8 things we learned about hardware product design and manufacturing at the Denver Startup Week

It has been almost two months since Denver Startup Week and we had some time to absorb the mountain of information that was provided there.

We have attended several presentations, mostly in the Maker track.  For reference, you can see the list at the end of the post.

On to the list!

  1. Always sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with the vendors.  Several presenters pointed out that for some reason design and manufacturing industry is rife with problems, if the NDA is not present.  But, Maker Mentor Hours session came with a warning, “NDAs will not be signed during this session.”
  2. Beware of manufacturing overseas.  A lot of overseas manufacturers, especially Chinese, will knock off your product and will market, sell, and profit from it.  The most benevolent explanation: in some cultures, imitation is indeed a high form of flattery.  So, if someone copies your product, they think highly of it.  There are several ways to protect your product.  You can ignore the knock-offs and keep innovating: by the time the first version of your product is knocked off, you’ve moved on to the third.  Another strategy is design patents.  They’ll stop overseas manufacturers from selling your product in the US, the most important market of all.  The third is to try to pursue counterfeiters in court.  Unless you are a multimillion-dollar corporation (think Rolex or Louis Viton), this option is not recommended.
  3. There is a flow to the industry process.  At every step of the process, there are options and there are vendors.  Of course, the process starts with an idea and its implementation with off the shelf parts, duct tape, and chewing gum.  Once it is somewhat proven, and the idea warrants it, patent application process can start.  The next step is design.  This step can go in multiple directions with various vendors.  For example, you can hire just a designer, or a company that does both design and prototype manufacturing.  If the device has both electronic and plastic components (like most startups in Denver Startup week), you can hire a designer to do the overall design of both electronics and plastics parts, or design/manufacturer of the plastics and design/manufacturer of electronic parts.  The important part is to have checkpoints.  Create an MVP first (Minimum Viable Product).  Numbers can be in single units or dozens, no more than that.  This is usually manufactured in the US, oftentimes with the help of 3D printers.  But even on that stage, it is important to keep DFX (Design For Everything) in mind!  This is when it is really helpful to work with vendors that are all close to each other (hello, Longmont!) and close to you.  Oftentimes, when they worked together before, the transfer of parts from one vendor to another is smooth.  MVP process can go through several iterations as startup learns more about its customers and refines product.  The next step is Pilot.  This is when the manufacturing is ready for high volume production.  There are consultants that specialize in this stage and vendors that can manufacture hundreds or thousands of units in the US or, seamlessly, tens of thousands or more overseas.  And the last one is Production.  With all kinks worked out in Pilot phase, Production is mostly concerned with keeping supply chain going, making sure that changes are communicated promptly, etc.
  4. With process comes its own jargon.  Learn the speak of manufacturing.  Here are some of the terms that have been bandied around:
    • DFM/DFT/DFA/DFX Design for Manufacturing/Testing/Assembly/Everything.  DFM is explained more below.  Design for Testing is a concept of designing your components so they can be tested independently. Design for everything then covers all of it: manufacturing, testing, assembly, etc.  Why is it really important to keep all those things in mind?  Cost!
    • Turnkey and Consigned.  In turnkey manufacturing, you provide your manufacturing partner with BOM (Bill of Materials).  Your manufacturing partner then purchases all the parts and provides you with the complete product.  For consigned manufacturer, you purchase all the parts and ship them to the manufacturer.
    • PCB is printed circuit board, at the basis of everything that’s manufactured.  Of course, it comes in a variety of thicknesses, colors, and rigidity.  Those are important things to keep in mind, when designing for X!
  5. Colorado has a lot of manufacturers, especially the ones that specialize in prototyping and small batch manufacturing.  Longmont, specifically, has a lot of companies: Circuits West, Zebulon Solutions, PTA Plastics, Amcon, and more!
  6. DFM is very important.  That’s design for manufacturing.  The idea is Not everything that can be done with 3D printers can be reproduced with injection plastics.
  7. It is interesting to understand the scale, even for a small batch manufacturing.  Microchips come in reels that are fed into machines.  Those reels can be pre-programmed with specific code, if needed.  PCB boards are manufactured in huge sheets and then cut. 
  8. Know your lead times on all components!  The chain is as strong as its weakest link.  If one part is delayed or unavailable, the whole manufacturing process can collapse.  Manufacturers have their production windows and if you miss one, it may take a while to get into it again.

Presentations that taught us a lot:

From Cocktail Napkin To Mass Production

Prototyping vs. Production

Maker Mentor Hours (aka Come Meet Your Manufacturer)

Funding Your Physical Product

Navigating the IoT Ecosystem

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