Posted by: malstott | October 1, 2012

Manufacturing for Dummies

Acmestartup has a breakthrough security product. The software bits have lovingly been stuffed in a white box server platform and volumes have been manufactured at a reputable contract manufacturer who just so happens to have designed the basic server. These initial beta boxes will be sent to early adopters of this new breakthrough product. First impressions are everything. It matters what they think. These first users will be the evangelists and the potential investors of this nascent company. Alas, when the product arrives it doesn’t work. What could possibly go wrong? How hard is it to customize an off-the-shelf server and load software and firmware. Apparently it is hard enough that the CEO of Acmestartup has made the resolution of this manufacturing problem his number one priority. When he should be worrying about the next great security algorithm, he is losing sleep over why the box shows up dead on arrival.

Startups and small companies are all about the product and customer and should be. In the same way that these small companies should get professional public relations, accounting and legal advice, these companies should be getting professional manufacturing advice. Some engineers have both development and manufacturing experience but not many of them have ramped products to volume nor have they had to choose partners, negotiate contracts or set up manufacturing processes.  And even if these engineers have had manufacturing experience is it good to divert attention away from the critical path of product development and maturity? When in doubt, hire a professional. Here are a few key pointers for those not in the field.

1. Pick the right manufacturing partner – The right partner has a focus on small companies and they have a good reputation. Ask for references. Talk with your start-up peers with similar products. Make sure that they have some local presence. Don’t rely on a company that is only in asia. You need help close to your development team. Ideally your partner should have some local manufacturing, not just reps close by.

2. Put together a cracker-jack virtual ops team – You probably can’t afford to hire all of the elements of a dynamite operations team but you can piece together experts through consultants and through your contract manufacturing partner. Make sure your collective team is thinking about purchasing, planning (and the systems that go along with the purchasing and planning), customer service, assembly and test, quality, metrics. Yes, you are small and volumes are small but all of these elements could stop you dead as you are ramping.

3. Put a manufacturing geek on the team – Do this early. Embed them with the engineers. Think about the component suppliers and final assembly process early. If possible, have your contract manufacturer supply someone to sit on your team. It is not too early to design for manufacturing if your intention is to supply a quality product to the customer as quickly as possible. Don’t design, build, ship crap, recover or try to recover.

4. Kick the hell out of the product before you ship to a customer –  HALT is Highly Accelerated Life Testing. This test will vary temperature, vibration, voltage levels until the unit fails. In other words, add variation to the process ahead of shipping. If you plan to ship your product any distance, make sure that you know what the product can withstand in terms of temperature and vibration. In addition to HALT testing, if you have multiple suppliers for a component, vary what you load on the board or use in the product and see if you can make the product fail. Ship the product across the country to your mother. See if it arrives ok and have her set it up. This works less well if the product is for the enterprise or for the construction industry but find the analogy (ship to your buddy in an IT department).

5. The devil is in the details – The small things are what get you. This is true for all companies but is particularly dangerous for smaller companies without the resources to recover. Don’t forget about customs, import taxes and regulations. Don’t ignore documentation, labeling, packaging. Watch out for long lead times for components…all it takes is one part that you can’t get fast enough. And finally, consider how you will repair and/or upgrade your product. What is your “reverse supply chain”?

While all of these considerations could seem obnoxious when you are working on a product that solves man’s or woman’s most pressing problems, they can stop you in your tracks or at the least will slow you down enough for the competition to catch up. So, consider manufacturing as a competitive weapon when launching your business. Seamless ramp coupled with highest quality at no cost to time to market should be the goal. It can be done. You aren’t a dummy!

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