How to Develop a “Flying mug “

The Flying mug story started as a simple way to illustrate what product development is all about.

After trying to explain the same thing to many people and especially to non-technical people, I realized how little is known about the product development process.

A friend of mine recently told me, how she thought that in order to make a product you just need to send a drawing to a manufacturer and then they will produce it for you in a couple of weeks. I was so surprised by the answer that I had to come up with a way to illustrate the process in a way that anybody could understand. Hopefully the concept of the flying mug will help.

How would you create a flying mug?

The Challenge

Everything starts with a Challenge, which represents the situation in which a company or an entrepreneur is asked to create a product that solves a particular problem. For the sake of simplicity, I am assuming that the problem to solve (and the target customer) is already known from earlier market research.

In a challenge, you have a goal, and that goal is to solve a particular problem that exists (or that someone has). In our case, the challenge is to build a mug that can fly. I won’t be judging here why someone would need a flying mug but it is not the craziest product that I have been asked to develop.

Now you may ask, can I contact directly a manufacturer to build that for me? It is unlikely that a manufacturer or an investor for that matter, will even bother to invest time or money in a vague idea that haven’t been proved to work yet. So, there is some work to be done before that.

The Research

From the Challenge statement, you can already think in many different ways that this could be possible. A pair of wings, a balloon, a drone, a rocket. There are almost endless possibilities if you really start thinking out of the box. However, this will make the whole process too broad, don’t you think?

Potential concepts

Maybe you can ask people around why would they like a flying mug and get some feedback to define a few constraints for the challenge just to make the whole process a bit more clear and focused. Imagine you’ve got the following common feedback from different people:

  • I want to drink coffee in my favorite coffee mug
  • I want it to be at my hand reach
  • I want it to follow me around the house

This narrows the options available to achieve the goal of the challenge. This is what in product development corresponds to the user needs. This is list of “wishes” that a number of people (your customers) have told you that they would like your product to do. Note that the user didn’t specifically ask for the mug to fly. This discoveries are common once you start asking users for feedback. Let’s keep with the flying idea anyway for the rest of the article.

You now have the list of user needs but they seem to be a bit generic. For example, how would you know which coffee mug to consider? There are so many different mug designs and sizes out there. A good way to go about this is to define your own coffee mug type or agree on one type that is commonly used by your customers. Let’s define the user needs with a little more information:

  • The mug is a standard coffee mug of 250ml and 115mm W x 95mm H
  • The mug should be always at a distance from the user of no more than 1 meter
  • The mug should be able to hover at a height of 1.5 meter for more than 30 minutes

This is looking much more specific (and technical) and it will help you to choose the right solution. This is known as product requirements (or technical requirements) in product development.

Perfect! So now I can send all of these technical details to a manufacturer and they can find a solution for me. Well, not so fast. There are still many ways in which you can create a product that meets those requirements. Even if the manufacturer would accept to find a solution for you, which is unlikely, how will you transfer your ideal solution details and user feedback to them? You will likely get something like this.

Define your requirements clearly

The Solution

Once you have a problem or goal for the Challenge and a series of user needs and product requirements, you can start exploring your solutions. Start by creating simple concepts, a good way is by hand drawing your ideas. Then, think, which of those concepts do you think that will solve your user needs better and that you can quickly test?

Let’s say that now you have decided on one of the concepts, a guided balloon. Apparently this concept meets the user needs, so it is looking promising. How are you going to test that it actually works and meets your user demands? It is time to build a simple version with anything that you have around or you can easily buy. This is what is commonly known as a prototype.

Prototype of the solution

Prototypes doesn’t have to look exactly as your final product and sometimes they don’t even need to have all of the functions of a final product. The main idea is to have a simple version that can proof that your concept will do the job and will satisfy the user needs. That is why using the prototype to show to users is really important and you will get tons of good and bad feedback to improve your prototype.

Can you already send this to a manufacturer? Well, you are now getting closer. A prototype can help a lot in getting the manufacturer to understand what you want to make. However, as we said, a prototype does not yet represent the final product quality and functions. If you ask a manufacturer to make a product based on the prototype alone, you can get hundreds or thousands of copies of the prototype, assuming the prototype is even possible to manufacture in the first place.

Copies of your prototype

The Design

So if you want to start producing your product, you need to turn your prototype into a fully working product. One of the most important tasks is to make sure that you design the product choosing commonly used manufacturing technologies, so it is simple for a manufacturer to produce.

Many products use plastics, metal parts, electronics or fabrics. These are common components on many products but each of them require a particular technology to produce and each technology has its own constraints.

Imagine that you want to bake a cake in the oven. You want a special shape for the cake but the options are limited by the shapes of baking pans available in the market. Also you know that you should use baking paper to avoid the cake to get stuck to the pan. Then you need to know what is the right temperature and time for baking. Similarly, when designing your product you also need to know the limitations and recommendations based on each manufacturing technology. This is known as Design For Manufacturing (DFM).

This is likely the most time consuming part of your product development. You should design the main components of your guided balloon according to the manufacturing process that will be used. You also need to assemble all of the components together, so it has to be easy and quick so you can build many of them.

Here is when you also look into the costs of the product, it is important to know the costs to produce your product so you can sell it at the right price and don’t end up losing money. Using the cake example, you need to look into the cost of the ingredients but also the cost of baking pans, the time the person spends preparing and baking the cake, the cost of the cake decorations and cake wrapping, and even the cost of sending the cake to your customer.

While you design the different parts of your product you will likely create more advanced prototypes or samples to test the design improvements that you keep implementing.

Your final product

The Launch

In brief, you have the design for all of your product components and the materials and technology used for each of them; you also have a cost for each of them and the final product; and you have tested your final prototypes to make sure everything works as intended.

Now you are finally ready to send all of that information to a manufacturer so that they can build your product. Congratulations your flying mug is becoming a reality. However, the manufacturer now needs to prepare their production facility to be able to make your product. They need to buy the components (ingredients), make their own tools (baking trays), organize their staff and equipment (ovens) and organize the final packaging (wrapping) and delivery of your product. This process is not quick and can take several months to complete.

Hopefully not long after the manufacturer will have complete their production setup and is ready to build and deliver your products. There is still further work to do making sure your customer orders are being communicated to your manufacturer, that they prepare them on time and with the right quality.

And that puts an end to this unusual product story, although quite common product development process. While this is a simplified version of the hard work required to develop and manufacture a product, hopefully it has illustrated the main points and why it is more to it than just asking a manufacturer to build your idea.

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