The Hardware Marathon - Crossing the Finish Line
So your concept just crushed Kickstarter or has garnered a lot of attention from a number of VC’s - now what?
When meeting with a client that is new to taking a hardware product to completion we are often asked a lot of the same questions. Sometimes, even more surprisingly, we are not asked many questions at all. It’s for this reason that I thought it might be good to write an article to answer some of these frequently asked questions, demystify the design process, and shed some light on what I think the role of the designer is in order for the client to have a successful launch. I’ll give you a hint that it doesn’t happen like this: “So here is my napkin sketch, can you give me CAD by the end of the week that I can send to the manufacturer.”
Once we’ve agreed to work with a client and they’ve agreed to work with us, one of the questions we are often asked is, “So how does this work, we’ve never worked with a design consultancy before?”. The simple fact is there is no easy answer to this. Each project is unique. If I put myself in the product owner’s shoes for a moment, I would hope that I hadn’t just agreed to pay for a cookie cutter design. Each time a project is launched, the goal is that the product is successful in it’s own right. For me this means that it should firstly solve the problem it is trying to solve. Before jumping in, it is important to take stock and document the emotional and physical requirements in a Product Requirements Document (PRD). This helps steer the design and not lose sight of the problems you are trying to solve and the emotional space you are trying to stay in. The design should produce an evocative object, it should bring meaning to its owner whether through aesthetics, feel, or just that this object works flawlessly. This is always what we are chasing and the design process for each project is setup to accomplish this.
In most cases it starts with rough sketching, this is the quickest way to get design ideas out and start to see the first gestures of design intent. Then the middle steps of the process will likely change based on the type of product; it could be 2D CAD, explorations in foam sculpting, sewing fabric together, or some rocks held together with duct tape. It’s usually in this stage that a non-designer says, “What am I looking at here?”. As a designer we know this “fuzzy” exploration is part of our process, but our real job at this point is to communicate to the client what it is we are doing. For me, I’m always trying to create products that amplify clients’ brands and give their users enjoyable, meaningful experiences. So I try to explain how each sketchy exploration is taking the product to this place. Iterative renders help crystallize a direction forward. Then once everyone believes we are on the right path we jump into one of the funnest and most frustrating parts of the process, physical prototyping.
It is also at this stage that a product starts to take on a life of its own and it’s all too easy to fall in love too soon. You’re holding a nicely sculpted foam model and it looks awesome, it’s catching light in all the right ways, it feels great in hand, but...does it solve the problem, can it be made, where are the part lines, it needs a button, it needs a charging port, last minute requirement - it has to be waterproof… the love affair is over. For these reasons in the prototype phase it’s important to remain objective and date a lot of designs before getting married. The old adage for prototyping is to fail early and fail often. This is because it is much more difficult and more expensive to make changes at the manufacturing phase. As a designer, part of the job is making sure your designs are useable and not just beautiful. This means using whatever means necessary to test a theory and quickly move forward with it or dismiss it. If you are designing a wrist worn wearable for example, take something the approximate size of the electronics enclosure and start using velcro to attach it to the wrist, use foam sheet from the dollar store, use off the shelf watch straps and then start trying it on. Then try it on a whole lot of other people. This is very important as designers are tasked to design products that they would often not be the end user of.
Part of the importance of design thinking is being able to take all the information you have and roll it into one product. This helps inform a prototype that can be called the Minimum Viable Product (MVP), “What is the bare minimum this product needs to do to be functional as a product?”. It’s usually around here that we are creating “looks like” models. These models are a higher resolution that are getting close to how the product looks on the shelf. Engineers are usually working on a ‘works like’ prototype around the same time. This is sometimes this is called the alpha prototype. The chances of getting all the emotional and physical needs 100 percent is pretty slim, but a good filter is to ask “How close are we to perfect?” The key is to keep prototyping until you can comfortably answer that question, even after you’ve run out time. It’s easy to pass files to the contract manufacturer and think the job is done, but the truth is there will inevitably be changes during the early days as your contract manufacturer takes the design through the Design for Manufacture (DFM) stage, so there is still time to capture improvements that have been discovered through prototyping. This can be called P1 prototyping and prototypes may be cnc’d, 3d printed, vacuum cast or other methods that are not scalable for mass production.
