There’s a saying in product development: hardware is hard - it’s called hardware for a reason. Every entrepreneur, hardware innovator, engineer, and maker must ask themselves the same question when they begin a product development journey: where am I willing to make a trade-off?
For most, knowing where to begin, understanding how design decisions impact manufacturing and finding the right manufacturing partner can be challenging.
These are problems I’ve spent years solving as an engineer for world-class companies, advising startups and SMEs as the founder of HardworX, and now in my role as COO & Operating Partner for Tenacious Ventures, Australia’s first dedicated agrifood tech VC firm.
As someone who is deeply passionate about enabling entrepreneurs to unlock the power of hardware, I’ve made it my mission to answer, and now help others to answer, these questions. For entrepreneurs, demystifying manufacturing means a greater willingness to innovate and create successful products at scale. In turn, it’s great for manufacturers to partner with knowledgeable and innovative startups.
This passion and desire to help others manifested in HardworX, where I created a series of not-for-profit community-driven initiatives to help demystify manufacturing and hardware supply chains for the benefit of both entrepreneurs and manufacturers.
As an engineer, I believe it’s all about going to the ‘Gemba’. In Lean manufacturing, going on a Gemba walk denotes the action of going to the shop floor to see the actual process, understand the work, ask questions and learn. Literally translated as 'The Real Place', it embraces a first-principles approach to problem-solving. And, as an avid, life-long learner, I know there’s nothing more powerful than immersive experiences to engage all the senses and accelerate learning.
So, I decided to do something about it:
HardworX took cohorts of startups on curated, immersive innovation study tours to Shenzhen, China, the global epicentre of electronics manufacturing.
HardworX, in collaboration with Western BACE, and supported by LaunchVic, delivered “Elevate - Taking hardware from concept to commercialisation”, a year-long innovation education series supporting founders with a desire to design, mass manufacture and bring to market a hardware product.
What I’ve found in my two decades of industry experience, and especially in my time at HardworX is, the hardware community as a whole is keen to work together and help hardware innovators reach scale. As Robert Noyce, nicknamed "the Mayor of Silicon Valley", once said, “Knowledge is power, knowledge shared is power multiplied.” It’s my desire to share knowledge, foster the community and help others. Doing so helps grow the pie for everyone.
To accelerate manufacturing journeys for others and make our learnings from the Shenzhen tours and the Elevate program accessible, I’ve recently written a series of blog posts. Through this blog series, I intend to help demystify hardware manufacturing and help others get started on the journey. Through the Shenzhen content, which summarises our tours to China, you’ll see exactly what it’s like to go to the ‘Gemba’ and gain skills to start engaging with manufacturers. Through our Elevate blog series based on the bootcamps, masterclasses, and meetups – you’ll learn directly from hardware innovators and industry experts about common pitfalls in hardware design, manufacture and scale up and how to avoid them.
Fortunately, the information, insights, and learnings from Elevate and the Shenzhen tours are evergreen and can help you begin your manufacturing journey now. And keep in mind, the skills learned during the HardworX tours are not just applicable to Shenzhen, nor even China. While each market and country has its idiosyncrasies, the general learnings and insights highlighted in the blog series and tour videos apply to manufacturing markets the world over. And with COVID-19 and strict international travel restrictions: this content is more relevant than ever.
This is an open invitation to hardware innovators from around the globe to learn from the community and gain insights from our experiences.
If you’d like to learn more about manufacturing, supply chains and scaling hardware, check out the resources below hosted at innovate.hardworx.io.
Resources for hardware innovators wanting to deliver a product at scale
When it comes to manufacturing, supply chain, scaling, and trade-offs, most entrepreneurs have the same questions. Now I’m dedicating time to answering those questions in a broader sense than before.
The blog series covers the following topics and many more:
Visiting Shenzhen, engaging with manufacturers in China and the range of factories from small-scale low cost to large-scale high-cost.
How to manage and maintain quality throughout the supply chain.
Tools and tips for choosing the right manufacturing partners - the supplier selection process including scorecards, how to prepare an RFQ and conduct due diligence.
Managing and protecting intellectual property.
Considering timings, costs, and quality–and balancing these three key aspects.
From prototyping to mass production - manufacturing methods, processes and use cases.
Beginning a manufacturing journey from initial engagement right through to completed product.
Common pitfalls in hardware manufacturing and how to avoid the startup death valley.
Blog Series #1 - HardworX Shenzhen Innovation Tours
Study tours to Shenzhen, China, the global epicentre of electronics. These tours were designed to demystify manufacturing by providing insights into what it takes to design and deliver a hardware product at scale. The tours maximised learning outcomes by going to the ‘Gemba’ in all respects: cultural immersion, culinary immersion, factory tours, and shared knowledge. The tours were jam-packed, curated, and, importantly, a cohort experience at the end of which participants felt they could not only better engage with manufacturers, but their entire perspective of what was possible shifted.
By being exposed to high, mid and low, volume production processes during factory visits, tour participants gained an understanding of the breadth and depth of production processes. By getting a sense of what it takes to deliver high volume telecommunication equipment (Hyterra EMS factory visit), popular high-end consumer electronics (LIFX factory visit), low-cost Sonoff home automation solutions (ITEAD factory visit), and anything in between, tour participants were exposed to the most common manufacturing trade-offs and cost drivers - quantity and quality.
Understanding how high, mid, and low volume production processes and factories operate also has the advantage of developing other relevant skills - include an understanding of supplier due diligence, design for manufacture, early-stage through to final-stage testing, compliance, production quality, and failure modes.
In taking products to market, hardware innovators often have to make decisions that invariably result in trade-offs between time, cost, and quality. And these trade-offs will define the final product. Understanding the tradeoffs and the manufacturing process is key. You can gauge what you need for your product but also understand the gaps in the process, the limitations of manufacturing processes and how to make smarter design decisions.
The first tour to Shenzhen also attracted world-class cinematographer, Karl von Möller, to document the experience and allow you to come along on the journey. His video series accompanies the blogs.
Click here to begin reading the Shenzhen blog series.
Blog Series #2 - “Elevate - Taking hardware from concept to commercialisation”
Elevate is an innovation education series developed and delivered by HardworX and Western BACE, and supported by LaunchVic. It’s hardware content for hardware innovators, by hardware innovators. As a community-driven event, Elevate engaged with stakeholders across the hardware innovation ecosystem to design and deliver bespoke content. Elevate consisted of meetups, masterclasses, and bootcamps to help startups scale, anticipate risk, and establish manufacturing. This blog series shares learnings from those events for the benefit of the wider hardware community.