Final prototyping is among the many steps before your invention is flowing freely to consumers
There are months and potentially years ahead to finish development, manufacture, and ship your product to loyal backers.
BY JEREMY LOSAW
It is an immense achievement to have a successfully crowdfunded product: coming up with the idea, having the audacity to chase it, and spending hundreds of hours of prototyping and iteration to get it just right to show the world.
Your marketing was spot on, and your customers love it. It is a euphoric feeling to get to the finish line.
However, in the immortal words of “As Seen on TV” legend Billy Mays: “But wait. There’s more.”
Having a fully funded campaign is a fantastic beginning to a journey of making your product real, but the work is not over. There are months and potentially years ahead to finish development, manufacture, and ship your product to loyal backers.
Typically, prototypes shown in crowdfunding videos and photography are great but not ready for manufacturing. They have what we call the “Goldilocks Quality”: They are just good enough to function and look beautiful but not fully engineered for production.
So, Step 1 is to finish the engineering work. If the product is going to be made via a molding process, CAD files must be modified so that the parts have as even a wall thickness as possible and can be removed from the tooling.
Electrified products will need the printed circuit boards refined, or designed from scratch if the prototype uses developer circuitry such as Arduinos or other microcontrollers. Any parts harvested from off-the-shelf products, such as electric motors or switches, can be found in catalogs or custom-made from suppliers.
All updates to the design of the product must then be tested in another round or more of prototyping to validate the changes. It can be hundreds more hours of iteration before the product is ready to see a factory.
This is the task of finding the factory or contract manufacturer to mass produce your product. Typically, the first consideration is determining in which part of the world you want to manufacture.
Though it is often a goal for American innovators to manufacture domestically, higher labor costs often make it impossible even with the benefits of shared language and time zone. Most electronics and soft goods products are more economically made in Asia. China and Taiwan are the best for electronics and consumer goods, with more emerging nations such as Vietnam and Cambodia offering good options for garments and textiles.
Finding a reputable factory can be daunting. Sourcing sites such as Alibaba can be a great way to browse, but it is important to verify a factory’s capabilities by either visiting yourself or paying a third party to check it out.
Trade shows usually draw a good crowd of manufacturers; many reputable factories will invest in exhibiting at shows in the United States. This is a great way to meet factory representatives firsthand. Of course, do not share any design files until you have non-disclosure agreements or confidentiality agreements in place.
Tooling and sampling
The first step in mass manufacturing is creating the tooling for the product. This can be molds, forms, patterns, dies, masks or any other bespoke apparatus needed to make the components of the product.
Many products have injection-molded parts, and the tools are usually cut from blocks of hardened steel that take weeks to machine and are often one of the biggest capital expenses of a manufacturing program.
For printed circuit boards, the tools are the photoetching masks used to make the copper traces on the board and solder masks that are used to precisely place solder paste for the electronic components. Each product will have a unique set of tooling that depends on the specifics of the product.
Once the tools are made, the first samples of the production-grade product can be made. These samples are prototypes that are used to test the manufacturing tooling and assembly techniques to confirm that mass production runs will be done correctly.
Each major iteration is given the designation “T” for “tooled sample” starting at T1. The T1 sample may be the wrong color or texture, and may even have functional issues. However, with each revision, you specify all the areas that need improvement, and each revision gets better until a sample is approved that will be the reference for the mass production run.
This is where the hard work of sourcing and sampling pays off, and you finally make the mass production run of the product.
The machines are prepared with the tooling in its final form, assembly lines are created, and the product is assembled and put into its packaging.
It is an exciting and nerve-wracking part of the process, because any mistake made here is not isolated to just one prototype. It is likely to affect thousands. Thus, it is imperative to have done as many sample iterations as possible to work out the kinks, as well as create a quality control process that will ensure all finished goods will be working and in good shape when they make it to the hands of your customers.
Once completed, the finished goods are placed in master cartons, which are multi-packs of your product, and then palletized to prepare for shipping to a warehouse or distribution center.
Many crowdfunded products are made overseas and need to be properly shipped from the loading dock of the factory, across international borders, and to your warehouse. Specialty shipping companies can handle all details. It is highly recommend using one to navigate the paperwork and the duties.
Shipping and fulfillment
Shipping products to customers is often done by a professional fulfillment house called a 3PL (third-party logistics) company. There are 3PL warehouses all over the world so it is usually easy to find one conveniently located, but it can take some research and negotiation to find one that is right-sized for your product and can scale with you.
It is crucial to understand the fee structure for receiving orders, monthly warehousing, pick and pack, and the shipping cost itself. It is also important to ensure that the 3PL software integrates with the e-commerce or other sales system you are using to make sure orders are shipped correctly.
The choice of 3PL should be made before the manufacturing run is completed, so shipment from factory to warehouse will be seamless. Particularly frugal or intrepid entrepreneurs may choose to warehouse and fulfill the product themselves out of a garage, but this technique often leads to frustration beyond the cost savings it may yield.
Manufacturing and fulfillment usually gets easier after the first run. The factory is already chosen, and the quality control systems are in place. New orders can be placed easily with known lead times.
However, if the product is a hit, you may start taking purchase orders for quantities beyond the capabilities of your current manufacturing solution. If the quantities must be ramped up, you may have to create multi-cavity tooling to make more of each part (think a 6-tray muffin tin over a single), find new supplies for key purchased components, and expand assembly lines.
With some due diligence upfront, you may find a factory at the outset that can scale with you. However, it is not uncommon to scale out of the original factory or have to bring on additional factories to help satiate the sales volume.