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From concept to customers - Beeline founder Mark Jenner's insight on how hardware products are made

When we discussed the idea for Beeline in late 2014, neither me nor Tom had ever worked on a technology product before. I remember distinctly stating that we could have it in the shops by Spring 2015 no problem… I couldn’t have been more wrong. Since then we’ve had the help of hundreds of supporters, been through a few years of product development, worked with some amazingly talented people, and were proud to get Beeline into mass manufacture in early 2017. Through this process, I’ve been given a new perspective into the enormous amount of work and passion that goes into making the technology products that have become an integral part of our every day.

I was completely ignorant of this, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one. Our expectations as consumers are extremely high. This is entirely fair, but it makes for a very high bar to meet for new companies bringing their first product to market. For that reason, I wanted to share this insight - here’s our rough guide to creating a new hardware product: 

 

Getting started

You’ve got your idea, you’ve done your consumer research, you’ve tested the concept with hundreds of people, you know this product will change people’s lives. You want to get your idea out there on a crowdfunding site in front of the world, but before that you’ve got a lot of work to do. You’ll be needing a fairly good prototype before you even go near those platforms for two reasons: Firstly, you need to be convincing enough to whet potential supporters’ appetite and tempt them into parting with their cash. Secondly, you need to get an idea of what you’re making, so you know how much you can sell it for. Better get cracking.

A quick glance at Kickstarter or IndieGoGo will tell you that crowdfunding is now highly competitive – products exhibited are typically very mature in their design, at least aesthetically. It’s also hugely risky to run a campaign without an in-depth knowledge of how you’re going to build your product and how much it will cost – you don’t want to be another startup on the list of those that never shipped their goods. For that reason, it’s difficult to do an effective crowdfunding campaign without spending time and money on significant development beforehand. That said, you’ve never attempted to sell this product in a real way, so you don’t know if anyone will buy it… your campaign could fail, or it could make millions.

One option is to do everything yourself. If your founding team has expertise in product development, electronics, or software development then you’re in a good position to save some cash here. Even if not, it can make sense to get your sleeves rolled up and learn as much as you can now at the prototyping stage.

Alternatively, you work with partners to bring those skills on the early product design and prototyping. Even at this early stage it’ll take expertise in design, electronics and software to get to a basic working prototype that looks good enough for Kickstarter. There are some fantastic people to work with out there who have tailored partnership models to work with start-ups, often using equity or deferred fees to deal with the cash-strapped position of your new company. That said, you could easily spend many tens of thousands on prototyping of even a basic electronics product, much more if it’s complex – it’s a very tricky balance to strike.

 

The campaign and beyond

The increasing popularity of crowdfunding for new products is a great thing, but it also means you have to try harder and harder to get noticed. Professional photographs, polished videos, a well-planned marketing and PR campaign are all pretty commonplace amongst the successful projects. Again, this stuff isn’t cheap unless you or your friends are able to do it yourself.

Jumping over the small task of making your campaign successful, let’s assume you’ve done that, you’ve got a load of orders for a product you haven’t made yet, and you’ve got some money. You also have a community of brilliant supporters who will help to shape your product, but (rightly) expect good things to arrive in a reasonable timeframe. Things just got very real, you’ve made a promise… you have a lot of work to do.

One of the most challenging things about making a connected hardware product is that there are so many areas of expertise involved. To have all that expertise in-house you would need a big team of expensive people that you probably can’t afford at this stage, so finding good partners is crucial.

 

Making it happen: the physical object

Industrial design – the shape, the look, the feel, the physical interactions, the colours. Whilst your prototype might be good enough to polish up for a video or a photograph, it will be a long way away from something you can give to a customer and for them be satisfied with it. Every curve, bend, click, press, turn, surface etc needs rounds and rounds of prototyping to get to the expected standard of a consumer product. Prototyping happens using specialist techniques like foam shaping, CAD modelling, 3D printing, machining, and the rest.

Electronics design – the electric trickery. This is all about finding the best value set of components to get the job done, and then designing a circuit board that fits all of those into the right space within the physical design. In many cases space is a challenge so multi-layered circuit boards are used to fit more technology into less space. If the product uses radio technology like Bluetooth, the antenna is often part of the circuit board design and needs careful tuning using specialist equipment. In the later stages there is a process of back and forth with the manufacturer, improving the production yield and fixing any other issues arising.   

