Brutal reality of process management for hardware startup

Brutal reality of process management for hardware startup


Startup company and process management. These are probably two most conflicting definitions you might think about. Everyone is familiar with famous Zuckerber’s statement – move fast and break things. How process management can survive in such environment? Although Facebook is more careful these days about “breaking things”, startups are still operating on the edge to move as fast as possible. The outcome is questionable for many hardware startups. A large majority of young companies are not delivering on time. The rough statistics said 75-80% of hardware projects on Kickstarter are not shipping products on time. That was a piece of information that made me wrote the following post last year – Why Kickstarter projects need PLM?

The blog post Speed Can Kill: the importance of process for hardware written by Ben Einstein of Bolt put a great perspective on what means process for manufacturing startups companies dealing with atoms (not bits like software companies). Take a look on the article – I found it very interesting. So called “long shadow effect” is brutal if you think about potential impact of decisions made during the lifecycle of product development. The following passage can give you an explanation how it can happen:

Early mistakes often don’t have a measurable impact until first shots are coming off tooling and the manufacturing process grinds to a halt. My partner Scott calls this the “long shadow effect.” An early decision about which microcontroller to use or the shape of a housing can appear correct until months or even years later during the first production run. Sometimes parts can have exceptionally long lead times, require odd financing terms, demand manual rework, or be entirely un-moldable. None of these problems can be uncovered by moving quickly to get to production.

The article speaks about four “trunks” as a the way to organize processes. I found it interesting comparing to more traditional department organization you can in PLM implementations done in larger companies. It reminded me my earlier blog about why PLM companies should revise NPI processes. The waterfall process is complicated and can introduce many artificial breakpoints to prevent company from moving fast. At the same time, running out of process organization will fail you on late stages of product development and manufacturing. My favorite passage from Bolt’s blog is the following conclusion:

This is not to say that hardware startups can’t move quickly; in fact they can move faster than ever before. But the ability to go fast and build good products on time and under budget comes from process, not pure iteration. The fastest companies tend to be exceptionally organized about their product development and manufacturing process. Many people have asked us to cover this in much more detail and we’re working on a 4 part series exploring each of these trunks.

What is my conclusion? I’d change the original “breaking things” statement in order to fit manufacturing companies reality as following – “move fast and respect process”. It is easy to say and hard to implement. The complexity of product and processes is high. Products are combined of mechanical parts, electronics and software. Work and teams are distributed. All things are interconnected and can create “long shadow effects”. Hardware startup companies are struggling to set basic elements of information and process organization. My hunch that those companies that are able to organize four trunks right will survive. This is a note for PLM architects and other people thinking how to apply PLM technologies for agile and dynamic processes. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

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  • Peter Yodis

    Interesting topic Oleg. I wonder if the Agile process mentality might start to be adopted by physical hardware product developers. The software development world in good part has moved to that approach and has seemingly stayed with it with some more minor adaptations. Being in product development now for 15 years, I have the itch to see an Agile process be at least tried out. Things discovered in later trunks can change how you should have done things in earlier trunks. I’m more about the discovering in all spheres before the path is trodden down too much.

  • beyondplm

    Hi Peter, thanks for your comment and question! Indeed, software companies moved to agile dev methods for the last 5-7 years. However, companies started to adopt lean manufacturing even earlier. Do you think, there is a chance for these two initiatives to merge?

  • Peter Yodis

    Oleg. Good point about lean manufacturing. I would hope these would merge. I think they will merge when tools and mindsets align with companies that are nimble. I suspect the pace of the Internet of Things market will demand it.

  • beyondplm

    You are right! IoT will make a lot of changes in our eco-system by blurring space between hardware and software. It is actually very blurred event today. Most of tools today are not aligned with the demand of networking world – this is where next change will probably come. Just my thoughts…

  • Peter Yodis

    I think you are right about the next change. IOT devices will allow data to be captured on devices installed in the field and provide information back to the designers about either improvements to the product and/or what is needed for the next products. It will expand the spheres of what is included in the agile process. Every product shipped is another test, and now we can accumulate the data more easily from those tests. Also just my thoughts…

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