This is the final step in our series on New Product Introduction: Full-Scale Production. If you missed the rest of the series, get caught up in the intro post.
So here we are, after months of hard work, trips to the manufacturer, and probably long nights, we are finally at the last stage of New Product Introduction: Full-Scale Production. While it could be argued that at this stage you are no longer in NPI mode, I view the start of scale production as the transition zone.
It is now time to turn the crank and print the money. This is where the manufacturer is building hundreds or thousands a day to be shipped out to customers. The processes have been worked out, the hardware and firmware bugs have been solved or accepted, and now it’s just copy and paste.
Go ahead and pop the champagne and celebrate, this is an exciting milestone, one that many products never achieve.
But Now What?
But, the work isn’t over here – though many an engineer wished it was. The product has merely crossed the NPI line and moved into the sustaining phase of a product’s life.
Almost a dirty word – well at least to me, others find this part of the product life cycle fascinating, so I will do my best to do it justice.
If you are at a larger company, the sustaining engineering is usually taken over by a dedicated manufacturing and test team. A team of these specialists that love to tweak the process and adjust the BoM cost so that every little penny and production second can be eeked out of the product.
On a smaller team or startup? Well then take notes because you get to put on the operations hat.
The first role of the operations team (or your new hat) is to continue to cost optimize the product. During development, there were choices made that allowed for expedient delivery to manufacturing but may not have taken cost into consideration.
This isn’t about changing out a cheaper processor (which involves a good deal of work) but rather finding compatible parts that can be either swapped in or allow the chip vendors to fight over providing you with the lowest cost.
A few cents saved doesn’t seem like a lot until you multiply it by the thousands or millions you may be building. And a few pennies here, a dime or two there, and eventually it adds up to dollars saved.
Another route to cost cutting is improving the production process flow. Pre-programming the chips on specialized reel-to-reel machines speed up test time. Building additional automated test fixtures allow for more throughput. All these things reduce the manufacturer’s overhead, and in turn, your product’s cost.
Speaking of trying to find crossmatched components, the operations team is also responsible for dealing with the end of life or extremely long lead time parts.
We talked about this a bit in one of the early stages of NPI in the Part Availability step. But it’s not easy to predict when or why parts are obsoleted or suddenly become in short supply. So at times, they must be dealt with in manufacturing.
For simple parts like passives, a crossmatch should be easy to find. Other times it is a more complicated part such as an IC. In these instances, a small redesign of the board may be required switches in a new part that does the job but doesn’t fit right into place.
When the redesign is required, a smaller version of the NPI process is repeated that allows for the change to be tested and verified to fix the problem. This process usually doesn’t take nearly as long or as complicated – which is good because it is fixing a short-term problem of part availability.
Even with all the development testing and manufacturing test that is done on the product, failures will continue to happen. Sometimes this is just a yield issue on the parts you are using.
As an example, one of the products I was involved with had a small percentage of the products stop working in the field. Every failure came back to a capacitor blowing, a part that had plenty of margin in the voltage range.
It came down to the capacitor manufacturer had redesigned their formula without changing the part number and were seeing a small number of components released that were well above the tolerance level.
It’s not until you are building the thousands and millions that these problems start to appear. The capacitor vendor only saw a 0.1% failure rate, but as we were using a number of these capacitors in our product, we saw closer to 1% field failure
What Happens Next?
OK, so we talked about what the operations role would be doing next, but what about all the developers? What do they do when a product roles into full production?
Well, for some development engineers, they would move on to the next product. A strong hardware product company will always have products in the pipeline. So as one exists into production, a new one is started.
At other times, the operations team may tap development team for changes, end of life parts, or systematic failures. This may be the case if the PCB needs to be tweaked for a replacement part or the firmware locks up three months down the road. It’s a bit of sustaining engineering and product development mixed.
End of the Road
For the product, it will stay in Full-Scale Production for a long while, continuing to churn out of the factory as long as the customers keep buying and your company continues to support it. Eventually, though, every product reaches end-of-life. Perhaps because a new generation is being released or it could be not enough people bought it to justify the support required.
But no matter the reason, the End-of-Life stage is the concluding, eventual end of the Product Life Cycle – the larger process a product goes through (NPI just being an early stage).
Bringing it All Together
So it took us seven steps to get here, but together we have gone through what is needed to bring a prototype into full production – well at least from the engineering side (I’ll leave the legal and business side to another time).
We went from the prototype that was checked for manufacturability, to building a few runs that verified everything worked, to figuring how to test the product before it went out the doors in full-scale production mode.
New Product Introduction isn’t an easy process for a company to go through, but I hope that by breaking down each stage I was able to help you walk through what was important at each step. As with any engineering challenge, by breaking it down each subcomponent is easier to understand and accomplish – building to a greater whole.