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The Product Development Process
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Engineering Process Notes

Process Notes


Steps of the Process:

Step 1 -
    - Process Overview

Step 2 -
    - Requirements

Step 3 -
    - Info & Planning

Step 4 -
    - Design

Step 5 -
    - Prototypes

Step 6 -
    - Production


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Process Notes

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Process Notes - Time, Cost and other Considerations:

Below is a collection of thoughts and notes pertaining to the Product Development Process -- and particularly the Manufacturing Phases.  These notes are in no way definitive and are intended as a overview.  They come as answers to questions we often receive and are given in no particular order.

Please let us know if you have additional questions or comments.


One of the hardest, yet most useful parts of the process is the definition of requirements.  If you understand what is required (including governmental and customer needs) it is much easier (and cheaper) to design the product and meet the desired goals.

Like going on a trip without a map, the Product Development Process relies on knowing the information of this specification.  Don't short-cut this process.

Market Research:

Learn your market.  Be honest about it.  If you have an honest feel for the quantity that will sell, it is so much easier to make decisions about design, and therefor the manufacturing processes.  Most importantly, knowing what to expect will guide all your business dealings.

Manufacturing Cost Continuum:

There is a whole continuum of cost, timing, design and quality trade-offs.  The choices are almost limitless.  Decisions on what processes to use may be determined by quantity, cost and timing, but directly effect design and quality.  It is important to explore the various options as part of the specification and design phases.

For instance, if a product is designed to be molded, and the expected volumes are small (1000's), the tooling will be much different than if the expected volume is high (100,000's).  More importantly, for small volumes, a different process altogether may be more cost effective.

Manufacturing Cost/Benefit Continuum

Manufacturing Cost/Benefit Continuum
As potential quantities change, part costs change as well as the preferred manufacturing process, required NRE, and the speed parts can be made.

Factors in the Process that effect Cost:  (reference the chart above.)

  • Time plays a huge part in the overall cost of a project.  If you are on a tight time table, you will pay a premium for "instant attention" from most vendors.  If the timetable can be extended, the costs of engineering, tooling, and other things go down.  The difference in time for delivery between the "go as fast as humanly possible" and a "let's just keep things moving" might be only 10% or 20% (time) - but the cost (money) can easily double.  Weigh the factors involved in timing.
  • When time is really important, perhaps Time Compression Technologies can be considered.  Time Compression is a buzz word in prototyping and low(er) volume manufacturing.  This is really applying the technology of moving very quickly from design to parts.  As an example, a typical injection mold takes (typically) 8 to 12 weeks.  In time compression arenas (like those provided by Synthesis) that can be drastically reduced.  An example is shown in Slide 7 of our slide show.  We have done several parts for customers where time from design to component was just 2 or 3 weeks -- from start to finished injection molded parts.  There are trade-offs, however, and most have to do with cost.  Basically, you pay less for tooling, but more per part, and we can't produce thousands of parts efficiently.  This be what it may, it is perfect in some situations.
  • Expected volumes verses money available up-front for tooling, etc. are significant cost considerations.  Depending of course on the part, there are almost always ways to reduce part cost by investing in different technologies or production methods.  As an example, a metal part could be made in a number of different ways (assuming a reasonable volume):  On the scale starting with lowest up-front investment, the parts could be machined (little or no investment, higher part cost, volume limitations).  By investing in fixtures, CNC programming, etc., the machining cost per part can go down significantly.  By sand casting the part, cost may be reduced further, but time and money are required to create tooling.  To die-cast the part, a significant investment is required, but the cost per part can be reduced -- sometimes drastically.  The next step is to add automation.  Again, up-front investment is higher still, but the cost of each part is reduced and the speed at which parts can be made increases.
    An important item of note here:  The design of the part will be different for each of the above mentioned cases.  Choosing the right process up front minimizes the time and expense of redesign for a different process.  Secondly, opting for something entirely different, like converting to a stamping instead of a casting might really be the ticket.  Explore your options.
    Obviously, the example is only an illustration of possibilities.  Machining is not usually considered against fully automated die casting, but it shows the point with respect to the cost continuum.  If a lot of parts are needed, especially if they are complex, automated die casting may be most cost effective.  If only a few parts are needed, die casting wouldn't even be considered.  Plastic parts follow the same pattern.
  • Complexity is another factor in cost.  Generally, the more complex a product or the more complex a part, the more it will cost.  Careful design and design optimization can help in reducing cost.  Sometimes this is simplifying parts;  Sometimes it is changing parts to a simpler or less costly process;  Sometimes it is eliminating parts by having other parts do multiple things. That is an area where Synthesis can really help.
  • For small companies (and inventors) the best choice of resource use may be in starting small (with technologies and manufacturing methods of low investment) to develop and explore the market.  As you discover the real need for the product (real quantities), better choices for manufacturing can be made -- and hopefully funded by sales of the product itself.
  • Going to the right source for the right information is key in finding the elegant solution, and thereby reducing complexity, cost and timing.  At Synthesis we espouse the concept of working with vendors early in the design process so their input can be fully considered and incorporated.  We do not claim to be experts at everything, but we know how to find the experts and we know how to bring together input from all different sources.  Some people call this Concurrent Engineering, We call it "SYNTHESIS" - bringing together the pieces for a coherent whole..
  • In production, location (where the product is made) can drastically effect cost.  China, for instance is often touted for its low manufacturing costs.  That typically works for high volume situations, and it can be a great benefit, but there are trade-offs.  Learn about the trade-offs before jumping in.

