This post was written by Aren Kaser, FounderDating’s Hardware ManagingDirector and CEO/cofounder of Igor Institute, with help from Ren Livingston, cofounder of Stdio1.
You’ve been working on your hardware product for months, or maybe years, and now it’s finally time to start moving towards volume manufacturing. Before you talk with contract manufacturers (CMs), it’s best to be prepared so you can successfully start the process of engaging with your new potential partner. I recently sat down with the team at Stdio1 (a product and manufacturing consultant company who recently brought Drone, by Evolution Controllers, to market) and asked them what the six most important things hardware startups should know about evaluating and selecting a contract manufacturer.
1. Be prepared to share everything.
Sending over a CAD file won’t be enough to get a CM started on building your product. Be ready to provide (and answer questions about) a complete set of documentation: Requirements, CAD, technical drawings, spec. sheets, schematics, and board layouts. Without complete information, a CM can’t provide an accurate quote, and you definitely don’t want to walk away with an unrealistic quote in hand.
2. Plan to visit the factory.
Whether it’s in China, Mexico, the United States (or anywhere else), visiting the factory is paramount to successful collaboration between a hardware startup and contract manufacturer. Only so much can be hammered out via phone and email. Put the product prototype in the hands of the people who are going to build your device. Not putting your prototype in the hands of potential manufacturers is like giving them a box of parts and text-based list of instructions on how build it. Don’t be surprised when they want to take it apart and put it back together. We repeat: visit the factory.
3. Respect the knowledge a CM brings to the table.
As a customer, you set the requirements and specifications for your hardware project. Your manufacturer will be required to meet those details, but they also have extensive knowledge of how to simplify and improve different aspects of a product, so keep an open mind when they make suggestions. It’s in your best interest to make their lives easier, since quicker assembly times and higher yields both lead to monetary wins for you. Respect what they have to offer, and work with your manufacturer, rather than against them.
4. Give them an honest (and realistic) assessment of production volumes.
If you communicate that you are a startup and will need to transition from low to high volume overtime, they will respect your up-front and honest dialogue. You may lose some CMs who aren’t interested in your low-volume work, but it saves both of you the wasted time of discovering that mismatch in later discussions. In some cases they may even work with you to amortize costs based on your projections. As with anything else, you get out what you put in, so be transparent about what you’re looking for.
5. Be flexible with your files.
Different manufacturers use different systems, processes, and software. Your Bill of Materials (BOM) list, your documents, and your files—regardless of the template or software you use—might be different than those your manufacturer is used to working with. Bottom line, anytime you send files over to a contract manufacturer, work with them to perform a quick compatibility test, so you both can make sure the work will start on time. A project shouldn’t experience delays because of a mismatched system or software.
6. Have a test plan to verify design integrity, engineering goals, and production quality.
Before you start manufacturing you need to have clear requirements, along with an extensive testing procedure defining how to ensure you’re meeting those requirements. A manufacturer will want to work with you to decide how things will be tested and defined. Even though you know every detail of a hardware product and its design, keep in mind that this does not mean that the manufacturer/factory workers will. Getting your CM to understand your product goals can be more productive that investing time and money in rigorous testing processes. A truck full of product that meets the letter of your requirements and not the desired experience isn’t very valuable.
Hardware product development is a complicated and lengthy process. But, with the right level of preparedness and expectations at every stage, you’ll be more likely able to successfully navigate some of the more mysterious phases…like manufacturing.
If you need more tips on working with manufacturers, check out the FounderDating Advisor Network.