As an engineer, you’ve most likely spent countless hours using other companies’ toolsets. And you've probably got ideas on how you could improve upon them and bring a better solution to market. But unlike in software development, where there’s no upfront cost in building your code, developing a hardware product relies on crafting a solution from tangible materials. It’s essential that you have a solid plan before you begin, to avoid unnecessarily investing in equipment and raw materials.
Here are five steps to get you from your back-of-the-napkin scribble to a genuine product that you can sell to your target market:
1. Define the Problem You Want to Solve
When bringing a new product to market, you’ll need to clearly define the problem you’re solving, then be able to quantify how your solution is an improvement upon what is available today.
Identifying your problem will also drive your design resources. You know what skills you have, so where is your design team lacking? Will you need other engineers, legal guidance, a beta test group, or other team members? Filling out your design team early will make sure you have the tools and resources you need to engineer your solution appropriately.
Finally, a clear target problem also tells you about your future market. You need to know who will be using your product and discuss the human factors that are important to your users. Your product will only be successful if the users find it to be both effective and pleasant to use.
2. Consider Your Costs
Financial considerations should always be part of your hardware planning process. You can do a few things upfront that will help you manage costs throughout your design and production processes. One way to help is by investing in solid tools upfront; digital prototyping and CAD software tools provide valuable capabilities in design and testing at a low cost. Take advantage of these tools to make as much progress toward your final solution as you can before bringing on costs for physical prototyping and production.
When you have a basic design solution, it’s important to price out major components of your Bill of Materials (BOM). Will the solution you’ve created be at a price point that your potential market will support? Will the components be available in the quantities and timelines that you need them, or will you pay a premium to meet your schedule?
Cost also comes into play during physical prototyping and manufacturing. Are you able to quickly and easily create prototypes, through means such as 3D printing, or will more time and scheduling be necessary? Consider manufacturing options, remembering that quantities play a large role in determining what is available to you.
Finally, how will you get your product to consumers? Many entrepreneurs have turned to crowdfunding platforms with great success, but those campaigns require marketing packages, videos, demonstrations, social media, and other aspects that may incur additional costs. More traditional avenues also may need packaging design and marketing materials.
3. Gather Expert Advice
You are well aware of the merits of your hardware solution. But are they immediately apparent to others? Consider getting an independent design review from several peers to see what a fresh set of eyes might bring to your product, and gain validation that you’re on the right path.
Whether your solution is a unique development or an improvement on a current product, it’s worth it to speak with a patent lawyer and make sure you aren’t designing a solution that isn’t viable due to existing or pending patents.
Remember that your product may also need to pass industry certifications. It’s important to identify these early in your design process so that you can meet them as you go, rather than having to redesign later.
4. Go for a Long Test Drive
Here’s a spot where those great software tools you invested in will help you – they allow you to design and debug your solution virtually. CAD technology is a cost-effective way to illustrate how individual components of your design function under realistic loads and how each element functions together. Simulations can also account for material properties and environmental aspects like temperature or vibration. Conducting virtual simulations and evaluating the results allows you to consider design alternatives early in your process before you commit to a solution and move forward. You will be able to optimize your design, validate performance, and ultimately reduce your time to market while delivering a robust product and earning the satisfaction of your users.
Physical prototyping is becoming more and more affordable and accessible, providing an unparalleled opportunity to physically debug and revise your solution. Potential investors and users will be much more enthusiastic if you’ve got a well-functioning prototype and can replicate it consistently.
Make sure you use prototyping to support additional hardware (cases, platforms) as well. Be mindful of common problems, such as thermal issues or ventilation and sealing. The more your prototypes resemble your complete final product, the better.
5. Seek Honest Evaluations
Now’s the time to get as much feedback as possible on your solution, so that you can tweak and optimize from here. Have other engineers experiment with it, have potential users try it, run it over and over. Honest feedback will help you adapt your solution, preventing your first purchasers from becoming your (likely frustrated) beta testers. Evaluators (including yourself) should consider these questions:
- Have you solved the problem you identified, and have you done it in a way that is an improvement on any existing solutions on the market?
- Is your solution user-friendly, including the human factors elements and any electronic user interfaces?
- How will your solution hold up over time? Will it require software updates or are hardware components likely to wear out?
When first-time entrepreneurs consider these topics early, then revisit them often, they’re able to save valuable time and resources and stay focused on optimizing product performance so that they can bring a top-performing solution to market.
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