If you're an inventor who's found yourself with a great idea but don't know what to do next, you've come to the right place. Throughout our years working as product developers, we get calls all the time from inventors who aren't sure where to start. That is why we put together this guide to the product development process. It covers every step along the way from picking a product development company all the way to full-scale contract manufacturing.
Remember when you read through this guide, that product development is not one size fits all. You may need to pick and choose from various phases depending on your specific design needs. Likewise, you could find yourself in subphases, or even repeating parts of phases, as you spiral down the product development rabbit hole. As in any type of project management, there are risks and benefits to adding or removing parts of the process. This step-by-step guide will give you an idea of what is involved at each stage, but it's up to you to decide on what's best for your project goals.
This phase technically is not included in the product development process, which is why we put it as phase 0. However, it is still a very important step. There are three main things you should research before you get started: patents, product development companies, and funding options. Let's break each one of these down further.
Get a patent
This seems like an obvious step, but countless times when we start talking to potential clients, we come to find out that they haven't done any patent research. Patents protect your intellectual property. It is a good idea to get the patent process started before beginning any new design project, no matter how small. Additionally, you will want to research patents that could compete with your idea. Trust us when we say that you do not want to be halfway through developing your product only to find out that another inventor has already patented it. If you haven't gotten a patent yet, and don't know where to start, we suggest reading our beginner's guide to patents.
Find a development company
By all means, you could try navigating the product development process by yourself, but we don't recommend it. Once you get into the later phases, design and development become much more complex and difficult to navigate. Depending on your product, you may need one or several dozen quality and regulatory documents before selling to consumers. Additionally, when you begin gearing up for manufacturing, there is a lot of intricate behind the scenes design, development, and testing involved. Add in the possibility of do-loops, redesigns, and specification changes, and you could find yourself out of a whole lot of money and time if you try taking on the entire project yourself.
This is one aspect that you do not want to skimp on. Finding a good design company with proven experience and dedicated project managers, who can lead you in the right direction, is well worth the expense. Whether you choose to go with Synectic or another company, make sure to read about what to look for in a product development company.
Project costs can and do vary widely. The early phases are relatively inexpensive comparatively, but if you find yourself signing a manufacturing contract you could easily spend six figures up front. So ask yourself: how will you fund this project?
Many resources are out there to help you get started in acquiring funding. From angel investors to accelerators, there are more ways than ever to find investors. One thing to keep in mind when determining your project budget is in regards to the product development company you work with. Find out if they price out proposals under a fixed-fee or a time-and-materials format. If it's the latter, be careful not to get caught with a project proposal that could send your costs wildly outside of your budget. Our comparison of fixed-fee vs. time-and-materials proposals has more on this.
This phase starts with a formal kick-off meeting between yourself and your product development company. You review the proposal and put a game plan into place on how the project will proceed. In some cases, your project requires a competitive patent or product review. A patent review outlines what is currently available on the market. Additionally, it highlights the pros and cons of each feature that you may or may not want to use in your design. Similarly, if your invention is a medical device, you may opt for clinician feedback. This reviews what features or issues clinicians may have with current products on the market.
Lastly, once all relevant information is collected, the Product Design Specification (PDS) is written. This essential document describes in detail what your invention is and what it needs to accomplish. Throughout the product development process, there could be several iterations of the PDS as the design grows and evolves. However, the initial PDS provides a baseline that guides the design process forward. There is a lot more that can go into this phase but we can't cover it all here. Luckily, we break it down further in our phase 1 review.
This is the part in the product development process where the fun begins. There are several steps to concept development but you should first start by reviewing the PDS yet again. Why you ask? Simple, the PDS guides the entire scope of the project. If you don't have a clear idea of exactly what your product needs to do, then you'd be wasting your time developing concepts that don't fit the requirements.
Once you've reviewed the PDS, draw up a few concept sketches. We normally go about doing this in a group brainstorming session, but you can also go about brainstorming solo. A lot of times these brainstorming sketches are rudimentary and just give a rough idea. After you come up with a couple (we aim for 4-5) you can expand and refine them. Don't go too crazy though as we aren't into full development yet. That comes later.
Now that you have a few concept sketches drawn up, it's time to rank them. At Synectic we do this using a concept matrix that weighs and grades each concept based on specific criteria. For example, you could have categories such as "ease of use" or "difficulty to manufacture". This ranking is subjective, but it helps you narrow down which concepts will theoretically work the best. Generally, 1-2 concepts are selected to develop further any more and it gets too complicated and confusing.
