One of the primary reasons why we started MacroFab was that we found that electronics manufacturing partners who were both interested in, and capable of, providing a holistic approach to manufacturing weren’t designed to work with small companies like ours. That is, we could find individual companies tuned to each step of the manufacturing and design process that could effectively handle short-run jobs, but there was little to no communication between each of these companies to ensure success in the next stages, and the companies with this integration had such high minimum project requirements as to be out of our reach.
But, what do we mean by holistic approach? A holistic approach is one which considers each and every required stage of production, from design to fulfillment, and takes into account future process requirements as soon as possible to prevent re-work and change of earlier output. For example, if we take regulatory compliance into account at the early design stages, we consider the layout of the traces on a PCB to be essential to prevent noise, and that a choice between a plastic and a metal enclosure will have major impacts on our ability to pass emissions tests. Furthermore, if we consider the build-box process during enclosure design, we might opt for what at first glance looks to be more expensive: a membrane switch print with an FFC connection instead of panel-mount and wired switches, but in fact is much less expensive in moderate volumes.
To examine a holistic approach in detail, we need to define the key areas involved in taking an electronics product from idea to the customer’s hands:
- Design For Manufacturing
- PCB Assembly
- Enclosure Design/Production
- Build-box Assembly
- Regulatory Approval
- Product Packaging
- Warehousing and Fulfillment
- Return and Warranty Management
As product designers, we tend to be most focused on the areas of Prototype, DFM, Assembly, and Enclosure Design/Production. A typical process for a small electronics start-up is to make a working prototype, start sending off Request For Quotes for production, and then continuously modifying the design until a desired price point is reached. It’s been our experience that the number one mistake made in this process is failure to heed the future requirement of regulatory approval: CE, FCC, and related regimes should be considered as early as possible to avoid very expensive design changes later.
In a holistic process, the impact on future product states of decisions made today should automatically be apparent. The knowledge available to those performing the regulatory testing should be readily available during prototyping, and as prototyping decisions are made (component selection, routing decisions, etc.) the most relevant information should be immediately available to and brought to the attention of the product designer. Likewise, having real-time pricing information available during enclosure design greatly reduces the number of variants needing to be produced and quoted — imagine if we could understand the pricing difference between a semi-custom enclosure design, that subtracts material from an off-the-shelf part, and that of a full-custom injection-molded design at differing volumes in real-time during the concept drawing phase!
Of course, once we’ve designed a product, and gotten it ready for manufacturing, we now have to deal with how we intend to fulfill to our customers, what documentation, marking, and warranty requirements exist in each of the markets we want to sell our products in, and effective processes for handling returns and rework of defective items. With all of this to deal with, it’s no small wonder that many small electronics start-ups fail to scale or even decide to avoid going to market.
Having this detailed view of the entire process with real-time information is something that is currently out-of-reach of small electronics start-ups, especially those without large financial backing to either hire the industry’s best product managers, or to pay the best consulting and outsourcing companies out there.
At MacroFab, we’re working to change this: we believe that if all of the services and knowledge required to bring a product to market can be integrated into one cohesive service, not only can small start-ups compete with their larger peers on a more level playing field, but we can help to enable more small electronics products come to market. One of our driving principles in providing this service is to avoid vendor lock-in — we believe that you’re a far better judge of the tools and processes which work for you than we are, and that everything we do must be built with the goal of maximum flexibility in-mind. As we prepare to launch this winter, we’ll be talking more about how we’ll be helping you to achieve these goals and we can help you in executing a holistic approach to your product design without breaking the bank or having to become an expert in every aspect of getting a product into a customer’s hands.