This blog series shares learnings from the Elevate program (see info below) for the benefit of the wider hardware community. Contributors to the content presented herein include: Matthew Adams - Tekt Industries, David Menzies - Outerspace Design, Vela Georgiev - HardworX, and Kirsty Battista - Allume Energy
There’s a saying in hardware manufacturing: hardware is hard, it's called hardware for a reason. It’s no secret that many hardware businesses fail. That’s down to a range of different factors. In fact, the barrier to entry is lower than ever before. Creating hardware products that scale, however, is much more challenging. While every hardware entrepreneur dreams of developing a mass-market product, most will fail in doing so.
Here we answer the question: how does a prototype become a product? We cover product development theory and real-life applications, including sharing the story of Fusion Guitar.
World-first WIFI-enabled guitar, Fusion Guitar, isn’t just an innovative product – the development story is unique. The guitar originated from an Outerspace Design employee who was encouraged to develop their idea and turn it into a product.
Image source: Fusion Guitar
Ultimately, the development of the successful mass-market product was a collaboration between two teams, Tekt Industries and Outerspace Design. The companies used a method ology that was scalable, flexible, and allowed time for testing, design for manufacture, prototyping, iterations, and certifications. Outerspace and Tekt are now creators of Fusion Guitars, with 7.5 million units sold globally.
From prototype to product
While many entrepreneurs, startups, and SMEs want to develop hardware products: the process can be complex, confusing, and arduous. Democratisation of hardware means the barrier to entry –– through low-cost development kits, open-source design, and crowdfunding –– is relatively low for prototyping but scaling can be challenging. A successful prototype, after all, is not the same as a manufacturable product.
Many, with viable ideas, fail to produce mass-market products due to avoidable errors in the development and product phases. By ensuring requirements are clearly documented, spending time on the testing and refining stages, and adopting an effective process for each hardware product, there’s a much better chance of success.
Finding the right process
How does a prototype become a scalable product? The answer isn’t simple. The basic process includes problem research, proof of concept, design, testing, production, and shipping. But hardware manufacturing is not linear, the process is complex and tends to involve iterations and back and forth between different developmental stages.
Image source: Bolt VC (left) and Rocket Wagon Labs (right)
While many startups employ agile methodology for software production, short agile sprints are not suited to the longer timelines in hardware manufacture. Hardware products must be treated on a case-by-case basis taking into account factors such as the type of product and the volume being produced. Ultimately, the right methodology should be scalable and flexible.
Adaptable ways of working
Ultimately, the best ways of working in hardware production will be flexible and scalable and allow back and forth between aspects of production. That is to say: there is no one ‘right’ way of working. And if a company wishes to scale, the ways of working should adapt to fit the scaling business.
Kristy Battista, Chief Technology Officer at solar power company, Allume Energy, recommends finding a way of working that aligns specifically with the hardware product being produced. That’s because processes, timelines, and costs for hardware products vary drastically.
‘Nothing can prepare you for unexpected costs and timeline blowouts. When creating new technology, or a class of product, you are doing something new. Ways of working must be relevant to accommodate for the product you’re developing,’ said Battista.
Many companies make the mistake of underestimating the effort involved in going from prototype to volume manufacturing. Everything, including ways of working, will need to adjust to accommodate these changes.
Requirements are critical
A product requirement document (PRD) is one of the most important documents in hardware manufacture. It’s no secret that expectations within a business team can vary wildly: that’s why getting requirements on paper, in a detailed way, is essential. A PRD defines the product to be built including purpose, features, functions, and behaviour. The PRD defines the ‘what’ without the ‘how’.
While a PRD doesn’t have to be perfect, it should include aspects such as safety and compliance, durability, aesthetics, interface, hardware, sensors, and software. A PRD can also help balance trade-offs like costs, time, usability, and aesthetics.
This post from Bolt.io explains the importance of a PRD and provides a great template for creating a lean and useful PRD that’s well suited to hardware startups.
Some things to remember:
PRDs can be valuable tools to help align the team on a product's intended purpose. The PRD stimulates thinking about delivering a product, not a prototype, and highlights potential risks.
The testing plan should focus on validating the requirements documented in the PRD. This is done by ensuring the product’s functionality, aesthetic, performance and reliability are as intended.
A PRD can help you identify and manage scope creep and risk around delivering a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).
Spend time testing and refining
When it comes to hardware products, the earlier issues are found: the better. Too many companies speed through testing and refinement only to find they’re developing a product that either isn’t market fit, doesn’t meet safety, quality or performance requirements, or is too expensive to manufacture. Making changes too late in the process will prove costly and cause time delays.
Source: K12 Lab - Stanford Design School
Tips to avoid costly issues
Test before you invest. As the saying goes: ‘fail fast, fail often’.
The more you experiment, build, test, validate and learn early on: the more risk you mitigate where the cost of change is smaller.
As development progresses, with build and test cycles, your focus should shift from reducing technology risk to assuring product quality and performance.
Be pragmatic: balance the number of prototype iterations and development processes against the budget and end-customer expectations.
Spend time to understand the purpose, use cases and benefits of the various prototypes.
See what it interacts like, works like and looks like, and apply these to your product development process.
Invest the time to capture the product requirements.
Define the ‘what’ without the ‘how’. This will help you to minimise assumptions and reduce the risk of delivering a product that doesn’t meet customer expectations.
Where possible, build-in features with tangible end-customer benefits.
Think about mass production early.
A product is only ready when it can be manufactured. Consider these early: design for manufacturing (DFM), design for assembly, and design for testing.
A structured approach to engineering, prototyping, test and validation can have a big impact on the time to market, cost, manufacturability and performance.
Materials and processes used for prototyping may differ from those used in final mass production and, therefore, affect product quality and performance.
Create robust manufacturing data packs, both for the capture and transfer of knowledge internally and supply to manufacturers.
Avoid designing old technology (parts nearing end of life) into a new product or, conversely, using cutting-edge technology which isn’t validated or available for scale-up.
Product sales volume should influence your design. Ensure the solution isn’t over-cooked/over-engineered before release.
A prototype is not the same as a manufacturable product.
People often underestimate the effort required to prepare a product for manufacturing and to ensure that the manufactured product will meet customer expectations in terms of quality and performance.
Follow the hardware development process: don’t try to skip stages but be pragmatic.
Estimate engineering prototype costs and capital requirements to bring the product to market early, start at the proof of concept stage and refine as you advance.
While many hardware developers race to get their products to market––skipping key steps can prove fatal. Many would-be success stories end up being costly mistakes due to poor planning, and a lack of testing. For hardware creators, there are many important things to keep in mind. Creating detailed requirements will help ensure the product being created is fit for purpose. Extensive prototyping is essential, but, remember, prototypes are not manufacturable products. Planning and designing products for scalability then must always be front-of-mind. By taking these considerations into account, the chances of success are much greater.
Bolt VC four-part blog series on the hardware product development process: The Illustrated Guide to Product Development (blog post) and slide deck.
About the ELEVATE program
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.