I have a client who is on a tight timeline and we both think it will be a good idea for him to visit the factory with our team to help make decisions quickly to cut down the time to market. He brought up an interesting question that is relevant to many new businesses taking products to market. “When is the best time to be at the factory to help speed up the first manufacturing run?”
To understand the answer to this question, we must look at what can be achieved by going yourself to oversee production and then the steps of the process that you can help out with. This particular product is a relatively comprehensive one in that it involves tooling, electronics, production, assembly, and packaging. There may be some unique processes not included here that are a part of manufacturing your product, but as a general rule, these categories will cover the processes for most products.
At this point, we’ve already done many rounds of designs with improvements and relative prototypes, confirmed function, materials, manufacturing processes and assembly. Now we need to create the production run pc boards, the molds for the plastic housing, buy and make all the other internal components, and then, finally, assemble them into a first article. Once the first article is approved, then we go ahead with assembling all the rest.
Critical Points in the First Manufacturing Run
There are two big points in the timeline that are more critical than all the others and we require approval from our clients for each of them before going forward in the our process. One is the approval of the plastic pieces coming out of the tool and the other is the approval of the first articles. While the tool is being built, we will be buying and making the smaller components. While this is certainly very important, it is something that our team in China can manage quite well and there won’t really be any room for creative or necessary decision making for the most part. That is mostly due to the diligence we spent creating a detailed BOM and specifications through the design process.
When the tool is made, it will probably not be exactly right. It often takes some modifications to achieve a high quality tool that meets each of the dimensional tolerances exactly. While this can be a bit of an art, it is also something that our team can manage well since they have the drawings and specifications to measure against. Since these modifications can sometimes take a week or two, I suggested to our client that he plans to come toward the end of when we expect these modifications to be done.
If you don’t have someone in China looking out for your interests, coming when the tool is nearly finished (before their modifications) may be the best time to go, particularly if your overall product is fairly simple. If you aren’t there, there may be many rounds of shipping the first products out of the tool to you which will incur significant shipping fees and, more importantly, waste a lot of time waiting for the plastic parts while they are in the air.
Visiting the Factory
In our case, if our client comes when we expect the modifications to be about finished, he won’t have to wait long and can be on-hand to approve the product coming out of the tool after our team has done the work to make sure it is correct. This will save the three days of shipping time (and money!) and if anything is wrong, it will likely be a very small detail and should be able to be corrected very quickly. Once the tool is approved, then we can make many housings which will be used to create the first articles for the entire product. This is where the magic happens.
For this product, there are many different components and they must fit together in very precise ways to create a seamless user experience. The electronics are some of them, but electronics are generally easy to test assuming you have done thorough design work. Although we’ve made many samples, once we are using manufacturing processes instead of sample making processes for mass production, the end product will be different. In many ways it will be better since we will have the molds and other tools that we’ve invested in to reach tighter tolerances and better quality. But, fundamentally, it will be different which means that there will likely be little details that make the end product different and might need to be corrected for.
Putting it all Together
Since there are many different components and features, there will be many different ways to solve any problems that come up. It may be that everything is made to specification, but the client doesn’t like the way the design turned out in the real world. Or, there may be things that didn’t fit together exactly as expected or create the right “feel”. There are a million details to account for in manufacturing and making the real manufactured first article is where they will rear their ugly heads.
By coming when the tooling is likely finished and staying about 10 days, our client can save the time for approving the tooling and be there for the first articles to give us his direction about how to solve any concerns. We can then make adjustments and make another round of first articles likely in a few days (as we and the factory will be working around the clock to maximize the client’s time there) so he can again give us his suggestions before he returns to America. Of course, if everything goes smoothly, then we push ahead with manufacturing and he gets to experience more of the actual manufacturing process for his own education, which can also help to improve his ability to design for the next product.
Your product, team, and processes will be a bit different, but this is a general overview of the pieces of the puzzle involved so that you can decide for yourself which is the right time to visit your factory during the first production.