Hardware development complexity for small teams

Hardware development complexity for small teams


Agile methods are trending these days. As companies are more focusing on speed then ever, the question how iterate fast and deliver better results is the one manufacturing companies and teams of every size are facing every day.

In my recent blogs, I’ve been sharing some ideas how agile methods can improve product development processes and how PLM vendors can change the way PLM software can support manufacturing companies and hardware teams  – Why PLM should revise NPI process? Agile product development – next PLM frontier?

Manufacturing is changing. For the last few years, we can see a growing number of hardware startups and small manufacturing teams developing innovative products. Those teams are experiencing huge challenge in starting up product design, prototyping, manufacturing and mass production practices. Although, I can see many changes in the way CAD vendors are helping hardware teams, PLM software is still a miracle for most of them.  Traditional PLM development practice is ignoring small teams – the software is too complex and expensive to use. Hardware startup companies are usually coming to PLM when they are far behind their schedule in establishment of product development processes such as BOM, ECO and others.

I shared some of my thoughts here – 5 important things about PLM for hardware startups. I also learned bunch of things about hardware startups with the new company I co-founded last year – openBoM (disclosure – I’m CEO and co-founder).

My attention was caught by ConceptSpring blog – Hardware development process. The teaser of the article is about agile and lean. Here is the passage:

If you are a student of the Lean Startup movement, your first reaction is probably outrage.  This looks exactly like the much maligned stage-gate process from the Jurassic Age. Didn’t we do away with all this waterfall business with the advent of Agile Software Development?

My response: Alas! Hardware development is different from software development. Consumer electronics, while often including integrated firmware and cloud based and/or mobile software, is especially not like a pure software product.

I recommend this article to every hardware team, since it is an excellent description of end-to-end product development and manufacturing process. Article speaks about some specific characteristics of hardware design – Long lead times in designing a subassembly; Long lead times in procuring custom parts; Sequential phases resulting in longer elapsed times from start to finish; System integration takes much longer than pure software projects;  High level of capital investment required in tooling, requiring careful due diligence.

While all these points are true, it made me think about important role of agile product development methods and how it can change engineering software – design, product data management, BOM and change processes.

Here are 3 interesting points I captured from the article

1-  Early suppliers involvement and COTS component check

Getting suppliers involved from the get go makes sure the parts that are designed are compatible with the manufacturing processes and the capabilities of the manufacturing partner in making those parts. On COTS components (aka purchased components): although this is “only” an engineering development phase and not “real manufacturing”, it is still a good idea to work with a supply chain expert to source all key components from OEM suppliers.

2- Integration with suppliers and cost assessment at engineering verification tests

The supply chain, including the contract manufacturer, has been assembled and will become very active in the program after this point. Also, prior to this stage, the engineering expenditure is limited to the engineering development and prototyping costs.  After this point, if a decision is made to proceed, one will need to order tooling – which is a significant capital expenditure that deserves due respect

3- Manufacturing processes: Importance of change order and other formal processes as the team moves to manufacturing

The CM (contract manufacturers) uses this experience to work with you on process development – inventing how to make your product repeatably and with a high quality of output. This is why it is paramount the design should stop changing at this time. Any changes need to be minor; all changes must be tightly controlled and documented via an Engineering Change Order process. The PV build tests out the manufacturing processes invented in the course of the EVT and DVT phases.  In other words, there should be no engineering design changes from EVT to PVT – it’s all about process from here on in.

What is my conclusion? Small manufacturing firms are suffering from high level complexity, extremely sophisticated dependencies between product design, cost, manufacturing and supply chain. Team is usually distributed globally in a different time zones. It brings a very unique set of requirements different from large scale manufacturing. At the same time, PLM recipe for this team remains the same – control design, cost, supply chain and organize formal processes. New tools are needed to support such teams with new agile product development principles. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

Want to learn more about PLM? Check out my new PLM Book website.

Disclaimer: I’m co-founder and CEO of openBoM developing cloud based bill of materials and inventory management tool for manufacturing companies, hardware startups and supply chain. My opinion can be unintentionally biased.

Image credit openbom.com


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