The stepping stones to manufacturing scalability
In previous KD articles we’ve explored in-depth early development, proof of principle and minimum viable product. Here, we explore the stepping stones between prototyping and high volume production. How can you minimise the risks, gain valuable customer insights, and transition smoothly to production at scale?
Taking your highly valued working prototype forward into manufacture can take many routes depending on the scale-up strategy that best suits your business. Getting this right should reduce risk and ensure this remains an exciting stage in your product release. Making the wrong decision at this stage can lead to long term issues that are hard to resolve, wasted budget and extended timescales. In this article we look at a typical example of a logical approach to move from the working prototype stage, through to low volume manufacture and on to ramp up to high volume manufacture. Of course, there are many approaches, and requirements can vary for different industries, especially with medical development.
This is really the most important stage, and ideally this is clear at the start of the project. Working backwards from when your business is likely to hit high volume output and the volumes preceding that is key, although there should be some flexibility in this. Also, the regulatory/compliance impact of different manufacturing methods should be clearly mapped out and risks understood.
Pick suppliers that are happy to work in low volume – be honest about the numbers, and take the time to find the right partner.
So, what are the options? Below are a few examples based around a typical plastic part production:
- For volumes in the 10s there are many options form rapid prototyping to machined parts and vacuum cast parts (high part cost / no capital investment)
- For volumes in the 100s processes such as RIM moulding or vacuum forming
- For volumes in the 100s to 1000s there is low cost rapid injection moulding
There are many others of course depending on the design, including a mixture of the above. You may decide to tool the device core engine and 3D print the casework for example (it may be a cost vs function decision).
For products which incorporate electronics, use of off-the-shelf modules can be convenient for rapid prototyping and suit low volume products well. At higher volumes however, economies of scale and supply chain reliability are likely to make bespoke electronic designs attractive. The strategy for achieving compliance with electrical safety, EMC and radio standards must also be carefully considered for the target volume, as designs become more bespoke in order to drive down cost of goods, the extent of compliance testing required tends to increase.
The parts will be detailed to suit the selected low volume process, for example, the detail required for vacuum cast parts is slightly different to injection moulded parts, so keep in mind that your data pack will need updating as you transition to volume manufacture to ensure it is designed for manufacture of that process. Ensure the design and engineering teams are closely involved in this process as they will adapt the development accordingly.
For electronic assemblies, test features should be incorporated into the design at an early stage appropriate for the target production volumes. As production volumes increase, it is desirable to reduce the number of manual test steps required, either through design for automated probing, or increasing use of built-in test software.
Learn as much as possible during the early small batches of tens of units, as it is easy to implement minor updates at this stage at relatively low cost. Depending on the device usage, you can de-risk compliance certification by completing pre-qualification testing on these early parts. Demos, customer trials and direct user feedback are common for these first units, and it is also an efficient time to refine any quality issues. These parts can be considered for initial accelerated life testing and destructive testing if required. Of course, if the material or process is different in volume production you may need to repeat this later on.
Often still only in the 100’s these later batches may start to produce revenue, and enable you to start onboarding the volume manufacturer if you haven’t done so earlier in development (which is always preferable). But essentially having this supply system in place buys you as much time as you need to select and trial new suppliers, set up production cells, resolve commercial agreements, develop your go to market plans and marketing materials, identify distribution arrangements and prepare your customer base.
Transfer to volume
At this stage the data pack has already been updated to address all earlier learnings and will ensure alignment with the volume manufacturers inputs. All the earlier learnings will greatly de-risk that large capital investment in tooling and assembly cell set up. When you’ve matured the device enough and qualified the design and business case, it is then time to hit the go button. Keep in mind that some testing and qualification may need repeating to verify the transition to volume manufacture and has not impacted performance or failure methods. Also keep playing it safe by allowing for ‘steel safe’ design with tooling and locking down key tolerances early.
The approach above does depend on the complexity of the device and the budget drivers but for those who have experienced going to volume manufacture too early they will recognise the stress, pain and financial impact as well as reputational impact that can have. The points outlined above also help mature the electronics within a design, and resolve many of those last minute software points. So take the time to explore the correct strategy as there are more and more options available and the opportunities for new ways to de-risk manufacturing are always evolving.
At KD our teams can help you with all elements of your move through the manufacturing pipeline volume. We provide consultancy in addition to design for manufacture support, and an assist in recommending manufacturing partners. Get in touch with our Head of Industrial, Ian Binder below to discover more.