Factors in the Process that effect Timing:

  • As mentioned above, a good understanding of product requirements can be the best way to save time.  Just knowing what target to shoot at keeps the team from wandering around and having to "redo" the work.  It also does a lot to keep the team interested and excited.
  • Available resources (like money and expertise) play a huge part in timing.  In many cases, more money can reduce the time to completion, but it has a diminishing return.  All the money and all the experts in the world can't reduce the time to zero.
  • Time compression technologies were discussed above and are a great way to reduce the time required for products to move into production.  This is a great way to shorten time, but usually comes with a price.
  • In some cases where timing is the driving force in a project, quality is sacrificed because the issues are not thought through carefully.  I always approach things with an eye of some skepticism when timing is the overall driving force -- "I need it done right now at any price or not at all!"
  • Concurrent engineering or "Synthesis" is a great way to reduce the time of a project.  It also brings together more good brains which usually makes for a better overall product.  This approach does not carry to extremes very well because management issues can over cloud the benefits when a team gets too big.
  • Choice of vendors can significantly effect timing.  A good vendor can bring the product home on schedule, while an over ambitious vendor can end up with all sorts of issues that consume lots of extra time.

A Vendor Timing Example:
A few years ago a customer found an inexpensive source for producing their plastic parts in China.  The promised timing was half that of the local vendors, and the price was much less.  They went for it.
Sure enough, just as promised, the first shots arrived right on schedule.  Everyone was excited -- till they discovered a few minor issues.  "No Problem" the rep told them.  "These will be fixed right away."
It was months before the customer received "good" parts.  In the meantime, they lost several months of potential sales.
In the end, once they got the process up and running things went smooth.  They now get cheap parts and things are OK, but in the beginning, they had to deal with several issues that seriously impacted timing.


Costs involved in certain manufacturing processes:  (Highly Generalized!)

There is a continuum in trade-offs for price depending on expected volumes and up-front tooling costs (NRE).  (See the graphic above.)  If volumes are low, simple tooling can be used – (which usually means higher piece price).  If volumes are really high, then complex (usually very expensive) tooling (such as multi-cavity molds, progressive dies and/or automation) can be used to bang out millions of parts at the lowest possible price – and there is a whole spectrum of technology in between.

Below are some more common manufacturing techniques -- very loosely described with respect to our discussion.  I suggest a quick web search to learn a lot more about them.

  • Plastics:
    • Injection Molding:  One of the most common processes -- The up-front tooling costs can be high ($10,000 - $100,000 or more) with relatively long lead times (8 - 12 weeks typical), while part costs are quite low (from pennies to a few dollars).  This process is especially good for high volume production.

      Time compression injection molding (discussed above) can significantly reduce the tooling costs and lead time, but trade for higher part costs and limits in production quantities.

    • Blow Molding and Thermal Forming:  These processes are typically very good for lower quantity and larger (size) parts.  They have their place and their trade-offs; and like injection molding, they also have a spectrum of price trades.  One of the biggest trade-offs is the availability of materials –- though that is getting better as time goes on.

      One of the key benefits of these processes is the ability to have "closed" parts -- something that can't be done in injection molding without post processing.

    • Rotational Molding:  This process is typically for low quantities because of the long processing time.  Also, the parts have to meet some specific requirements, but this is a great process to accomplish some unique geometry not possible with other processes.  Parts can range from small to very large.
    • Automation:  Although this is not a method of manufacturing, automatic operations like robotics can be added (for a price) to any of the above processes to increase quantity and reduce per part cost.
    • Many Others:  There many other processes for plastics.  These are just a few of the most common.
  • Metals:
    • Fabrication:  This process can best be described as "cut and weld" -- though it is not limited to that.  This is a great method for prototyping, but generally very expensive (done by hand) for making production parts.  However, with the right tooling (like stamping dies and automated welding) it can be one of the least expensive methods of producing metal parts.
    • Machining:  Usually low (or no) tooling costs, with higher piece prices.  Can be used to prototype things that will eventually be made some other way like casting.  The addition of CNC programming and fixturing can speed up the process and reduce the per part cost (for the right quantities).
    • Stamping:  As one of the fastest ways to produce large quantities of parts, stamping is used extensively in many industries for parts of all sizes.  There are several technologies available to meet various requirements, and costs vary depending on need.  Tooling is usually quite expensive, but part costs are typically quite low.  From a design standpoint, there are a lot of specific requirements with stamping needed to accomplish the desired result.
    • Casting:  Much like injection molding for metal, this process can be used to make very complex parts fairly cheaply.  Variations in this process from sand casting to die casting will vary the cost of tooling, affect lead times and change part prices.  This process is typically used for parts of greater complexity.
    • Lots more:  There are literally thousands of ways to bend, form, cast, machine or otherwise shape metal, and the choice of processes is entirely dependent on the individual situation, volume and component needs.
  • Others:
    We have listed above some of the most common processes with respect to metal and plastic.  These cover the areas where we get the most questions.  There are, of course, hundreds of processes for these and other media like wood, glass, foam, fabric, etc..  It is not our intent to document or even start to pretend we are experts in all those fields.  However, we know experts that will get us to the right point.

For more information about the production process and how it may apply to your particular product, please give us a call.

Concluding Thoughts ...

There is a lot to learn about the Product Development Process.  It's not something to get your arms around in an afternoon, nor be an expert after doing it once.  Technology is constantly changing, so are the products being made.  Have an open mind and be flexible to new ideas.  In addition, here are some things to help make the process go smoother:
  • First - Don't underestimate the value of a good plan (see Product Specification - Step 2).
  • Second - The financial impact of going into production is typically large, so get things in order.
  • Third - Know your business.  Do the market research to know the volumes you can expect to produce.  That will drive the design as well as manufacturing -- ultimately driving your success.
  • Fourth - Make sure you have some guides along the way to help you avoid potential pit falls.
We wish you Good Luck with your ventures!


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