Whats the process? Part 2

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... Continued from the first post

Design

The design phase is closely related to the requirements phase of course, however in my mind it is important to have requirements well in place before locking down a products industrial design. Many things can affect the design - in the case of Natus One things like battery size/time, durability, connectivity options, user interface (buttons, LEDs) had a lot of influence on the design. Design wise you should always start from a more conceptual viewpoint and work your way through the details. The industrial design of a product also has a lot of impact on other aspects such as timing or cost goals and this has to be part of the discussion when evaluating concepts. For Natus One, again it is a very small team which means that the bulk of the design work was done by me. As with many products, a lot of work went into finding the right balance of high quality and affordable pricing. I chose to use aluminum as the primary housing material - it does cost significantly more than plastic, however I believe its important that this product has good durability - it should be no concern to you while playing a live gig whether its accidentally dropped for example. I find it very helpful to work with actual manufacturers in the design phase. Often they have experience and insights to specific pain points on a design solution and will offer advice on alternative solutions. Ultimately the manufacturers will be held responsible for the product’s ability to be produced and work flawlessly so it is very much in their interest to be part of the process. On Natus One I went through a few design options before settling on the final design. Access to low cost 3D printing has really revolutionized the way smaller companies create physical products - the cost of a good basic 3D printer is now more or less what it would cost to get a single physical 3D produced only few years ago, and the cost of the individual prints is so low that its not even to be considered.

 

Prototyping

Another benefit of access to cheap 3D printing is that actual prototypes are much easier to produce, and at a very early stage. Generally prototypes can be considered in a few different variations;

 

  • Basic prototypes
    Such as 3D prints, but also things like clay and foam is commonly used. Mainly used to check overall sizes and ergonomics. Many iterations are done in this phase.
     
  • Detailed prototypes
    Made using high end 3D printing or CNC and typically includes simulations of final materials and finishes. Used to check the feeling and looks of the final product. Looks like the real thing, but does not necessarily have any real functionality or durability. Fewer versions are done of this type.
     
  • Functional prototypes
    Can be very crude to look at or have all details. Most importantly these prototypes have all or parts of the final functionality set of the product. These are the prototypes used to test with user groups etc. before preparing the product for actual production. Typically very few units are built out as fully detailed with full functionality as this type of prototype can be very expensive - for something the size and complexity of Natus One, think around $3000/unit.

 

I have always been very focused on making sure that key stakeholders in the organizations I have worked for understands that any prototype developed in the process, is only seen as a tool; something that help guide decisions around the final product - not a final product in itself no matter how fantastic it might look!

On Natus One I went though a lot of basic 3D printed prototypes trying to come up with the best option for durability and manufacturability. I also designed and built a couple of working prototypes which includes the actual wireless technology but does not have the final electronics layout. These were used primarily to test the audio performance with different artists as the form factor didn’t exactly make them very portable - they are kind of big and honestly not very pretty (they sound great though).

 

Production preparation

Getting the product from prototype to production is the step that is often most misunderstood by people that are not familiar with product development. When dealing with consumer electronics, the time from final prototype to the first product coming off the assembly line typically varies from three to five months. Three to five months??? Of doing what?..The product (holding prototype in hand) is right here!?.. Thats a question you often get asked as a product developer. Most products include more than one part - especially in the case of consumer electronics. What we spend time doing getting the product ready for production, is ensuring that each of those parts are ready and can be produced in mass quantities, and that the assembly process of those parts is smooth and optimized. 

In many cases consumer electronic products includes some sort of plastic part or component. When going from prototype to production of plastic parts, a long time and a lot of money is spent on creating the plastic moulds or tools as we call them. The tools are what melted plastic is injected into to create the final plastic part. For each part in a product, there is a specific injection tool and each tool consists of two or more very large and very heavy blocks of steel, hollowed out to create the finished plastic shape. Tooling is a complex matter, and even though the plastic injection process itself hasn’t changed a lot over the last 70 years (yes - not kidding) it can take very long time to get plastic tools perfected. Once a plastic tool has been created, it is very difficult to make changes to it which is why prototypes are incredibly important. The Natus One design has been optimized to use as few parts as possible - in fact there are only three actual injected plastic parts in the entire product.

