I was at a trade show a couple of years ago, more of a product development showcase rather than a traditional trade show. The kind of show where product developers show potential manufacturing partners and investors their idea. With the hope of finding suitable manufacturing and/or investment partner, maybe with luck a distributor. As someone from the new product development world (formally) I have been at many of these shows peddling ideas.
It is always great to see new innovation but sometimes it hurts to see how much money is invested in the wrong areas. One product, in particular from the show reminded me how low-volume manufacturing is so important when bringing a new product to the market. The flexibility that low-volume manufacturing offers can be a lifesaver.
The idea/product that I came across was something simple, that solved a problem in an elegant way, for the pedal/scooter bike market. So I stopped to talk, in about 10 minutes I complimented him on his idea and through our discussion proceeded to give him several tips (based on my experience) about what retailers, distributors, and customers may expect as changes. I could see right away that he was not prepared for this feedback, positive (in my opinion) as it was. His design was final in his mind, all the cash had already been spent, someone needed to believe in it “as is” or there was trouble ahead. It was like watching an episode of Dragon’s Den or Shark Tank through Mark Cuban’s eyes.
He had made what I feel is a cardinal sin in product development, developing in a bubble. IP needs protection, this fact cannot be stressed enough, but, there is cautious and there is too cautious. He had been working on his idea for about 18 months and had forged ahead with full tooling, convinced that his design was rock solid, and it was not bad to be sure. But I know distribution channels and price points, the real feedback, from the buyers who have the power will feel like a tonne of bricks resting on his chest. Changes needed to be made and by going the full production set up route early, those costs were going to be high. I felt bad for wrecking his day with my comments, but in the end, better to hear it from me at this stage than in a buyer meeting at Walmart. I am not saying I am a guru, just that I learned from the school of hard knocks
When possible, like in this example of a smaller product, I like to bring several designs to the table. First class prototypes or finished low-volume production pieces that can show a diversity of material and design possibilities. I am talking about a few thousand dollars spent speculating on alternative designs vs making the major investment in full production set up before you have even really had a serious conversation with your customers (distributors, retailers, and end-users). Take a punt on a few design ideas, particularly when your design is truly something new, because the reality is, no matter how smart you are, you really don’t know what the market is going to say to you until they say it.
You need flexibility, both design flexibility, and capital on-hand flexibility to be successful in the new product world. Per unit cost with low-volume manufacturing is a bit higher, but the overall savings you will make by taking a strategic bet on low-volume manufacturing can be immeasurable.