cost. As the factory makes more and more of your product and makes a reasonable profit, they will become more efficient at manufacturing it and that can result in cost savings to you.

Getting a manufactured product to be close to perfect is difficult, and it certainly won’t happen unless you stay on top of your manufacturing. Just dropping your finished CAD files on a factory, demanding a low price, and expecting it to be built quickly is not a wise plan. Getting your product manufactured the way you want requires knowledge, experience and a humble understanding of the design and manufacturing process.

If you are wondering about your specific DFM program, contact us at Driven Innovation and let us help you out.