How to Go From Prototype to Mass Production: An In-Depth Guide
Have you recently created a proof-of-concept prototype, or do you have a functional prototype that you believe will be the next big thing once it hits the market? If so, you’re likely looking to scale your physical product, taking it from a few prototypes all the way to mass manufacturing it.
First off, congratulations on getting to this stage of the product development process; turning a mere product idea into a prototype is no easy feat! But what is even more challenging is taking your product from prototype to mass production. For instance, the company behind the Lily camera drone had to shut down and refund customers in 2017 — despite building its prototype in 2013 and making $34 million in pre-sales.
This article presents a seven-step process for you to take your product from prototype to mass production. In addition, it will provide helpful tips and milestones to look for along the way of the new product introduction process.
Table of Contents:
Step 1 - Make Sure Your Design is Ready for Manufacturing
The first step is to ensure that you have a workable design that can be manufactured. To do this, you should speak with engineers who have experience with the manufacturing process required to make your type of product.
You may be working with a product designer, and they may have designed your product in a way that seems suitable to your needs. However, frequently product designers do not have the requisite experience with manufacturing to know whether or not that design is optimized for the production processes it will undergo.
For example, if you’ve designed a product with plastic parts that will be injection molded, an experienced injection molding expert could advise you on your design’s manufacturability. Having this expert involved during the design phase can save you a lot of time later after engaging with the supplier.
Sometimes the manufacturer doesn’t have the time or expertise to provide you with the best solution. Therefore, bringing in an expert is helpful. This can end up saving you weeks of your valuable time and theirs. You could end up manufacturing the product and later find out through use in the field that it is made from the wrong material, and so it breaks or becomes useless in a very short time.
Step 2 - Source Contract Manufacturers and Request for Quote
Once you’ve verified that your design is ready for manufacturing, it’s time to look for suitable suppliers (or contract manufacturers) and provide them with technical drawings, a bill of materials (BOM), and your actual prototype.
One mistake we often see companies make is not fully understanding the cost of manufacturing and being too price-focused. There is a major difference between finding the lowest price and finding the right price. You need first to determine the product’s manufacturing cost, and once you’re armed with this information, you can compare different suppliers apples to apples and get the right kind of quote.
You might find a great supplier who overquotes you because perhaps they over specified the tool. Then you go to another factory that gives you a rock bottom price, but the tool and design are no good, which could lead to lots of headaches. Comparing these two prices against each other will give you a misleading impression.
If you do not have much experience with manufacturing, you need to bring in someone with experience. And if you don’t have this person on your team, it is essential to bring in an outside consultant. Once you have, it enables you to approach suppliers through the lens of rich experience and negotiate based on the fundamentals of the manufacturing costs.
Step 3 - Conduct an Audit
Many contract manufacturers will tell you all you want to hear so they can win the manufacturing contract, and you shouldn’t take their word for it. Instead, you want to make sure you conduct an audit as efficiently and thoroughly as possible.
An audit involves the assessment of the supplier’s management systems and facilities. It is a process to verify that they are in good legal and financial standing, have verified customers and consistent business, have a professional team, and follow good manufacturing practices.
Frequently in Asian factories, the offices might operate very well, with competent project management and engineers, but the shop floor does not follow the correct practices. It is essential to identify deficiencies in these areas. The principal risks of poor shop floor practices include inconsistent product quality and reliability problems resulting from poor fabrication.
Be careful if you find a supplier that offers you an attractive price, but your audit determines they are deficient. They may have underlying cash flow problems, and working with them could result in significant delays or quality problems. It would be preferable to work with a slightly more expensive manufacturer that demonstrates good practices.
Step 4 - Agreements and Pricing Negotiations
You may have heard that once you get your IP out, particularly in China, it’s lost, and people will copy you. The chances are that at some point, that might happen. But if you craft solid agreements, they will help protect your IP so you can mitigate this risk. These agreements serve as the framework for how you will conduct the relationship.
