So you want to develop a new electronic hardware product?
Let me start with the good news – it’s possible. You can develop a hardware product regardless of your technical level and you don’t necessarily need to be an engineer to succeed (although it certainly helps).
Whether you’re an entrepreneur, startup, maker, inventor, or small business this guide will help you understand the new product development process.
I won’t lie to you, though. It’s an incredibly long, difficult journey to launch a new hardware product. Although hardware is known for being hard, it’s also easier now than ever for individuals and small teams to develop new hardware products.
However, if you are looking for an easy, quick way to make money then I suggest you stop reading right now because bringing a new hardware product to market is far from easy or quick.
Although the steps are presented here in a linear fashion, product development is never a smooth linear progression and at times you will find yourself taking two steps back for every step forward.
This is a shortened introductory version of an article originally published on PredictableDesigns.com. See the complete and most up-to-date version of this article here.
Part 1 – Simplify Your Product
Through my years spent developing my own hardware product and then helping other entrepreneurs develop their products one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that you need to simplify your product as much as possible.
You must embrace product simplification in order to have a realistic shot at getting your product to market in a timely fashion and without going bankrupt doing it.
Product complexity can be a death trap for hardware startups!
Most entrepreneurs, and even most engineers, don’t understand all the consequences of various product features. The addition of what seems like a minor feature can often drastically increase your development cost and the time it takes to get to market.
For example, something as simple as the position of a button could cost you thousands of dollars extra for the injection molds required for production of the enclosure.
Another example comes from an entrepreneur who asked me for feedback on his product concept.
He was very technically minded and had spent a lot of time specifying his product in great detail. But he didn’t understand all the future implications of these features.
We quickly explained to him why one feature of his product was going to drastically drive up all of his costs including: development, prototyping, electrical certifications, and mold costs.
Several more feasible alternative solutions were proposed, and he was off to a much better start. These changes made his product about 3 times easier to bring to market. Overall, he saved at least $50,000 with this one change, perhaps as much as $100,000!
The catch is that unless you understand the entire development and manufacturing process it’s difficult to know the future implications of all of your product decisions.
If you outsource product development be aware that asking your primary developer(s) to help simplify your product may create a conflict of interest. The more complex your product the more money they get paid.
Instead, work with independent experts to help you simplify your product and better understand the long-term impacts of your early product decisions.
There are essentially five options for entrepreneurs and startups to develop a new hardware product. However, many times the best overall strategy is a combination of these five development strategies.
If you don’t have the technical knowledge to properly manage product development and to judge the quality of work being done, then having a technical advisor is a must regardless of which of these development strategies you follow.
This technical advisor can help you make key technical decisions and provide oversight of your primary developers. Even if you are an experienced engineer it’s highly beneficial to have an advisor who understands the entire process from idea to market.
This is rarely a viable strategy completely by itself. Very few people have all of the skills needed to develop a market-ready electronic product completely on their own.
Even if you happen to be an engineer, are you an expert in electronics design, programming, 3D modeling, injection molding, and manufacturing? Probably not. Also most of these specialties are made up of numerous sub-specialties.
That being said, if you have the necessary skills, the farther you take the development of your product yourself the more money you will save.
For example, I brought my own hardware product to market about 6 years ago. The product was more complex mechanically than it was electrically. I’m an electronics engineer by training and not a mechanical engineer, so I initially hired a couple freelance mechanical engineers.
However, I quickly became frustrated with how slow things progressed. After all, I was thinking about my product almost every waking hour. I was obsessed with getting my product developed and on the market as fast as possible. Sound familiar?
But the engineers I hired were juggling it with lots of other projects and not giving my project the attention I felt it deserved.
So I decided to learn everything needed to do the mechanical design myself. No one was more motivated than myself to get my product developed and on the market. Ultimately, I was able to complete the mechanical design much faster (and for much less money).
