Understanding Levels of Engagement in the Product Development Cycle
As a full-service Engineering and Product Development firm, SIGMADESIGN sees a tremendous variety of project types that we help through the product development cycle. SIGMADESIGN has capabilities encompassing everything from concept through production, so projects can range from building a quick prototype in two weeks, to a full scale development of a consumer product, lasting years in duration. Within this broad spectrum of development projects, we observe distinctly different expectations regarding the level of effort needed to truly take a product to market.
Product Development refers to the range of activities applied to turn an idea into a consumer salable product. The development cycle of a product must maintain focus on an outcome that yields a mass produced, robust, and full featured product. A full development cycle is both longer and more complete than the work done to achieve a Proof of Concept device (POC). Typically, a POC effort is an early subset of a full development cycle.
Frequently, clients find it helpful to discuss all phases of product development. With this in mind, below we explore our approach to the various stages of Product Development, which includes: Proof of Concept, Prototype, Pilot and Production. We examine the main purpose of each phase with the intent of painting a more complete picture of all the work a typical product development cycle entails.
Proof of Concept
First, a Proof of Concept normally answers the question, “Will this idea work?” The main purpose in this stage is to assess feasibility of the high risk functional aspects of the product or process as quickly as possible.
For many products, experimental hardware is used and tested to demonstrate the feasibility of a concept. For complex systems, the POC prototype is typically a limited function version of the system. It has a focused purpose of demonstrating compelling or risky areas being proposed. Generally, final form and full functionality are not part of this effort. This allows for speed of learning and quicker iteration as required. The POC prototype is an engineered exploration of a critical technology and specifically not intended for volume manufacture.
Usually, a POC has a short life cycle. It is a key tool in determining whether or not to make a further investment. The Proof of Concept prototype design intentionally does not optimize the product for mass production. Finally, Proof of Concept prototypes are not designed to be re-used.
To reiterate, the Proof of Concept prototype demonstrates the feasibility of a new concept or new technology. During the POC phase, there may be several “mock-ups” to achieve a better understanding of the product, how to maximize the design, and prove the idea will work.
- Mock-up: One or more mock-ups may be done in parallel with the Proof of Concept prototype. Full scale mock-up prototypes inform engineers while they are architecting the product to establish the size, shape, and look of the eventual product. Additionally, a mock-up may function as a three dimensional space study to determine size and position of internal sub-systems.
Second, within the Prototype phase there are distinct prototype stages to go through as the product matures and moves closer to the final production version. Often iterations of each prototype phase include in-between phase prototypes. This accounts for unforeseen hurdles prior to the next full phase build. Additionally, during this phase the first build in the chosen production factory occurs, which is known as Engineering Validation.
- Alpha Prototypes: These are also known as Lab or Functional Prototypes (See diagram below). We define these prototypes a by “works like, looks like”. When detailed design is complete, functional prototype builds prove the design will meet form, fit and function requirements. For complex products, there may be custom mechanical parts, custom electrical circuit boards, and custom firmware and/or software. It is common to iterate Alpha prototypes until they reach a high degree of confidence and they show that the integrated system will meet all product requirements. Full functionality and full feature set prototypes progress as they mature through “Alpha 1”, “Alpha 2”, and sometimes “Beta” prototypes. Alpha cycles often include increasing volume builds as the design matures. In conjunction with this, later cycle prototypes may be used to prove product reliability, error handling, and regulatory compliance. They may also serve to solicit input from the end user.
- Engineering Validation (EV): Engineering Validation is the first build in the chosen production factory. This phase validates the tooling and manufacturing process. Devices from this build are often subjected to a high level of validation testing. This ensures the product, as manufactured, meets all performance and life requirements. If necessary, there can be multiple EV phases to work through design or production issues that arise on the factory floor. Design engineers and tool/fixture technicians are almost always present at EV prototype builds.
In the Pilot Production phase, the product is at a point where the product is well defined. The client knows what it works like and looks like. The product is also robust and includes a full feature set. Pilot Production can also be referred to as Design Verification (DV) prototypes or Pre-Production prototypes
- Pilot Prototypes: Pilot prototypes are built in the factory that will make the final product using the full suite of production tooling. The design is stable and has the complete feature set. Pilot prototypes are often used to fine-tune the supply chain and the production process. They also provide confidence that the product is ready to be mass produced.
- Validation Testing: Pilot Prototypes will undergo a full suite of Validation Testing to harden the design for consumer release. Validation Testing also works out the kinks in the test tools and processes.
Volume Production is the final phase in the development process where devices are produced based on market demand. Oftentimes, there is a ramp of increasing volumes during the beginning weeks to sort out issues prior to full volume production. Products made during this phase feed the supply chain all the way to the consumer as the end user.
- Production: In this phase, also known as Product Verification (PV), the design and assembly processes are proven to be stable. This means the production processes have high yields, and the Operations team can incorporate cost saving measures.
SIGMADESIGN has vast capabilities and experience providing support during production. Our employees support production lines all over the world. Most frequently we deploy: Engineers, Technicians, Quality and Test Engineers and Technicians. Additionally, we support production through design, build and shipping of manufacturing tools to many places world-wide. Our support teams can setup, test and debug manufacturing tools on the production line. As a company built on contributing to all facets of Product Development, our team has been through the product development cycle hundreds of times.