Okay, so you have your idea, your CAD file, your IP protection, and you’re ready to go. You’ve decided not to go the licensing route because you want to maintain total control over your product and get all of the profit for your baby – and understandably so!
So how do you take the leap and become and honest-to-God hardware startup with your manufacturing in place?
You now have two options:
• Directly approaching manufacturers
• Approaching contractors
A contractor, of course, is someone who will act as a ‘go-between’ for you and the manufacturer. They will pass on any communications and will ensure that you have your hand held at every stage of the way.
You’re now going to want to send out proposals, and you can do that by looking on Google for the companies that meet your requirements, or by going to trade shows, or by looking at websites that list everything you need all in one easy place. For example, the websites Alibaba and ThomasNet (Thomas’ Register of Manufacturers) will give you plenty of manufacturers you can choose from and from there it’s a simple matter of scrolling through and finding what you’re looking for.
Another option is the excellent ‘Maker’s Row’ . The tagline of this site is ‘manufacturing made easy’ and as this suggests, the entire concept is that this one site will provide you with everything you need to get started in one convenient location. They have a list of over 10,000 American Manufacturers, but unfortunately, you will have to pay to become a member.
If you’re planning on creating something specific – such as clothes – then you will be looking for a specific type of contractor. For example, you might need a garment contractor, and you can find these at among other sites (though this site sorely needs an update!).
Tim Ferriss spoke to Shopify and recommended that makers send out lots of proposals to lots of factories and let them all know that you’re speaking with others. Let them bid for your attention and try and win your business.
Now you can also choose to make a prototype this way by speaking with the factory. This is a good idea because it will give you some indication of the quality of your product and it will give you a more ‘realistic’ example of your product. In other words, if you are going to Kickstarter with your item (more on that in a moment) then you’ll benefit from being able to show proof of concept and to explain that the product you’re showing off was made by the manufacturer you’re eventually going to work with!
Okay, so now you need to send your proposals… what do you send? Well, fortunately, we’ve already gone through all the steps necessary at this stage so you should have a most of the materials you need to include in your proposal ready.
Here is what you will need to send . . .
Defining Your Product
The first and most important step in your manufacturing process will be to define your product. In other words, you need to know exactly what it is you're making for the manufacturers to be able to know whether or not they can help you. This means you need to know the precise materials and how they're going to be assembled.
To start then, you may want to produce a functional specifications or product requirement document. This only needs to be a word document, but the basic idea is that you're going to describe all of the tangibles and intangibles in as succinct a manner as possible. This might mean saying how long you want your battery to last, or it might mean saying how waterproof you want it to be. Who is it for? What should the user interface be?
Specifically, these are some points you should include:
Intangibles of how it should look/feel/act
Will it be used inside or outside
You don't need to go through this stage, but if you don't know the first thing about manufacturing, then this document will mean you can get guidance and consultation from those that do. It can also be helpful for your planning and for structuring your thinking. You can also submit this document when you’re crowdsourcing your designs, or you can ask the designers you hire to do it for you!
Bill of Materials
Now comes the BOM. The Bill of Materials is a complete list of all the materials and components needed to create your product. Think of it as the first page of the assembly instructions you get with your IKEA flat pack furniture – it should include every last screw and even the paint. For those making electrical products, you will need an electrical BOM too. If you aren't a DFMA expert – then consult with one or ask your manufacturing partner. This is where the functional specifications document comes in handy! Your electrical BOM should contain part numbers where possible, or you can include these details in a separate components specifications sheet.
The technical files are the blueprints, which you will often create using software. For plastic parts, you'll want to use CAD (computer aided design) software to create a 3D image file. For mechanical parts, you'll want to use a Gerber file for board layouts (using software like Cadsoft Eagle). This detailed information is necessary for your manufacturer to answer some questions regarding how the product will be made and ejected, how shrinking will be managed etc. Again, you might want to get help with this step.
The Final Steps
Now comes the fun part – getting to hold your product in your hand and see it work for the first time! Sort of… The prototype is like a real-world 'beta' that you can use to check that the end product looks, feels and functions as intended. In a perfect world, you should send your prototype to the manufacturer along with your documents as best you can. You can use 3D printing to do this or even construct it by hand.
Along with all this, you'll also want to include your rough order estimate or MOQ (minimum order of quantity). This tells the manufacturer how many pieces you want to make, and it's important because the best technique will depend on whether you've ordered a small or large run. What's more, you may be able to get bulk discounts for larger orders.
That’s everything you need to get your product made and to take it from an idea to reality. Now there may be several steps here that you don't fully understand or that you don't feel comfortable with but don't worry: if you find the right person, you'll be able to get help through each step. Don't be afraid to speak to people and ask questions. Now you have the technical terminology; you should find it's at least a little easier to get started.