Do you know when it’s time to hire experts to help with your prototype?
There are a few telltale signs that you have pushed your prototyping abilities to the max, and that it’s time to call in the cavalry to help get your product to the next stage. The time that this will occur within your product development will be unique for every product and team. Impacting factors include the complexity of your project, the skill set of your existing team, the cash flow on hand, and the schedule of an estimated release date.
As an example, the TaggioPro Bicycle Pump Head is a product I developed and took to market. As someone who tinkers with just about everything, but does not have a formal education in engineering, I quickly realized I had hit a wall after the first few prototypes. I lacked a fundamental understanding of the materials and tooling required to produce future iterations of the prototype. Acquiring outside knowledge from experts was critical in steering me toward a more defined path in terms of qualifying the product and for effective mass-production.
Qualifying a product means that the product has undergone rigorous testing in a multitude of scenarios in which the customer may use it (e.g. heat, cold, high pressure, low pressure). In order to achieve effective mass production, one must first determine how to best make the product in large quantities, while simultaneously preserving product quality and profit margins.
In an effort to come up with a strategy for qualifying the product, I went back to the product requirements document originally drafted for the pump head. This helped remind me of the use case scenarios for my product. Given that I had already determined I need some experts to assist in that actual qualification process by this point, I next used the early but fully functioning prototype on Kickstarter to raise money to hire these experts. Specifically, I needed engineers with experience in mechanical products.
After some research, I set up a meeting with the engineers at Leardon Solutions. After that very first meeting, it was obvious that I had made the right decision. The team at Leardon Solutions offered an abundance of insight as to what types of abuse my product should be built to withstand. Beyond considerations such as general material costs, Leardon Solutions pointed out factors such as where the product was to be manufactured, and subsequently how it would be shipped to the point of distribution, were very important to consider. Shipping method (e.g. by sea, air, land) can make a significant impact in terms of product preservation. Depending on which method is chosen or available, numerous additional variables come into play. For example, vibrations, thermal differences, extreme humidity, or highly arid conditions. Plastics and other compounds are sensitive to nearly all of these variables and if not accounted for, the product could show up at its destination in pieces or as blobs of melted plastic. For example, oceangoing shipping containers can reach temperatures in excess of 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Many of these facts I either didn’t know, or hadn’t thought about. Fortunately, these experts helped bring these variables to the forefront, because it was discovered through our testing process that the rubber seals in my product were very sensitive to heat. The seals ended up requiring several reformulations before the product could withstand our tests and perform as needed. It is clear that shipping the product without proper qualification would have been disastrous. By utilizing this team of experts, and taking the time to complete all the tests and update the product design or materials as needed, my final product has a customer return rate of less than 3%. For a first generation product, that is remarkably low.
What You Need To Take To The Experts To Save Time, Money and Frustration.
In terms of expense for contracting outside expertise, most engineering teams will quote you a price to completion, frequently broken up by billable hours. If you start working with a company where this is not the case, I would personally suggest looking elsewhere. There are often a lot of unknowns that come into play with new products. Letting someone charge you a flat price for a project may result in the possibility that your project could get to a point where the company needs to make decisions based on how much work they’re willing to put into it without renegotiating the contract. In other words, your project may play second fiddle to your negotiated budget. Being billed an hourly rate typically helps an engineering team keep the important stuff, like the product performance and quality, front and center. A great engineering team will also communicate where your current bill is approximately every one to two weeks throughout development so that there are no surprises. It is a good idea to communicate up front about how often you would like billing updates, of if you have any hard limits, so everyone is on the same page.
When you attend your first meeting with your new vendor, it is important to provide them with the most developed and complete prototype and product requirements document possible. Doing so will allow the vendor to provide you in turn, with the most accurate time table and cost estimate possible. There may be several things in a homemade prototype that cannot be mass-produced for cost or quality reasons, and finding that out from the onset will save you money, time, and frustration.
Things to bring with you To YOu PRoDuCT DEVELOPMENT MEETING:
- Any and all prototypes you have developed. Be prepared to walk the team through your process of thoughts and development.
- A product requirements document filled out to the best of your ability.
- Use case scenarios.
- Any similar products that inspired your creation.
- Any retail packaging ideas. Describe how and where you plan to sell your product. While it is not likely the product development team will develop your packaging, it’s good for everyone involved to know how the final product will be packaged for resale. This may all change, but having a starting point will help guide the process.
- Any non-disclosure documents that you need executed and patent paperwork that you may have completed. Even provisional patents count.
It will be extremely helpful to takes notes since many ideas will be thrown around in the first initial meeting. Review those notes following the meeting to ensure that you and your internal team understand what has been said, revised, dismissed, etc. Discuss schedules and communication strategies up front to keep things as consistent as possible. I personally recommend emails so that discussions can be revisited with ease, and are less likely to fall out of context.
Last but not least, do you homework. Research the heck out of your preferred experts. Ask lots of questions and verify that the product development team has worked similar verticals with similar materials. The great thing about product development is that the proof is in the pudding so to speak. If they can show you samples of their work, have them walk you through how they got from point A-Z with that sample, and what the end result was.
Have questions about hiring an expert? Leave them in the comments below. Good luck!