The DFM process is when the manufacturer’s engineers takes your design and assesses it for moldability, ease of production and assembly. This is where an experienced designer can save you headaches by not leading you to this stage with a design that may be problematic. I think a design is only good if it can be made. While conceptual design has it’s place and value in the design conversation, it’s important at this stage to be designing releasable products. It is this road to releasable product that can be a little mysterious if you’ve never been through it before. Your CM starts to talk about EVT, DVT, PVT, MP and the ‘Golden Sample’ and your head begins to swim. What does this all mean? I will lay out some information here to clarify these steps in the process to producing consumer electronics.
Engineering validation test (EVT) is the first time that you have a version that combines the looks like model with the works like model. It will be the first model that uses all the materials that will be used in production. There is no 3D printing or parts modified from other product. This version is made through soft tooling. Soft tooling is molds made for a small handful of casts before the tool begins to fail. This is a low volume process to test the functionality of the how the hardware stack integrates and functions with the design. It’s the designer's role here to be the shepherd of the original design intent. Invariably changes will need to be made and all too often an engineer’s solution may not be mindful of the original spirit of the design. This is usually surprisingly easy as long as you actually keep the designer involved. Once one version has been successfully made that satisfies production requirements, design intent, reliability and functionality the design can move into the DVT phase of production. As a client, the one thing to remember at this phase is that the EVT versions are still not even close to how the product will look on the shelf. We’ve often had clients thrown into a frenzy thinking that they are in a real bad spot so close to release date. The reality is at this stagewe have still not taken into account the CMF (color, material, and finish specifications).
The CMF document is where types of materials that are to be used, the texture and color of those materials are communicated from the designer to the contract manufacturer. This might be one area that we as designers take more seriously than most contract manufacturers, but we understand the importance of this in terms of creating quality, emotion and heightening your overall brand. One time, when we were developing a wearable device, I sat at a table with the contract manufacturer looking at samples of orange straps that were supposed to be based on a Pantone color chip we provided. We had asked for a rich burnt orange color, but they gave us straps that looked more like a creamsicle. I pulled the chip out of my folio and held it up to the straps. Shoulders shrugged. I asked if they didn’t see the difference, to which I received the response, ‘It’s still orange.’ After a good 30 minutes of discussion around how it wasn’t enough to simply be orange and that I wanted it the orange that had been specified, it was decided that they would take me to the factory so we could sort it out. We drove a couple of hours to the edge of Taipei where the city ended and the forest began, and we stopped at a medium sized cinderblock building nestled in a grove of trees. It was a good thing I brought the Pantone chip, since the factory did not have a Pantone book and had been matching color based on bad photos of Pantone chips. The second part of the problem became immediately clear as I was led into a front office that had every color spectrum of fluorescent bulb imaginable. As I sat there with white bulbs and yellow bulbs all flickering intermittently, they brought me sample book after sample book, and I didn’t know if we’d ever get the color right. Eventually we did and I’m sure they thought I was a pain in the butt, but this is what a designer should be doing to make sure the best possible product is being released to market.
Design validation test (DVT) is the stage where you move into hard tooling and begin to produce one production model that follows the final CMF and start to increase the volumes of production into the hundreds. On the engineering side the hard tools are being verified for mass production and dealing with any issues in the mold. As a designer you are verifying that textures are right, colors are correct, and that part lines are small. There is a signing process that allows for the limit range of these parts. It’s often a negotiation back and forth with the vendors and could take weeks. You are also validating things like screen brightness, functionality of buttons, and ultimately does it solve the problem you were designing for. Once everyone is satisfied you move into the PVT stage. If there are any problems at this stage you stop and fix them, and even then you’re options either become very limited or very expensive.
Production validation test (PVT) is what is supposed to be the last step before mass production. The assembly procedure is correct. All the tools are correct. The electronics are correct. All the materials and colors are correct. You’ve signed off on the ‘Golden Samples’. These samples are the parts that are used for quality control along the production line. These are used to benchmark everything to you had fought for in the design and CMF. Texture, color, material, and quality are assessed. It is also at the PVT stage that the contract manufacturer is validating yield ratios - speed and quality. This entirety of the PVT phase is validated on one production line, with the idea that it can be replicated to other lines to ramp up mass production (MP).
Mass Production (MP) is when more lines are added and more units are being produced at high volumes. If you’ve made it to this stage and haven’t had a nervous breakdown - congratulations! It really is akin to running a marathon to take a product all the way from concept to market and you should be really proud that accomplishment. When the first units are coming off the line is a always a special moment, not only are you seeing your vision come to light but you know that you’ve done all you could do to keep everything on track in the best interests of the product. It’s usually at this point that you will have the best sleep you’ve had in months.
Words by Scott E. Forsythe
Illustrations by Trista Capitano