Developing Physical Products: Challenges and Rewards

Our world has become increasingly overrun with ones and zeros. Music has long been digital. Movies have moved to digital. Even family photos have become primarily digital. Software products offer us a range of comfort and efficiency and become part of our daily routine. Most of the entrepreneurs who dream of startup success want to build the next Facebook, Uber or Airbnb.

So, why would anyone want to create a physical product or build a career around designing and developing them? To put it simply, almost every software product or next big thing relies on a well-executed physical product development project.

Developing a physical product is not simply about designing the best toaster or the most efficient CNC machine. Making a new product means dreaming of something that does not exist yet that solves an existing or forthcoming problem. It means taking an intangible idea and making it into a physical thing that people can see, feel and use.

Setting aside all of the benefits of what digital products offer, people enjoy physical objects, and they are willing to pay a premium to get them. It’s worth reminding that all the apps, programs, and games, including the latest virtual reality products run on physical devices.

The journey from ideation to creation, and on through manufacturing and marketing can be difficult, but extremely rewarding. We want to help you understand that process, and hopefully, convince you that not only is your inspiration worth pursing, but it could actually be one of the most fulfilling things you will ever do.

From inspiration to perspiration

Every successful product begins with the vision of a person or group of people who identify a problem and come up with a workable solution in which they believe. That initial spark of inspiration is what drives everything after, so it needs to be strong. Coming up with ideas can be difficult, but also incredibly pleasurable.

First, you look for a problem that no one else has solved. Then, you figure out how you could solve that problem. While that may seem like a gross oversimplification, and to a certain extent it is, keep in mind that the order of these steps can be reversed. You might think of a product idea, and then work backwards to find the need. Regardless, one cannot be successful without the other.

What any problem really represents is a need. Every product requires a need because it embodies the product’s target market. A product idea without a well-defined need is like an air conditioner in Antarctica — it has no reason to exist, and if it did, it would be downright perplexing.

Once you identify a need and figure out a product idea to fill that need, or vice versa, you can start your research.

You will want to test the validity of your idea. How much of a market actually exists for your problem-solving miracle of an idea? You will send out surveys, look closely at various markets, conduct data analyses, and generally, do everything in your power to ensure that your product should be made.

Then, you can actually start making something.

From concept to reality

The design, prototype and manufacturing stages are what bring your inspiration closer to reality. Turning it into a concrete product means letting go, and that can be scary for some. However, it does not need to be.

The initial concept designs could be done in a variety of different ways. If you are old school, detailed sketches and blueprints could be made up, however, those methods have been mostly overtaken by CAD software solutions. A fleshed-out concept design can help you explain your idea to others, something that will come in very handy when looking for partners or investors. What works even better, though, are prototypes.

A prototype is a preliminary model of your product that can help you determine the feasibility of different aspects of your design. Depending on the reason of building a prototype, either to show how it looks or works, you may need to make a functional prototype, which acts as a proof-of-concept for your idea. You may also make aesthetic prototypes that will test the look and feel of your product. Once you nail down the ideal appearance and physicality of your product, you will need to combine the two disciplines as seamlessly as possible. This performance prototype will effectively demo your final product.

After the extensive design and prototyping process, you need to finally prepare your product for production. Designing for manufacturability (DFM) means ensuring that your product can be made efficiently and cost-effectively. DFM allows you to mistake-proof your product by choosing the best manufacturing materials and methods, while keeping in mind the appropriate regulations for your desired market.

From nothing to something

The process of developing and commercializing products often changes. Hot trends like crowdsourcing and innovative fast-to-market solutions constantly upend the process and make it new again. Some automakers, for example, want to innovate the design process using existing customer data — similar to how tech companies like Microsoft and Apple create iterative versions of their products.

Getting your product to market can be tough, but certain approaches can ease the burden. Create a simpler product. Fail fast and fail cheap with lean development, meaning limit your risk to maximize your return. Also, never underestimate the importance of customer feedback and intellectual property protection throughout the process.

With that said, invest in yourself and your inspiration, and you will avoid that nagging what if-mentality that drives regret. Great reward always requires risk, but there are also ways to invest smarter. Ultimately, outsourcing your product development can net you the resources and expertise necessary to reduce your product development cycles, and give your dream the best chance for success.