Step 2: Isolate who is going to help you design your prototype – manufacturer or independent product designer

As I mentioned in response to another reader’s questions, there are two general ways to get from idea to prototype. The first way is by working with the product designers employed by the manufacturer you are looking to work with. The second way is by working with an independently hired product designer. Each has it’s own pluses and minuses.

2.A. Working with a manufacturer’s product designers

One way to achieve a manufacturable design and manufacturable prototype is to have your manufacturer design it for you. In our experience, most manufacturers in Asia (and even the U.S.) have a design staff on payroll to help clients and prospective clients design product. There are a few reasons why this is the case.

Why manufacturers have product designers and engineers on staff:

The most obvious reason is that if a manufacturer helps you design something, you will be more likely to have that manufacturer manufacture your product. They might partially consider the cost of in-house product designers a cost of customer acquisition. Working with you to design your product (often for free), gives them the opportunity to start a relationship with you, show you their stuff, and build goodwill.

The second reason a manufacturer might have an in-house design team is to tweak any customer prototypes to more seamlessly fit into the manufacturer’s method of manufacturing. Sometimes, a customer will come to a manufacturer with a finished prototype and appropriate documentation. To make the product exactly according to the customer’s preferences might result in a manufacturing cost of $100 per unit. A manufacturer’s product designer might be able to quickly identify that changing one small hardly noticeable part of the customer’s design could reduce the manufacturing cost from $100 to $25. Being able to notice this is highly valuable to a manufacturer > it allows them to make you happy and thereby increase their likelihood of getting your business.

Whether manufacturers will charge you for product development: 

Sometimes, manufacturers will charge a prospective client to work on development of a product prototype, and other times, they’ll provide these services at no cost. For example, in the toy industry, it is common for plush (aka stuffed toy) manufacturers to develop ideas and prototypes for clients at no cost. It is also common for paper manufacturers in the U.S. and Asia to develop ideas and prototypes for clients at no charge. A cut & sew manufacturer in the U.S. will surely charge you for labor and materials, but a cut & sew manufacturer in Asia will likely only charge you for materials and postage. On the other hand, plastics manufacturers anywhere typically charge for prototype development because of the amount of time, labor, and materials that goes into the process of developing a plastics product.

When working with Asian manufacturers on product development, keep in mind the cost of postage:

One important thing to consider when you are having a manufacturer design something for you is the cost of postage. All prototype development requires a lot of back-and-forth – sometimes three back-and-forths, sometimes twenty back-and-forths. If your product designer is not sitting right by your side, these back-and-forths will have to happen via mail. U.S. manufacturers will sometimes pick up the cost of postage, but Asian manufacturers will rarely if ever do this. And, this is because the cost of postage from Asia to the U.S. and vice versa is high.

When we were developing a stuffed animal with a particular manufacturer in Indonesia, mailing a single stuffed animal from Indonesia to the U.S. one-way cost us between $150.00 – $250.00. Each time we revised the received prototype, it cost us the same amount to send it back to the manufacturer. They would then tweak the original design and send us a second prototype – for another hit of $150.00-$250.00. These costs add up quick.

And, it turns out that if a foreign manufacturer is NOT covering the cost of postage, it operates as a sort of disincentive to getting your prototype ‘right’ the first time. Or, the second or third time. It allows for some sloppiness in the equation. What do we mean? We’ve had a number of experiences where we assume that a manufacturer will follow instructions, only to receive a prototype that is made in the wrong color. Bummer, that just cost us $250.00!

So, if you are going to have your manufacturer design your product, have controls in place so that the manufacturer does not mail to you a prototype until you approve it through photos (or live video). Ensure your manufacturer does not have permission to use your UPS or FedEx account until someone at your company has approved pictures signed off on the prototype via email. We’ve put this rule in place with all our manufacturers.

Whether you will want to work with a manufacturer’s product designers or your own also depends on how novel and complex your product is:

Whether you will want to work with a manufacturer’s product designers or your own also depends on how novel and complex your product is. Let’s go through a handful of examples to demonstrate what I mean by this.

Example 1. Company A wants to manufacturer button up shirts using a novel type of fabric and adjusting the location of the back seam. Company A could likely achieve a desirable prototype by either working with a reputable manufacturer or hiring it’s own product designer. The reason Company A could likely effectively work with a manufacturer’s design team is because the Company’s product is likely relatively simple.

Example 2. – true story! – Company B wanted to manufacture a plastic beach shovel for kids. The shovel is different than other shovels on the market because it is an oversized shovel, bigger and more intuitive than other shovels on the market. Company B sourced a reputable plastics manufacturer in Asia and worked with the manufacturer’s product team to design the product and make a prototype. The manufacturer came up with a product that looked great that they could mass produce at a desirable price. Company B then placed an order for the shovels from this manufacturer only to realize after it started to sell it’s shovels into the market that the shovel design had a flaw. The shovel aesthetic design was A+ but the shovel was flawed from an engineering perspective. The handle broke off from the scoop part when a child tried to use it. The manufacturer’s product designers were effective at designing the look of a plastics part but not effective in plastics engineering. Company B had to go back to the drawing board – after receiving a defective order – and hire a plastics product designer and engineer in the U.S. to re-design it’s product.  The re-design was then sent back to the manufacturer for another run.

Example 3. We hired a U.S. based product designer (for soft goods) to help us translate and design one of signature stuffed animal dogs. We had a 30+ page product idea guide that described our signature stuffed animal dog. We were concerned that the specificity and length of our product guide would be a lot to swallow and process for a manufacturer’s product designers whose first language is not English. We were also concerned that it would take a lot of back-and-forths (again, think postage) to get right. With this in mind, it made more sense for us to hire and work with a U.S. based product designer.

Other things to consider:

– Know that if your manufacturer gets it right, you’ll likely need and want to order the product through that specific manufacturer (so make sure to pick the manufacturer that you want to work with first).

– Keep the question of who owns the IP on your product design in the back of your mind.