How to Avoid Costly Surprises in Connected Hardware Design

When designing connected hardware products, there are many ways that a project can go sideways and end up far over budget without the product being completed or in a manufacturable state. We’ve seen this happen countless times and it’s never one person’s fault, rather a lack of understanding of the full product design process and…

When designing connected hardware products, there are many ways that a project can go sideways and end up far over budget without the product being completed or in a manufacturable state. We’ve seen this happen countless times and it’s never one person’s fault, rather a lack of understanding of the full product design process and having the experience necessary to avoid these cost surprises.

After years of seeing clients head down the wrong path, we’ve come up with a short list of considerations for companies to take into account when designing, or hiring a development team to create, a connected hardware product. This list includes:

  • Define your product specifications early.
    • Include unit pricing at either retail or wholesale level with a breakout for the enclosure.
    • Make your environmental and safety definitions accurate but restrained. For example, if you don’t need a fully submersible waterproof solution but blown rain will work, use the lesser.
  • If a limited budget will drive choices, the order of steps taken is very important.
    • Do early PCB architecture, thermal assessments and volume sizing before industrial design begins.
  • Find a team with comparable production quantity experience.
    • Having experience with production methods equal to the quantities you expect to develop and sell will help keep your product development focused on solutions that meet your goals and don’t trigger inappropriate manufacturing or tooling costs. If you want an app along with the product, find a team that can do physical and digital design to make it more cohesive.
Specifications – Define Early, Comprehensively yet Keep the Product Focused

There are many reasons to define your product specifications early.  These consist of things like product components, price targets, user demographics, product volumes, operating life.  By defining these early in the development process, a product development consultancy firm can give you advice on how to hit your targets, as well as point out things to avoid. For example, if you want to hit a cost target of $10 for plastic parts in your product, you may have to give up some of the aesthetic options like over-molding or an unnecessarily complex part count. To get a part that is actually manufacturable for that price, you may need to accept a simpler design that reduces the number of injection molds or slides (moving parts in the tool) or minimizes additional steps in the production process.

Another thing to keep in mind is to be very specific in your specifications.  By including all components, such as the number of PC boards, displays, LED’s, or wifi chips, preliminary costing ranges will be more accurate. Also, the requirements of these parts should coincide with a review of any compliance or regulatory requirements that your product will need to meet for its market, whether this is driven by certifications, safety standards or your competition.

The countries you plan to sell your product into will also drive development costs. If you choose only the Americas, there are different safety submissions and requirements than if you sell into Europe. Making sure you’re hitting all desired country certifications at from the start will be a lot less costly than addressing an additional set of certification requirements later in the development process.  Waiting to do this later can cause significant re-do’s in the component selection in as much as some components already meet the UL/CE/RoHS compliance and others do not.  Keeping in mind all the countries you want to sell into, now and in the future, can help determine which components you should use.  For example, using a power supply that is already UL rated will prevent any power supply compliance issues in the future.

The Order of Steps Can Make or Break Development Costs

Keeping product specifications restrained is one thing that many companies overlook. Things like water repellency require much more development work and have higher manufacturing costs.  For example, poured water vs. blown rain vs. waterproof have significantly different technical requirements. It might make more sense to just make a product rain-proof and maybe in the next generation waterproof it, or it may turn out that the market never really needed waterproof nor did customers want to pay for it. One quote we live by is: “If your product is perfect in the first iteration, you took too long to get to market.” For multinational companies with millions of dollars to spend on development this may not be the case, but for a small company it’s sometimes more important just to get your product out there and show customers the value you provide, rather than perfecting everything about it. The first iteration can have some compromises that you upgrade or change in the second generation, but many times companies impede their own success by setting their sights too high on their first product launch.

The order of development is also a factor in risk mitigation and ultimately product development cost. If there’s a functional requirement which defines a set of components and these components have both a physical size as well as a set of performance drivers, such as they don’t work well when operating at high temperatures, and there are power, longevity or servicing limitations which mandate no active cooling (i.e., a fan), then these design restrictions must be defined and assessed prior to industrial design work or formal enclosure engineering can begin.

One example we worked on was an outdoor wireless system which needed to operate from sea level to 18,000 feet at temperatures of 55 C and without a fan. The initial mechanical engineering component layouts and initial thermal assessment work was done at the start of the program. This back-and-forth optimization between component architecture and the thermal engineering work led to sizing, heat sink plate location and a layout that allowed industrial design to accurately begin. This meant that early concepts reviewed by our client didn’t need to be redone or changed because the thermal and RF performance engineering required a new size or architectural layout. This saves a lot of time and costly redo’s.

Also early architecture studies can point out issues that weren’t noticed earlier. Just by having a mockup you can see things, like a piece of sheet metal that would block an antenna and create a deadzone in connectivity. In one of our connected product development programs, we found exactly this and had to optimize the antenna location to prevent connectivity interference by the sheet metal within the device. It was these early architecture studies that warned us of this before we got too far into the project.


Map Design Experience to Your Product Goals

Finding a team with relevant work experience can help “keep you out of the weeds” in product development. If your product includes an app, find a team that has designed apps before and knows how to design them in a way that engages trial users and quickly turns them into buying customers (vs. looking elsewhere). Having the app and hardware product design team together under one roof can bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds and leave your users with a more memorable product experience.

A product development firm’s experience in production methods should also be in line with your product quantity goal.  For example, a manufacturing goal of 200 products annually is very different than 100,000 monthly – and should drive very different design team choices. Having worked in high-volume plastic housings does not make a firm an expert in brake-formed sheet metal or visa versa.  This experience in the various manufacturing methods brings keen awareness of the minefields of certain design, manufacturing and assembly choices.  If the right designers are involved early on, they can help guide natural choices which lead to great design without the pitfalls of difficult or inappropriately expensive manufacturing methods.

Bringing the manufacturer (sometimes called the contract manufacturer or CM ) in early in the development will also save money and often months of production start-up time. This ramp-up time can also be accelerated by having some of thisplanning begins pre-production thereby gaining months of lengthy coordination between tooling, training and material/component preparation. Once, during an early design review, a CM suggested that if we would flip a PCB over, they could do in-process testing- which means cost savings for the client. For us that was ‘free for the asking’ in the process at the time but would have been a substantial and expensive change later.

The Right Stuff

There is no perfect product development formula where you input what product you want to make and out comes the list of steps to take. Every project varies greatly, and finding a firm or team with the right experience can save you a lot of trouble in the long run. Many times, people have come to us after using a design firm that only does creative work and complained that none of the parts were actually manufacturable. This happens all the time because many firms don’t have the engineering and manufacturing experience required to bring a product to production. Changing things late in the process can be very expensive, as almost every part will need to be re-engineered and Design for Manufacturing (DFM) will need to be reevaluated.

Being aware of these things can help save time and money in the long run, and save a project from painful patches and fixes down the line. Giving clear specifications is one of the first things we require when starting a new product design, because over the past 34 years we’ve learned the pain points behind many of the specifications and know the process that can help guide a client to a successful, cost-effective solution for their connected product.

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