beyond the prototype
Company: Microsoft Research
The hardware research and development communities have invested heavily in tools and materials that facilitate the design and prototyping of electronic devices. Numerous easy-to-access and easy-to-use tools have streamlined the prototyping of interactive and embedded devices for experts and led to a remarkable growth in non-expert builders. However, there has been little exploration of challenges associated with moving beyond a prototype and creating hundreds or thousands of exact replicas – a process that is still challenging for many. We interviewed 25 individuals with experience taking prototype hardware devices into low volume production. We systematically investigated the common issues faced and mitigation strategies adopted. We categorized our findings in four main categories: (1) gaps in technical knowledge; (2) gaps in non-technical knowledge; (3) minimum viable rigor in manufacturing preparation; and (4) building relationships and a professional network. Our study unearthed several opportunities for new tools and processes to support the transition beyond a working prototype to cost effective low-volume manufacturing. These would complement the aforementioned tools and materials that support design and prototyping.
Figure 1: The two main phases of hardware development encompass six main activities. The transition from Phase 1 to Phase 2 typically happens when a handful of functional working prototypes have been made.
We first developed a list of around ten questions designed to elicit the challenges of low-volume hardware production and approaches taken to overcome these. We then ran two pilot interviews with those involved in low-volume production. The interviewees discussed their pain points, corroborated aspects of our hypothesis that Phase 2 of manufacturing was still problematic, and provided valuable insights into a typical process (or lack of process!) that is followed by a hardware creator to manufacture devices.
Following our pilot, we conducted 25 semi-structured interviews to understand the common challenges associated with low-volume electronics manufacturing. The major themes of our interview questions were challenges faced in: (1) sourcing components; (2) finding a manufacturing partner; (3) designing for manufacturing; (4) testing the functionality of the product (5) certifications and regulations. We also questioned them on their personal motivation, tools used, and statistics about cost, pricing and profit. Other questions were tailored to each interviewee based on their journey as it unfolded.
We divide our participants into two categories: creators and enablers. We define creators as individuals who have undertaken low volume hardware device manufacturing either alone or a as a part of a small team. On the other hand, enablers are individuals who assist creators in achieving their goal. they include (but are not limited to) individuals at hardware start-up incubators and accelerators, crowdfunding organizations and contract manufacturing companies. We used snowball sampling to recruit interviewees. We tried to balance interviewees in terms of creator vs enabler and by geographic location.
All interviews were audio recorded and later transcribed for data analysis. We then performed open coding on the transcribed audio interviews to identify recurring themes. Next we analyzed our codes using thematic analysis to identify (1) common challenges and issues associated with low-volume manufacturing; and (2) any mitigation strategies adopted to overcome these issues. Finally, we used member-checking with one enabler and one creator to validate our results.