Six Steps to Hardware (Executive Edition)

by John J. Smith on Sunday August 17th, 2014 03:37 PM

A short while ago, I published a post called Six Steps to a Successful Hardware Product. It was intended as a guide to rapid hardware development in a startup environment. However, I couldn't explain the steps without getting long-winded. If you are serious about hardware development, I suggest that you check it out when you have the time. For this post, I'll just hit some of the highlights.

The main thrust of the article is that hardware development need not take longer or cost significantly more than a comparable software product. With new development tools, creative supply chain management, and a little ingenuity, developing a hardware product can be as easy as developing a software product.

The basic steps are:

  1. Develop a Concept and Business Case
  2. Assemble a Core Team
  3. Evaluate Available Technologies
  4. Develop an "Alpha" Product
  5. Manufacture a "Beta" Product
  6. Release to Manufacturing

These steps should be completed in order, but should not follow a strict "waterfall" model. There are plenty of tasks that can, and should, be performed in advance. For example: identifying and screening Contract Manufacturers (CMs) should be performed well in advance of when you will need them (Step 4). If you wait until your alpha design is ready, your team may be idle for a long time. You should also identify long-lead items as early as you can. A few key purchases in advance may risk a few dollars, but could pay off by trimming months from the schedule.

Trying to follow agile methodologies like SCRUM can cause delays and unnecessary expenses. If you follow an agile schedule requiring a releasable product every two (or three) weeks, you will stress your team without any gain. Many hardware tasks cannot be divided into two week sprints (in some complex cases, not even 12 weeks). Add the fact that custom hardware can take a month or two for fabrication, and you end up with delays that are difficult to deal with in an agile environment.

The six steps can be rolled up into a three act play, with each act consisting of two steps. As the entrepreneur, you will be the main player for the first act. Once this is complete, you have the option of assuming a strictly supervisory role. If you have the right team, you may even get bored. The second act consists of steps 3 and 4, which are the responsibility of your core team. All you need to do is make sure they have the necessary resources. The final act is performed by the CM of your choice. Once you are ready for beta, a CM can usually finish the remaining tasks.

1. Develop a Concept and Business Case

Create a small document that outlines the features of your device. Try to keep it it short and avoid technical details. Less than one page is a good rule-of-thumb.

2. Assemble a Core Team

You'll need a Product Owner to refine your vision. He'll be in charge of answering the question "What are we building?". You'll also need a Technical Owner to oversee implementation. He'll be in charge of answering the question "How do we build this?". You may also want to add a few experts... but keep the core team as small as possible.

3. Evaluate Available Technologies

Your Technical Owner should be working toward a "proof-of-concept" design that validates most, if not all, of the product. It doesn't need to look like a final product. Your Product owner will see to that in the next step. Try to put a deadline on this step. "Techies" can lose sight of the objective while playing with all of the wonderful toys. If you have a software team, they can do the bulk of their development using your proof-of-concept prototype.

4. Develop an "Alpha" Product

Start working on the final form of your product. You, your Product Owner, and your Technical Owner should all agree on the final design. At the end of this step, you should have a working prototype that is complete in form and function. Your software team should be able to code and debug the majority of their software with the alpha prototype.

5. Manufacture a "Beta" Product

This should be a "dress rehearsal" for your production run. You should have a product that can be given to prospective customers for evaluation. Your software team can complete their debugging tasks now.

6. Release to Manufacturing

Done! Now all you need to do is sign contracts.

Of course, there are a lot of items that are missing here. Notably absent are any mention of cost or duration of these steps. Most of these details are very device specific and aren't appropriate for a discussion of the process. They are also dependent on how flexible your budget and schedule are.

Also absent is any mention of what happens after step 6. This is because most larger manufacturers are willing to handle everything necessary to keep a product going. This includes large items like RMAs, warehousing, supply chain management, and drop shipments to customers. If you wrote your contract correctly, the only things left for you to do are read reports and count your profits.

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