Good companies allocate time, energy, money and resources to the art of product development. Why? Because the products of tomorrow can’t be developed without working through the problems of today. Whether you’re doing product research and development for your own products or you’ve been hired by a customer to conduct the work, there’s a lot to know before getting too far into the process.
Knowledge without action may be a waste of time, as it’s been said—but so is action without knowledge. In my opinion, the latter situation is more costly and increases risk drastically, neither of which is good for business.
There are many reasons to conduct R&D and create prototypes. You may want to increase your product offerings, or provide supplemental products for an existing product or product line, plan to expand into other markets or industries, or you’ve simply been hired by a client for contract work. Regardless of the impetus behind your research, there are questions you need to answer first.
Find the Fit
The first thing to consider is whether the R&D work you’re planning is a good fit for your existing operation. To be successful, there are certain resources you will need to have.
• Do you have the right equipment? There may be certain components of developing the product that you may not have, such as the necessary equipment, a tool, jig or machine. Maybe you need a special sewing machine or attachment.
• Do you have the right team or talent? A spiffy new machine is useless without a talented operator who knows how to set up, operate, troubleshoot and alter the settings on the machine.
• Do you have the time? The process of product development can sometimes be all-consuming. Some products can take months or years to develop. Think through the time it will take: your time, the time of your engineers, drafters, quality department and others involved. Are you able to allocate the talent to the time without a negative impact on your operations and production?
• Do you have the resources? Consider whether you have the proper knowledge of the industry, market or product. Is there sufficient space in your factory? Is the project properly funded? Is the supply chain in place?
Questions to ask
What industry will the product be used in?
Every industry has a regulating body, and it’s important to know what and who it is, what requirements are in place, and what tests are required to have a product approved.
For example, if you’re developing a product that will be used in a preschool, all of your materials will need to be CPSIA compliant (Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008). This ensures that you don’t have banned chemicals off-gassing into the air and exposing preschoolers to toxic chemicals that become airborne.
Another example: If you’re developing a medical product, there are requirements not only related to what materials you use, what documentation you need or what process controls will be required, but also certain requirements the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) places on your operation. Your facility may need to be FDA registered, licensed and inspected to verify compliance.
Where will the product be used?
The environmental conditions of where the product will be used are important to the design requirements. If the product is going to be exposed to temperatures that are freezing or extremely hot, you need to know. There are many different factors about where the product will be used that affect the decisions that need to be made on materials, manufacturing methods and design. Examples of differing environments include exposure to high or low temperatures, UV exposure, being attached to a building, in a car, in the ocean, in a crib, on an airplane or even being exposed to chemicals. Each environment requires a unique set of specifications that will need to be considered for the product development process.
Who is your customer?
Knowing who your customer is has a significant impact on how your development process will look, flow and evolve. If your customer is the government, for example, you should expect:
• A lot of administrative paperwork
• Specific documentation requirements
• Non-standardized order, billing and payment processes
Other types of customer groups include online businesses, retailers, wholesalers, distributors, large corporations—or an individual who invented something in his garage. Expect each customer type to have different operations, systems, methods, requirements and price points. The most important thing to remember: If you don’t know who your customer is, you can’t properly plan the prototype and R&D process with realistic time frames and cost estimates.
Who is the end user?
The end user is defined as the person, place or thing that the product will live, work or function in or on. Knowing what the end use or user is helps to determine:
• What kind of use the product will see
• Design requirements
• Test requirements
• What the duty cycle may need to be
• Labeling and/or safety requirements
• Packaging requirements
Examples of different end users include infants, animals, hotels, factories, schools and almost any conceivable purchaser. Why does this matter? Because each example comes with different regulating bodies that have authority over the product and are responsible for its regulation. The FDA would be responsible for products used in a hospital or food establishments, but a product used in a home would be regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Without knowing who or where the product will be used, you won’t be able to figure out how it needs to be designed.
How does the product work?
Understanding the theory of the product’s operation is key. In order to know how it needs to be made, you first must know how it is supposed to function.
• What is its core function? Does it move, lift, inflate, cushion, deflate, cover, protect, slide, attach, clamp, hold, wrap, carry?
• What makes the product function correctly? Are there sub-assemblies that are part of the product? Does the product become part of something else?
• What can cause the product not to function properly?
Some requirements may be regulated, while others may simply be the customer’s preference. If you are going to develop a shade sail over a playground, for example, it could include different levels of protection from UV radiation; however, the installation of the frame system will be regulated by the jurisdiction of the installation. It could be a city, county or a state agency that defines the specification requirements for the “hard goods.”
To begin, or not to begin?
Once you’ve looked at the questions, considerations and scope of work for your product development processes, you should have enough information to determine if this project is something you want to accept, defer or decline. Keep in mind that not all projects are good ones, or are feasible even if they are good ones. Having a method to determine which projects are a good fit for your company will save a lot of frustration, for both yourself and your clients.
Chad Miller is the director of contract manufacturing at American National Manufacturing Inc., and recently conducted a series of webinars for IFAI on the prototype process.