With the concept path selected, prototyping begins. Using computer-aided design (CAD) software, detailed drawings are created on each part and component of your invention. Early-stage breadboard prototypes are fabricated to test proof of concept. This step is necessary as it proves your design can work. From there, the first alpha prototype is made. Alpha prototypes are crude prototypes most often created using rapid prototyping (3d printing) methods. The prototypes are subjected to several initial tests to make sure they conform to all specifications as laid out in the PDS any components that need further refinement are identified
Simultaneously, ergonomic and industrial design begins along with the refinement of the working components. Beta prototypes are constructed using a combination of rapid prototyping and machining. These are more refined than alpha prototypes as they may function, but they do not look like the final product. Subjected to a series of tests, the beta prototype is used to debug and troubleshoot functionality and performance against the PDS. Depending on the scope and complexity of your invention, your design may need an FMEA analysis. FMEA stands for failure mode and effects analysis, which essentially involves identifying all potential risks within the design and how to develop the product in such a way that mitigates those risks. The engineering and prototype development phase is wrapped up with a review of the project so far and identifying any issues that may need further development before the design is frozen.
Have more questions? Here is where we review everything you need to know about prototypes.
Up until this point, in theory, you could do everything yourself. However, if you haven't previously, now is definitely the time to invest in the professionals. Phase 4 is complicated, involved, and pricey and as a result, you can not skip this phase. We cannot stress this enough. If you tried to take your prototype to a contract manufacturer without doing any of the steps for new product introduction, then you would find yourself in big trouble. Most likely you wouldn't even be able to find a contract manufacturer who would manufacture your design.
New product introduction is the first step in the process of transferring your product design into a full scale manufactured product. Most of the process takes place behind the scenes and involves a lot of paperwork. The phase is broken into three parts, DFM/DFA, pilot production, and pilot manufacturing, with each part comprised of design and building, testing, and documentation. If you are looking for a full breakdown of what goes into NPI and all the components that could affect your product, we recommend reading our post on how NPI can make or break your product launch.
DFM/DFA stands for design for manufacturing and design for assembly, respectfully. Each component will be designed for optimal fabrication and cost. There's also tolerance analysis which identifies variances within the manufacturing process that may affect the fit and function of the finished product. Final materials and vendors are chosen, work instructions are written up, and the design is reviewed in detail. Final pre-production prototypes are built and tested to make sure that the changes to the design do not affect the product's functionality.
The quality and manufacturing plan is laid out identifying which party is responsible for each build task, quality document, and procedure. Tools are designed specifically for each manufactured part and a First Article of Inspection (FAI) is completed for each part coming off these tools. The FAI checks that the critical dimensions were not affected by the manufacturing process. Next, is an MFMEA which stands for Machinery Failure Mode and Effect Analysis. This identifies and assigns a risk score to each manufacturing operation. If the score is above a certain threshold, then a fixture or nest needs to be designed. Additionally, an assembly process is developed for each sub-assembly. The goal is to make the assembly process repeatable. Depending on this, additional nests and fixtures may need to be developed.
After the assembly process is developed, an R&D lot is built. This lot checks that the assembly process developed earlier works and is the first time you build with your molded components. The lot is tested to make sure that the assembly process did not affect the functionality of the product. Around the same time as the R&D build is the packaging design and testing. Packing is subjected to a series of tests that simulate what the product can endure during storage and transport.
Another lot is built, but this time under verification and validation. This means that any changes to the design, packing, or process, will involve a mountain of paperwork which translates to more time and money. If your product is a medical device, it will need to go through biocompatibility and sterility testing to make sure that the product will not harm the user and can withstand sterilization.
This is the final part of the journey your product will take through the NPI process, before heading to full-scale contract manufacturing. The units that are produced during these builds go through IQ, OQ, PQ testing. This means that are tested against real-world scenarios to ensure a safe working product at the end of manufacturing. Additionally, several qualification lots are built from multiple production lots. This makes sure the manufacturing process has been adequately stressed and tested.
Contract manufacturing is the final step in the product development process. Unlike the other phases which have a set endpoint, this phase is ongoing. In contract manufacturing your invention is produced on a large scale and can consist of a few thousand to millions of units. When your product is produced in this phase it is finally ready for the market and to get into the hands of your customer.
About Synectic Product Development: Synectic Product Development is an ISO 13485 certified, full-scale product development company. Vertically integrated within the Mack Group, our capabilities allow us to take your design from concept all the way to production. With over 40 years of experience in design, development, and manufacturing, we strive for ingenuity, cost-effectiveness, and aesthetics in our designs. Learn more about how we help inventors and see how we can get your invention to market.