"Develop" and / or "Manufacture" an electronic product, what are the differences ?

Some of my clients and partners are sometimes confused about the difference between the terms "developing a product" and "manufacturing a product". What are the differences and how it will influence product development and manufacturing? 

To well understand the difference between those two terms you need to understand the processes which bring a physical product idea to a physical product reality. 

You have an idea ? You want to create a product ? And you have already planned to manufacture your first batch of 5000/10000/15000 pieces. Would you rather develop or manufacture your product ?

Well actually you will need to both. I usually describe the process as the following: 

1./ You have an idea writen on the napkin in a restaurant

This is usually where everything starts: you observe something and a gap which you think you could fill.

2./ You need to evaluate the capabilities and feasibility  to bring your idea to life 

Does it make sense to launch a product if it is unsellable, not adapted to your market. How do you plan to position yourself on the market ? Can you really grab some market shares ? If yes at which cost ? Will you still make profit. 

Does the idea you have is technically feasible? (I see so many electronic project just technically unnamable popping out on some crowdfunding platform, that I realize that many backer don’t know anything about technical aspect).

3./ You need to generate product design to be able to visualize your product appearance

Do you plan to make in plastic, in metal, in wood, ceramic ? Is it going to be with round shape or rather with sharp shape ? Is going to be in a dark color or rather in a very clear color ? How should be the finishing? Mat, glossy ? What is important to consider for customer and user ?

All those questions can be answered but they take time: brain storming, researches, testing, sketching, modeling, refining, verification

4./ Hands on the technical design and engineering

This is usually the most complicated part and where the real added value is. Why ? Because this is where it is required the more complex skills. If you design an electronic product you need to be able to do mechanical engineering, electronic hardware engineering, electronic embedded engineering and sometimes also software engineering. Even with a well oiled process, there are always some difficulties who are met. Plus, you need to make sure that each activity would fit well ll together.

Usually, people have difficulties to understand the cost of such activity. Not only it takes time, but also it requires people with high level background.`

Now I have to concede there are two way to develop product in China; 

  • You can either start from scratch and create your own design. It is usually costly but it bring advantages to have full control on the design and to protect intellectual property
  • You can reuse the design established from someone else under the form of a licencing where you use the design but you don’t own it. It is usually cheaper but it also give you some drawback on the fact that you don’t have access the sources of the project (the owner of the design will not give to you this) and you have limited control on the IP (which you don’t own anyway).

5./ Establish your prototype

Once all the engineering is made, you will need to establish your prototype to validate the engineering done and to validate the references you have created so that manufacturing just have to duplicate it.

6./ Establish your toolings

If your design is specific, you will need to open some tooling to be able to manufacture your product in mass. Tooling can be expensive as they require time to establish.

Once your tooling is established, if there are some modifications to make on the product then coming back and modifying the tooling again might be costly. For this reason, prototype establishment is very important.

7./ Manufacture your product

Manufacture a product means copy and clone a reference sample. This is the easy part of the process. As long as all the processes are properly established and calibrated, the manufacturing will go smoothly. However, if you have any single mistake or problem it will be propagated on a high number of part you produce. For this reason, going trough a stabilization phase before launching manufacturing order is important. Quite often, before launching full speed the manufacturing, a few trial order will be made. It will allows to pick problem on a small quantity produce and to correct those mistakes and eliminate those problems before launching full mass production.

As you can see going from an idea to shipping goods from a factory involve a lot of process. There is a big difference between developing a product and manufacturing a product.

Developing a product: you start from an idea, you have no engineering blueprint yet ready for production and you need to generate all of this before being able to manufacture.

Manufacturing a product: you have all those engineering blueprint ready to input a production line to produce mass production for you

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About Christopher Oliva 59 Articles
Christopher Oliva is an Engineer based in Shenzhen since 2008 involved in Product Development, Supply Chain, Sourcing, Quality Management and Manufacturing activities. With a Msc Electrical Engineering and a Business Administration background, an ISO 9001 Lead Auditor Certification, a Six Sigma Certification and a Quality Engineering Certification, he works as a consultant on mission and contract oriented to Product Development, Manufacturing Management, Quality Assurance & Quality Management System setup. He works in the product development and engineering field, and as well as an advisor and quality consultant for several quality control and quality assurance companies.