To succeed sooner, fail faster

Author : Jonathan Hawkins, Technical Director at Newbury Innovation

04 July 2017

Newbury Innovation, the design and development division of contract electronic manufacturer (CEM), Newbury Electronics, has extensive experience of helping companies with their product development and electronics design. The company has designed, manufactured and ushered numerous electronic products onto the market and has witnessed both the successful approaches, and the less so, time and again.

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Electronic Product Design & Test; to view the digital edition, click here – and to register to receive your own printed copy, click here.

This article explores what designers and engineers should consider when outsourcing their electronics manufacturing.

As everything in life, including the kitchen sink, now appears to be ‘smart’ and connected, the opportunities for electronics design and product development show no sign of slowing. Coupled with that, most readers of this article will probably have electronic product design, development and sourcing at the core of their day-to-day activity. But of course, electronic designs are just one part of a bigger picture; those designs, and the products they enable, need to reach the market to deliver both commercial and individual success.

What does it take to get to market?

Any product development should begin with the objective of ‘fail faster’: a paradox that requires some explanation. It’s understood by many that learning is an order of magnitude faster when doing – as opposed to just watching, listening or even drawing. Build your prototype, whatever it may be, as soon as possible and rapidly flush out the difficulties. The inception of a product idea is never the point at which to write comprehensive ‘i’-dotting-and-‘t’-crossing specifications. Aside from using up valuable time, such prevarication can also sap the initial energy and enthusiasm that generated the idea in the first place. It’s always quicker and cheaper if it’s just tried.

Accept that multiple prototypes will be necessary

Entrepreneurs are often impatient and unforgiving of themselves when it comes to this inevitable trial and error. We don’t expect to be able to play a musical instrument the first time we pick it up, so why should a first attempt at a new product or idea work straight away? Find a successful product and ask the developers how many prototypes they had to produce – the truthful answer will rarely be ‘just one’!

Altium, providers of well-respected CAD software for designing electronics, estimate that it can take between 11 and 16 prototypes before a product is stable and ready to be progressed to the next stage (although this is a higher figure than we have typically experienced at Newbury Innovation).

Be prepared to stop early and save money

We would never advocate an irresolute or unenthusiastic approach to product development, but if this early prototype work unearths insurmountable technical or commercial challenges, then be prepared to be bold, stop work on it and save yourself a great deal of money (and heartache). It’s not failure; external factors have dictated that it won’t be feasible, and perhaps all that is needed is for you to think again and find something more deserving of your efforts.

Accept the realities of funding

Television programmes such as Dragon’s Den provide both entrepreneurs and the wider public with a distorted view of securing finance. For example, typical investors rarely want to quash enthusiasm; in fact, it will often be your own character, energy and passion that attracts them in the first place – and will often determine your success or otherwise. However, at the ideas stage, there can be a tendency for investors to tell you what you want to hear – and for you to only hear the positives in their response; the crux will come when the prototype is on the table and you ask for commitment (read: money).

The reality, in the vast majority of cases, is that you will need to bankroll the prototype stages yourself, because few investors will finance an idea with no embodiment.  

To move into production, it will likely be necessary to raise substantial funds (investment on a shoestring budget usually leads to failure), but these initial stages will be good preparation.

The next stages are all about commitment

Obviously, your commitment is paramount, but also that of your investors – and customers. Once you have presentable prototypes, try to secure early commitments for sales. If you can’t, you could be flogging a dead horse; if you cannot secure a ‘yes’ at this stage then you probably need to question your project.

These are all sound points, but how does this relate to the real world? Electronics developers need to take an innovative approach to working with their customers: one that allows for several iterations of prototypes, and for the changing demands of the market. In the long run, not only will it be much cheaper, but also more efficient if the developer provides a package that automatically supports these changes. It also removes the discomfort and anxiety that can arise when you constantly have to go back to the client with unplanned costs for which they haven’t budgeted. This is achieved by providing an extendable period of support, six months to a year after completion of the final prototypes. And during such time, the full scope of engineering resources are still available to the client.

Such an approach requires the developer to accept and budget for more than one production run of prototypes, and to be prepared to make small modifications as a matter of course – rather than insisting on following the letter of the specification. Indeed, it’s fair to say that this approach, termed ‘fixed budget engineering’ (FBE), in fact allows for the spirit of the specification, rather than letter, to be followed. The only caveat is that the specification is not turned on its head, and if this is understood, then Fixed Budget Engineering (FBE) is perfect for satisfying this need.

So, next time you’re developing a new electronics product, don’t be afraid of getting it wrong: fail faster, learn from those initial errors and make sure you are working with  a company that will support you – from the inception of the idea to your first million pounds of turnover!

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