Many times people have ideas in their head for a unique or even revolutionary product that has never been and have dreams of producing and selling the item, or even trying to license the idea to another company to produce. There are many steps along the way when going from an idea in one’s head then a rough sketch on the back of a napkin to making a commercially viable product. To bring an idea to market, the idea needs to be protected, the design refined and developed to be manufacturable, and then produced and marketed.
The first step with any idea is to address any intellectual property concerns. For most products, the first step is to do a patent search to see if there is any existing intellectual property. If the product is to be sold in the United States, the United States Patent Trademark Office is the first place to start. There is a search function available at https://www.uspto.gov. If there is no evidence of an existing patent then the new idea should be protected via the patent process. This can be very complex and is outside of the scope of this article. If budget allows, it is best to consult an attorney or other legal professional that has expertise with intellectual property.
After or often simultaneously with protecting intellectual property, the next step is to take the idea and start to get it documented in such a way that it can be presented to potential investors or if the manufacturing is to be completely self-funded a full set of design data will be required including 3D CAD models and manufacturing specifications and drawings.
Almost every new product today is developed using some type of 3D Computer Aided Design (CAD) program. Using this technology allows for complete visualization and refinement of an idea before any physical parts are manufactured. There are many software products available from near free to thousands of dollars, and the level of sophistication required often depends on the complexity of the product or design. Learning 3D CAD software can take many hours of training to become proficient. Even if one becomes proficient at operating the software, without specific engineering training, it is often not easy to design a product. It is often a better investment to enlist the help of an engineer or design firm rather than spending time and money on software and training. There are product design service and engineering firms that can make the design and development process less overwhelming, such as Best3Dsolution (www.best3Dsolutions.com).
When moving forward with the design process, if the idea only needs to be refined enough to present the idea to potential business partners or investors, it often makes sense to start with a more high level or conceptual design. This allows the key ideas of the product or idea to be clearly illustrated but it does not contain the level of refinement or detail required to move directly to prototyping or manufacturing. This type of design will take less time and also should save considerable money. The conceptual design should show accurate dimensional data and scale, and illustrate all product functionality.
Anything learned during the conceptual design process can often be leveraged when moving further along to a detailed design, so it doesn’t have to be one or the other but can often be done in a linear fashion, moving from conceptual design, to detailed design, to production.
At a very high level the conceptual design could be done just by making detailed hand illustrations but it often makes sense to use 3D CAD software even for conceptual designs. Even though the goal of this type of design is not to go directly to production, it if the data is already in a 3D CAD format this will usually save time and cost when moving toward a more detailed mechanical design.
When preparing to move forward with the detailed mechanical design phase of a project there are several things to consider up front that will drive the design, including desired retail cost, durability and lifespan of the product, projected sales volume, materials, and manufacturing process.
Projected sales volume and the level of durability (from multiple years of life on one end to disposable at the other) of the product are often the first place to start as this can drive manufacturing processes and materials, which then needs to be considered when designing parts and how parts will assemble together into a final product. If the volume will only be a few units per year, a more manual manufacturing process may make the most sense. If however the product is projected to have a high sales volume, it would be wise to look at a manufacturing method that is more automated and has a reduced per part cost. The tradeoff is usually a significant up-front investment in tooling.
Plastic injection molding is often the ideal manufacturing method for high volume consumer parts. Per part cost is very low but the investment in tooling can be very high relative to the part cost. Molds can be designed directly from the 3D CAD model though, so this is a benefit of having the design already in 3D CAD. If a method like this is to be used, special design considerations need to be incorporated into the part and therefore the earlier in the process the manufacturing method and material is locked down, the less iterations that will be required in the design. This ultimately translates to lower development costs and faster time to market.
If a part is initially designed to be machined by hand or by an automated milling process, and then it later desired to change to injection molding or some other process, this can often result in significant changes required to the design, even if it does not visually or functionally affect the product.
After the initial design is completed, the next step is prototyping and testing. To some extent, the 3D CAD model can be considered a virtual prototype and some functionality can be evaluated before any physical parts are produced. The product aesthetics can be evaluated by rotating the part or assembly and looking at it from all angles. If there are moving parts in an assembly, the parts can be animated and motion can be tested to check that mechanical linkages work correctly and that parts do not interfere with each other.
If everything looks good in the 3D CAD model, the next step is to produce physical prototypes so that the product can be handled and tested. There are many ways to produce a prototype, but one that is becoming very popular and cost effective is some type of additive manufacturing process often known as “3D printing”. In this type of process, material (usually plastic) is built up in layers to build a part. Often multiple part assemblies can be produced at the same time and then binder materials washed out or chemically removed so that parts are linked together without any assembly required. Even if the final part is going to be metal or some other material that is not easily produced by this type of process, it is often a good place to start just so that a relatively low cost part can be handled and evaluated. An added benefit of using this type of protyping process, is that parts can be built directly from the 3D CAD data and 2D manufacturing drawings are usually not required.
After a physical prototype is produced, there are often design changes that will be desired and these should be fed back into the 3D CAD model or communicated to the engineer or design firm. This is often an iterative process where several prototypes are produced and evaluated, and slight design modifications incorporated until the product is finally ready to enter production manufacturing.
After the design is ready for production it can be sent out for quotations for volume manufacturing. Sometimes 2D manufacturing drawings will be required to obtain quotations and these can be created from the 3D CAD model. Obviously pricing is going to be a major factor when considering which manufacturer to work with but there are other things to consider. Working with a local manufacturer will have the benefit of being able to visit the facility easily to oversee production and reduce shipping costs. There are often benefits to offshore manufacturing however when it comes to production and assembly labor costs. The tradeoff is often distance and language barriers. To bridge that gap, there are companies that specialize in handling overseas manufacturing and this is often the best overall solution to balance cost, quality, and communication with the manufacturer.
Some final considerations include product packaging and marketing materials. If you product was designed in 3D CAD, it is easy to take this model and design packaging to fit around the product. There are many options available and product design firms can provide guidance into the various options.
Marketing materials such as high quality photorealistic renderings can often provide a great added punch to things like brochures and spec sheets. Because these are developed directly from the CAD model, this means that materials can be produced simultaneously with production of the product and shooting photos of the physical product are not required. Renderings can also be put in virtual backgrounds to illustrate where a product will be used. There are many other things that can be developed from the 3D CAD data including animation to show how moving parts interact. Going back to the initial discussion of intellectual property, 2D line drawings for patent applications and patents can also be generated from the 3D CAD model, which will often be a more cost effective solution than hiring an illustrator to create any required drawings. Any other required product documentation such as owner’s manuals, assembly manuals can also be created at this point.
The product design process contains many steps and may seem overwhelming but when it is broken down into discrete steps, things are greatly simplified. Whether tackling a project on your own or enlisting the help of a dedicated product design firm such as Best3DSolution www.best3Dsolutions.com, following the guidelines described above will help ensure that the vision for your product is achieved and a successful product is launched.