On the electronics side we spend time making sure that the electronic layout is optimized for production - some components are placed using machines and some are done by hand. Optimizing these can have a huge impact on both product quality as well as production throughput which is closely related to production cost. 

Something that people outside of product development probably never think about is how much time and effort is spent on making sure that a product is safe and that it wont interfere with other products. Many regulations are in place - some world wide and some very specific to a region and even country. We spend time verifying that the parts themselves and the complete product passes all the regulatory requirements that are in place - this means everything from chemical compositions to electromagnetic interference. When dealing with certifications you can run into some very nasty surprises that can potentially delay a product launch - perhaps a sub vendor has chosen another raw material than agreed upon, your electronic design fails tests like safety requirements for overload or your product fails vibration or environment tests that simulate what the product might go through when shipped in a container. All in all, the regulatory tests can be pretty nerve wrecking - even for veteran product developers. 

Finally we create instructions each step in the assembly process of the product. Most electronic products are built on assembly lines and it is important that each step is simple and  runs smooth. Imagine it being a little like creating instructions for putting together a LEGO kit - each step is one station on the assembly line. Some steps are done automatically using robots or other types of automation and some are done by hand so test runs are normally needed to get the process just right.

It is very common to have four different stages of product readiness during the production preparation phase;

 

  • First off tool (T0)
    This is when the firsts parts are injected in the newly created plastic tools. Normally there is quite a bit of adjustment needed to get them right, but it is the first glimpse of whether the tools work as expected. Few units are assembled.
     
  • Engineering Verification (EV)
    All plastic tools are adjusted and electronics and its is tested whether all others components such as electronics fit. Typically the electronics used for EV has been produced using the final specifications and should work as the final product. This also means that any software (we call it firmware when it runs inside a device) should be done - maybe not final but at least to a point where functionality can be tested. Typically somewhere around 30-50 units are assembled.
     
  • Design Verification (DV)
    All parts now have the final finishes, paints etc. and the product looks like the final product. These units are typically what is being used for regulatory testing, as well as actual user testing. They are built on the actual production line and unit count at this step is typically anywhere from 50 - 500.
     
  • Production Verification (PV)
    This is the final step before going to actual production. It is mainly used to optimize the actual production and assembly process. Everything is handled like if it was the final product, and this step is typically also fairly close time wise to actual production. 

 

Manufacturing good quality products is not an easy game - and making sure that a good development process is adhered to before starting production is absolutely crucial. 

 

Launch

Going from production preparation to actual production is absolutely exhilarating - if your preparation has been done well enough a production line now suddenly churns out several hundred or even thousands of products each day. It is as impressive as it is scary - each step must work absolutely flawlessly in order for your product to come out just as expected. Any variation like a temperature adjustment or difference in a chemical composition means that the product will be slightly different than specified, and over time this can have unforeseen impact. The best manufacturers in the world are exactly that, because they are very good at controlling all parameters of the production of a product - they have rigorous processes in place and strict rules to follow. It is not the cheapest way - but the only way if you want to maintain the right level of quality. 

Final products are packed and shipped to warehouses from where they are to be distributed. In the case of Natus One, we expect to ship the final products directly from a facility in Asia to backers and customers.

Throughout the development process we will be very transparent regarding the status and the steps we go through. Some backers and customers will find it interesting and some won’t - that’s the nature of crowdfunding campaigns. I am used to being very transparent, informing key stakeholders on the status of development throughout the process, but of course it’s different when the stakeholders are actual backers and customers. That is going to be a first for me, and I am excited to learn from that.

 

If you have actually made it through this entire post I am super impressed, and honored that you feel that it’s interesting enough that you want to take part of this journey. Please do comment and fire away with any questions you might have. 

Tino Soelberg