Prototypes to Products: Helping Entrepreneurs Master Manufacturing

New Report

“IMG_1461.JPG” by i3Detroit Bluecam via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Start-ups are engines of innovation. From Facebook to SpaceX, inventive young organizations have revolutionized diverse sectors of the American economy. Today, new start-ups in the emerging Cleantech sector are creating novel innovations in wind, solar, fuel cells, bioenergy, geothermal, and vehicle technology that promise to reduce carbon emissions, increase energy independence, and create more affordable and reliable energy.

But, for most start-ups, innovation isn’t enough.

It’s not only necessary to conceive of a great idea or even develop a technically-viable product — it’s also necessary to bring production to scale. While it’s one thing to build a functioning prototype, it’s quite another to bring a safe, attractive, cost-effective, durable product to market. Making this leap requires expertise in a subject matter that’s not always addressed in entrepreneurial circles, engineering design classes, or MBA programs: Manufacturing.

MForesight: Alliance for Manufacturing Foresight is working to help start-ups bridge the gap between innovation and manufacturing through a new curriculum for entrepreneurs. In June, at a workshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, leading manufacturing experts, entrepreneurs, academics, and government officials came together to identify the broad outlines of a customizable course to empower personnel at start-ups to produce new products at scale.

This “Manufacturing 101” curriculum is built around online coursework as well as direct in-person engagement with experts and mentors. It covers the basics of manufacturing processes, materials, design, supply chain management, cost estimation, regulation, intellectual property, and strategic partnerships. Moreover, the curriculum aims to help start-ups assess the manufacturing readiness of their existing prototypes and, crucially, to develop a formal manufacturing plan — an indispensable component of any pitch to potential investors. A core aim is to introduce entrepreneurs to useful cost-saving tools like Design for Manufacturing, which can help firms avoid needing to redesign a product to account for manufacturing requirements.

The “Manufacturing 101” curriculum is built around four phases:

Engage: Entrepreneurs take stock of what they know and what they don’t know, assessing the readiness of their prototypes and the challenges inherent in manufacturing.
Educate: Through general training and course materials, entrepreneurs learn the language of manufacturing and best practices for avoiding common pitfalls in bringing production to scale.
Enhance: Moving from general training into specialized coaching and support, entrepreneurs work with mentors and experts in hands-on workshops and customized sessions.
Execute: Working with product design firms, suppliers, and manufacturers, entrepreneurs apply their newfound knowhow to scale-up production.

“Manufacturing 101” presents a useful model not only for the Cleantech sector but for small firms across the US that seek to start building products at scale.

America has countless reasons to root for the success of the Cleantech sector. But financial investments aren’t the only way to strengthen the industry. Government, industry, and academia can create opportunities in Cleantech by sharing another crucial resource: knowledge. When we empower entrepreneurs with manufacturing expertise, we can help world-changing ideas reach the market more often and more efficiently.

We’re looking forward to releasing the “Manufacturing 101” report to the public in late September, so keep an eye out for the announcement on our homepage!