You should establish three types of agreements:
Supply Agreement (Including NNN)
You can learn about these agreements here.
Establishing these agreements provides clarification on who owns the IP of the product and tooling. They clarify how you will cooperate with the supplier from a quality point of view — for example, how tools will be stored and managed, how long, and how they will perform maintenance.
By crafting well-thought-out agreements with your supplier, you can establish the responsibilities for both parties. Not doing so often leads to trouble, so do not skip this essential step. Once you complete them, you can nail down your final pricing and proceed to the next step.
Step 5 - Pilot Run
During the pilot run phase, your manufacturer turns your design into short batch runs (usually a few dozen or hundreds of units to be made in the same conditions as mass production). Doing this will help you ensure that your manufacturer can consistently replicate your products while meeting product specifications.
The pilot run will help you and your manufacturer determine whether you need to modify some of the manufacturing and assembly processes, update work instructions, train manufacturing staff, renegotiate pricing with your manufacturer, or proceed to mass-producing your parts.
It is crucial to take your time and do this part right — do the upfront work. If you rush the pilot run without documenting everything and ensuring it’s adequately managed, you can end up with a mess down the road. The next time they’re in production, you might have completely different workers on the line — and even in the best factories, mistakes are likely to be made.
Even though you are the customer, manufacturing requires a team effort, including transparency and understanding how things are done. It also helps you transition to other suppliers, should your existing supplier fail to perform or have limited capacity.
Step 6 - Certification and Product Performance Testing
Although often taken for granted, the testing and certification phase is vital when taking your product from prototype to mass production. You want to test the samples from the pilot run phase, ensuring that your product complies with the regulatory requirements in the industry you intend to serve to avoid recalls.
The certifications and technical standards you should look out for include (but are not limited to):
CSA certification if your product plugs directly into an AC electrical outlet.
RoHS certification and CE marking if you plan to sell your electrical (or hardware products) in the European market.
FCC certification if your product uses circuits oscillating at 9 kHz or higher.
Measurement standards like DIN ISO 2768-1.
It is also essential to performance test your product to see how long it will last and at what point it will fail. Performance testing in a lab can help you determine your product’s failure points. You should set performance criteria for your product and test it to its limits.
Although there’s no firm timeline for the pilot run and testing and certification phases, successful businesses typically move aggressively, ensuring that all bugs are worked out of the manufacturing and product design as early as possible. Top-tier manufacturers also do pilot runs in short succession as they modify and adjust toolings and other processes till their product performs as expected.
You should have finalized all the tooling and documentation by the end of the testing and certification phase, including certifications, raw material specifications, and in-process documentation necessary for a full-scale production run.
Step 7 - Mass Production
After testing and approving the samples from the pilot run, proceed with mass manufacturing your product. Remember that you’re still required to inspect the final products (just like in the pilot run phase), ensuring that they comply with all the quality and regulatory requirements.
But remember that the goal of inspecting is not to find bad parts but to find good quality parts. The process should be stable enough to ensure that you have very high-level components coming off the line. Then, when a bad product is found, you should stop the line.
You should also consider poka-yoke, cycle time reduction activities, and continuous process improvement activities during mass production. These activities should be ongoing to ensure quality is consistent and you can reduce pricing over time.
Moving From Prototype to Final Product: Agile in Asia Can Help
Now that you have an idea about what it takes to bring a product to the market, you’d agree that the product development process is not for the faint of heart — no matter how significant your funding is or your level of industry experience.
If you don’t have all the resources or experience in-house, consider working with a consultant and solutions provider like Agile in Asia to help you fill in the gaps. That way, you will reduce your risks and minimize costs while taking a product from prototype to mass production.
Agile in Asia is a leading provider of manufacturing solutions across Asia. We have a team of highly-seasoned engineers, project managers, and supply chain professionals capable of helping you take your product from prototype to production the right way.
Learn more about the New Product Introduction Process.