Design for manufacture – once the physical and electronics design is complete, the next job is to turn your beautiful prototype into something you can manufacture. This is usually done in collaboration with the factory that will make it, and involves extensive run-throughs of the manufacturing process and resulting adjustments to the design. Any part of the production process that is fiddly or risky at this stage needs to be rethought and redesigned to ensure a low defect rate and good manufacturing yield – in some cases this can be a complete redesign of the product, but getting the manufacturer involved early in the design process can help to avoid this. 

Tooling – with the design finalised for manufacture you’re ready to start tooling. This means creating the moulds that will be used in production, usually for the plastic parts. For injection moulding, the typical plastic manufacturing technique, this can be expensive, as the steel the moulds are made from must withstand enormous pressure and must therefore be extremely hard. For products with many parts the tooling can be hugely expensive and take several months to produce.

Certification – in order to sell an electronics product it needs to pass certain tests. If it fits into a specific class, there may be additional certification legally required (eg Bluetooth, a health product, a children’s product) or there may be certain standards that are important to validate your product to the customer (eg waterproof rating). To get these certificates involves contracting a test lab to do independent testing of your product and hopefully provide you with the stamp of approval.    

 

Making it happen: the software magic

UX design – before anybody writes any code, the interactions with the user must be thoughtfully designed. The basic functions may seem obvious at first but to make the product feel intuitive and simple to use is a fine art that is often the distinguishing factor in which products are most popular (Apple, the best example). The output of this work will be detailed wireframe diagrams and artwork, describing exactly how the user journey works to the developers who will create the software.

Mobile development – for most connected products the majority of the intelligence comes from the mobile app that drives them, so the app is just as big a part of the product as the physical object. In most cases you would be developing two apps, one for iOS and one for Android, and if your product collects and stores data you’ll need to build a backend database to house that. Bluetooth apps can be particularly tricky, especially on the Android platform where you have literally thousands of different smartphone/tablet models, all with different hardware configurations. For a launch-ready app you would need likely need months of development on each one of these elements.

Firmware development – this is the software that is loaded onto the hardware itself, usually installed in the factory. Firmware developers are famously difficult to find as it’s a specialist form of software development to write code that interfaces with the physical components on the circuit board. The firmware needs to be iterated every time the electronics design changes, so runs in parallel with that process. Particularly important is writing the ‘bootloader’, the part of the firmware that allows an update to be performed remotely – a crucial part of any connected hardware product to ensure it can keep improving. Again, this is months of work, not weeks. 

 

Starting production

You’ve got a finalised and production ready design, you’ve worked through all the assembly and manufacturing issues, you’ve had the tools produced, you’ve designed and built software for the devices and for the mobile app. You’re almost ready to start production. Steady on – before you kick off a full batch you need a few pre-production runs. This is where you manufacture 100 or so units in the real factory configuration to flush out any issues. We were fairly typical and did three rounds of pre-production before all the issues were fixed. Although our product is relatively simple, there are 12 factories involved in making it, so there’s a lot of coordination and a lot of elements to control to make things run smoothly.

You’re finally there, you’re ready to go, you give the thumbs up and production starts on your first real batch. You’ll be in the factory, examining the quality of the materials, making sure the checks are being done, paranoid about every last detail you’ve agonised over for the past 18 months.

Then it happens. A magical moment. You see your baby, your pride and joy. The first shiny products in all their glory coming down the production line. At this point you take a pause, you step back, you saviour the moment your creation becomes a reality and give yourself a brief pat on the back…. and then you snap out of it, jump up to the end of the line, and check that the damn things work.

 

The big picture

So how long does all this take, and what will it cost? Each product is obviously different in its complexity, so there are no hard and fast rules. Anecdotally six months from crowdfunding to shipping is a very fast timeline, with most projects taking a year or so, and many taking several years. Budgets will vary from a couple of hundred thousand pounds to many times more, and it’s unheard of to hear of a development story completely without hiccups. Manufacturer relationship is a critical area where many projects fall down, often made more difficult by the culture and language barriers with the manufacture expertise in Asia. 

For those who are thinking to take on the challenge of creating a hardware product this is not intended to scare you away, but to give you the benefit of our hindsight before you take the plunge. We have had a wonderfully fulfilling journey so far and we’re excited to get started on developing more products, despite the inevitable sleepless nights. For everybody else, hopefully this gives you a tiny bit more perspective on the blood, sweat and tears that goes into your technology products to make them work as well as they do.


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