The moral of the story is to do as much of the development as your skills allow, but also don’t take that too far. If your sub-expert skills cause you to develop a less than optimal product then that is a big mistake.
Also, any new skills you must learn will take time and that may ultimately lengthen the time to market. Always bring in experts to fill in any gaps in your expertise, but be sure to remain involved in all key decisions.
If you are a non-technical founder then you would definitely be wise to bring on a technical co-founder. One of the founders on your startup team needs to at the very least understand enough about product development to manage the process.
If you plan to eventually seek outside funding from professional investors then you definitely need a team of founders. Professional startup investors know that a team of founders is much more likely to succeed than a solo founder.
The ideal co-founder team for most hardware startups is a hardware engineer, a programmer, and a marketer.
Bringing on co-founders may sound like the perfect solution to your problems, but there are some serious downsides as well. First of all, finding co-founders is difficult and will likely take a tremendous amount of time. That is valuable time that isn’t being spent developing your product.
Finding co-founders is not something you should rush and you need to take time to find the right match.
Not only do they need to compliment your skills, but you also really need to like them personally. You are essentially going to be married to them for at least a few years so be sure you get along well.
The major downside of bringing on co-founders is they reduce your equity in the company. All founders of a company should really have equal equity in the company. So if you are going solo right now, be prepared to give any co-founder half of your company.
One of the best ways to fill in any gaps in your teams technical ability is by outsourcing to freelance engineers.
Just keep in mind that most products will require multiple engineers of different specialties so you will need to manage the various engineers yourself. Ultimately, someone on the founding team will need to serve as the project manager.
Make sure you find an electrical engineer that has experience designing the type of electronics required by your product. Electrical engineering is a huge field of study and many engineers lack any experience with circuit design.
For the 3D designer make sure you find someone that has experience with injection molding technology, otherwise you’re likely to end up with a product that can be prototyped but not mass manufactured.
The best known product design firms such as Frog, IDEO, Fuse Project, etc. can generate fantastic product designs, but they’re insanely expensive.
Startups should avoid big design firms at all costs. Top design firms can charge $500k+ to fully develop your new product.
Even if you can afford to hire an expensive product development firm, don’t do it!
However, there are many smaller, less known design firms that I’ve worked with that can develop your product at a much more reasonable price. The cost for these smaller firms usually falls closer to the cost of hiring freelancers yet with more oversight and better quality procedures in place.
One final comment on working with product design firms. You must discard the false belief that you can just have someone else handle all of the development while you just wait on the sidelines.
Those that attempt that path almost always get burned and lose a lot of money and time. You absolutely need to be involved in development and understand at least the basics of the development process as well as the various design tradeoffs being made.
One avenue to pursue is partnering with an overseas manufacturer that already makes products that are similar to your product.
Large manufacturers will have their own engineering and development departments to work on their own products. If you can find a manufacturer already making something similar to your own product, they may be able to do everything for you – development, engineering, prototyping, mold production and manufacturing.
This strategy can lower your upfront development costs. Manufacturers will, however, amortize these costs, which means adding an additional cost per product for the first production runs. This essentially works like an interest free loan, allowing you to slowly pay back your development costs to the manufacturer.
Sounds great and easy, so what’s the catch? The main risk to consider with this strategy is you are putting everything related to your product into a single company.
They will surely want an exclusive manufacturing agreement, at least until their costs have been recovered. This means you can’t migrate to a cheaper manufacturing option when your production volume increases.
Also be warned that many manufacturers may want part, or all, of the intellectual rights to your product.
Development of the electronics for your product can be broken down into seven steps: preliminary production design, schematic diagram, PCB layout, final BOM, prototype, test and program, and finally certification.
When developing a new electronic hardware product you should first start with a preliminary production design. This is not to be confused with a Proof-of-Concept (POC) prototype.
P.S. Download your free cheat sheet 15 Steps to Develop Your New Electronic Hardware Product.