Frequently Asked Questions
Project Costs - nightmare or opportunity?
We have been involved in design and manufacturing at Plunkett Associates for thirteen years now, and a frequent question is “ how can I reduce the cost?” be it for prototyping, or production.
The usual strategy is to shop around looking for alternative suppliers, however there are some sound guidelines that can have far more impact on the cost than finding an alternative supplier.
Cost comes about for a multitude of reasons; it could be the raw material required, the way it is being processed, the finishing necessary, or the very low quantities being sought. There follow some considerations, some may apply, some may not, but all will help to reduce overall project cost if exercised correctly. To start:
Understand your market
The market will dictate what your product can be sold for and in what quantities. This does not mean it has to be the cheapest, but it should have a place, potentially unique selling points (USP’s) and a logic as to why it is different. From here will come the all important quantities; what you believe you can sell in years 1, 2, 3 etc. Yes, these are projections, they can change, but they represent the starting blocks on which everything that follows will be built.
If you cannot answer these questions, qualify your logic and understand your market, don’t do it. Save your money and do something else.
Don’t jump straight into pages of detailed design, whether you are going to undertake the design yourself or involve a Design Consultant, you need to get the ideas straight in your headfirst. So we start with concepts, different ideas, sketches, nothing too formal, like a graphic brain dump! Very quickly you will discard some ideas in preference of others, you will crystalise what you like and what you don’t.
Keep things simple, complexity brings in cost. If you are going to use a Design Consultant you can initiate those conversations, conceptually you can show him or her what you want, define what it has to do and know the quantities that you want to manufacture it in.
From the above comes the manufacturing process, this is why early identification of the quantities is so important. Selecting the wrong process can incur significant cost. The process also starts to set up the design rules by which the detailed design must abide.
The simplest designs are usually the best. Knowing your process, check out the design guides on the web. Try and avoid the extremes, pushing a process will inevitably incur more cost and risk. Use analysis software to confirm strength, weight, and operational function. Optimise the design; changes here are cheap compared to later. Design is not just an expense, it is a huge opportunity to add value and drive down cost.
There are multiple options within each discipline of plastic, metal, clear and flexible. New materials are emerging all the time so it may be worth being open to change – the material you have always used may not now necessarily be the best option. Can metal be replaced with plastic? Do the quantities warrant such a change? What are the aesthetic considerations and how will they be achieved? There are usually multiple ways of processing each material; the quantities and design will take you to the most effective.
Prototypes cost money, so here is an obvious place to save! Really? A prototype is not just a mock-up, it’s an accurate representation of your design data. In its most basic role a prototype will confirm that the design fits together, it can be assembled, the battery door is big enough, etc etc.
Today prototypes can often be fully functional, allowing verification of the intended purpose. They can drive marketing material and sales even before the final product exists.
Looked at another way, they are an insurance policy. When do you want to discover a problem, a few weeks in, or just after commissioning a £20,000 mould tool? This is an opportunity to check and double check.
Prototypes represent a huge opportunity to reduce project costs; they should be used, abused, tested to destruction, shown to relevant personnel and not hidden away.
Take time to make sure your design is right – not just for the prototype but for the manufacturing process – if you are prepared to adapt and be flexible to suggestions you may be able to produce your part(s) much more cost effectively. Factor in the opportunity for review; bring all the team members together to discuss how the project is maturing. Confirm the direction and the solution and if it’s not right, stop and re-think.
Don’t cut corners
Cutting corners will inevitably come back and bite you! If you are unsure, seek professional advice; every step of the product development cycle is on offer somewhere.
The further into a project you get, the greater the costs. Paying for design might seem contrary to saving cost, but the right design assistance at the right time can pay back over and over again. This could be in terms of time, avoiding costly mistakes, identifying a standards issue that you did not realize was relevant or increasing sales through a better product.
Where will you get your parts made? The common question is Far East or UK? You may be able to get parts ‘cheaper’ from the Far East but there are pro’s and con’s. See our article ‘Is using a Chinese supplier viable for my project?’
Consultancy is frequently considered expensive, however if used correctly, is a very powerful tool. Do you have the skills required to bring a new project to market and do you have the time? If the answer to either is no, then this is where consultancy can help. There are companies who will do as little or as much as you need and usually have the links into many suppliers who can help with other areas such as packaging or distribution.
Always be very clear who is responsible for what. If you are not an expert in tooling and moulding, don't go to China for a tool and give it to a UK moulder expecting parts first time. The moulder will have issues with the tool and the toolmaker will blame the moulder, leaving you very uncomfortable and significantly out of pocket in the middle.
At the end of the day, whether this is your own investment or your company’s, do the sensible thing and always use a company with a proven track record. Communication is key, be honest, and build a relationship with them. To be successful they need to know you and visa versa.
Some of the biggest sources of project cost are not the planned elements at all, but sorting out the unexpected. Thus appreciating risk and tackling it head on rather than denying it and gambling, should be a development engineer’s ethos.
Remember, sometimes saving money, or reducing the cost, may require spending money!
Plunkett Associates specialise in the design, prototyping and manufacture of products across a wide range of disciplines. We would always welcome the opportunity to discuss a new project and work with lone inventors through to multi national blue chip companies. We are here to find solutions and ‘get things made’!
Read more expert articles in our FAQ section where we discuss topics on materials, methods and products.
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