As a mentor and coach to MIT startup teams working on integrated hardware and software products, I find that everybody keeps running into the same recurring challenge: prototyping and manufacturing hardware products at different stages of the R&D cycle.
From idea to mass produced item, a hardware product goes through many different stages, each requiring different fabrication techniques with different cost implications. What are these techniques, and what fabrication processes make sense?
While each product has its own unique needs, the general development process, and therefore the progression of hardware prototyping and production, tends to share the same path. First, the underlying technology has to be validated with an engineering breadboard (the “works like” breadboard). Then, the industrial designers and mechanical and embedded engineers need to collaborate on the form – for hand held products, having physical products to test in the palm of one’s hand is key. After that, it’s time to construct a looks-like, works-like prototype, typically with rapid prototyping or low run manufacturing techniques. Often the first iteration exposes flaws in the design, which results in a second design iteration, also validated with RP prototypes. Finally, we are ready for scaleable manufacturing, investing in tooling and bringing up a production line in the process.
Knowing the progression and fabrication options will help build a product as quickly as possible, and with the least possible out of pocket expenditure. However, it’s hard to figure out all the options without living through the product life cycle once or twice.
To address this issue, I am putting together a multi part post on mainstream prototyping and manufacturing processes for hardware products. Enjoy.
- Hardware product development process
- Engineering breadboards, a.k.a. duct tape prototypes
- Foamcore and foam – exploring form
- Additive processes – 3D Printing, SLA, SLS
- Urethane cast parts
- Injection molding, thermoforming, rotomolding
- Machined or turned parts
- Extrusions, sheet metal, powder metal and more
- Paper and fabric
- PCBs and cable harnesses
- Assembly and packout
- Value versus volume for contract manufacturers
- Outsourcing versus onshoring