In this series of posts on prototyping, we explore how wearable technology is created. Through tried and tested prototyping iterations, we look at how to deliver game-changing wearable technology products from idea to mass production.
Every product is different, but the processes for creating them share many similarities. Choosing appropriate prototyping for a given stage of development is key. Coupling this with deploying a wide range of available prototyping technologies and techniques will rapidly deliver impact, reducing risk in a controlled way and stress-testing the product proposition at each stage.
Form Factor Prototype
Why a Production Prototype?
The final push to market is where iterative manufacturing processes kick in. The design of the device will be mature by now and to the casual observer, the product may look like a finished product. However, the validation and production ramp-up phase is as important, detailed and (potentially) as time consuming as all the other stages put together. It is here that we take the functional, robust and aesthetically complete prototype and turn it into something that can be repeatedly made at scale over large batches with high yield and low failure rates. Through adopting reliable design principles in previous stages, cost optimisation and manufacturing best practice, it is when the device enters production that full qualification and validation turn a prototype into a living, breathing wearable technology product.
The benefits of deploying a product properly through the correct manufacturing steps cannot be underestimated. As the volume of products ‘in the wild’ grows, so do the risks associated with failure, both in terms of customer satisfaction and the cost of servicing those faulty units. So as the total number of products increases, the rate of failure needs to decrease. This is best achieved with good design and systematic manufacturing optimisation.
As the unit volume scales, another key benefit of good manufacturing validation is to adapt the design subtly to reduce complexity in production and hence reduce the risk of failures and the associated cost of production. The design changes instigated in production can have a significant impact on the production yield and cost, but should be as aesthetically invisible as possible.
When a product moves through the manufacturing stages another key benefit is the precedent this sets. The ability to deploy a hardware product at scale is a very strong and clear sign to investors and the market in general of the ability of a company to deliver. This also sets the scene for new product development, both in terms of revenue generation and a benchmark in design and delivery.
Examples of this prototype in the real world
In specific terms, there are three major stages to production; each is considered a validation stage and progressively advances the design to mass production. At every stage, batches of devices are made, but these should not be confused with products, they are stepping stones which increasingly look, feel and perform like the finished thing.
Engineering Validation (typically 50-100 units) allows the details of the mechanical and functional design to be checked. Drop testing, accelerated ageing and other testing is performed and the design iterated to correct any identified issues. Further details are added to the Product Requirements Document, as a permanent record of the design as it is deployed.
Design Validation (typically 100 to 500 units) is where all aspects of the design, including colours, textures and other cosmetic details are finalised and production tooling is made and deployed. All design options are closed at this point and the finished product emerges from this batch of production. Final CE regulatory testing can be conducted and these units will be good enough to sell as finished goods.
Production Validation (typically 500 to 1,000 units) is about delivering long-term, consistent production. The product is essentially fully developed at this stage and increasing batches of units are produced to fine-tune the manufacturing process and establish a consistent, high yield output. Quality Control processes are refined, to capture any defective units before they leave the production line. Targets for QC failures of only 1 unit in 1,000 can be achieved once the QC process is mature. The Product Validation stage is actually the first full production run, but is designed to ramp up the speed and efficiency of production. These units are expected to roll off the line and be delivered to market.
User testing and validation
The kinds of user feedback now accessible to the company are incredible. Deploying thousands of units and establishing feedback to capture and understand behaviour presents a whole new dimension to the business, but also comes with challenges and potential risks, especially if the device has not been well validated and qualified. Managing a cohort of real devices must be done systematically and have been architected properly. Code updates, usage statistics, satisfaction feedback, log files and purchasing habits are all now backed up with larger data sets and a whole new range of service and product offerings can be developed. Qualitative feedback must still be conducted with target groups, but the qualitative data set now takes on a statistical relevance and credibility.
Cost and value for money discussion
There is no shortcut to high-quality mass production. The value is often hard for the uninitiated to see, but the price of poor quality, documentation and processes is ultimately the failure of the entire proposition, so the careful and systematic steps used in production are both highly standardised and very, very important.
Of course, the physical product is a strong focus for the production phase of the journey. However, much attention needs to be paid to the scaling nature of the support infrastructure around the application interfaces and data flows. Additionally, enabling over-the-air updates to the device firmware and secure digital services and warehousing is very important. Watch the Thrive blog for more on the digital aspects of Product Delivery.
Producing a wearable, connected, data-enabled product takes time and attention. The final steps are well-trodden and systematic, resulting in highly qualified and high quality physical devices, connected to reliable, scalable and secure digital infrastructure. Wearables have many unique and challenging factors, but the stages of delivery to market are very similar to industry-wide physical device development and so the options for manufacturing partners are numerous. Thrive will help you select the right partners with the right factory facilities to make our designs come to life through this critical stage in the product development journey.
Article by Dr Jacob Skinner, CEO, Thrive Wearables