Scaling Advice for Hardware Startups from PCH’s Alan Cuddihy

Why you should never skip DFM

New technologies make better, faster prototyping possible, but when the time comes to scale, you still need to partner with a manufacturer, and it’ll probably be overseas. Going from a looks-like/works-like prototype to a design ready to roll off a factory assembly line is a long walk down a road riddled with stumbling blocks; just ask any well-meaning company that tried to crowdfund a cool new gadget only to go down in flames before shipping. Fortunately, you don’t have to do it alone; that’s where a company like PCH International comes in. We brought PCH’s sustainability chief Alan Cuddihy in to talk to Cohort Nine about the journey to mass production, and sat down with him afterward for some follow-up questions.

Alan Cuddihy, Head of Sustainability at PCH International

HWY1: Out of all the steps and processes you outlined in your talk, what’s the most important thing PCH does?
AC: I think the most important thing is designing the product for manufacture, taking into account things like supply chain, reliability, and cost. It’s crucial to understand the potential pitfalls in a project at a very early stage of the design process. These exercises can’t be carried out in a vacuum, especially when the goal is to design a product in such a way that it can be efficiently executed and delivered upon in China, where products are predominantly manufactured. This is a critical part of what PCH offers, which is a full understanding of the end-to-end lifecycle of a product, so you can design out problems very early on in the process.

HWY1: Speaking of problems, what’s the biggest failure point for most of the product development cycles you’ve seen?
AC: Design for manufacture (DFM) and validation. It’s the difference between building one of something and building 5000. You want to design your product in such a way that it can be built reliably, and that the manufacturable design still meets the same cosmetic and functional requirements as the original design; that’s very important. The problems occur when we see hardware companies trying to go to production on designs they haven’t fully validated or verified, and they find later on in the process that their original concepts are not achievable in the manufacturing world. This occurs because there’s a lack of knowledge very early on in the product development cycle about what’s possible from a manufacturing perspective: finding out too late in the process that these products are very difficult — or in some cases impossible — to manufacture.

HWY1: How many companies skip DFM?
AC: A surprising amount. In many cases it’s not necessarily skipping DFM, but skipping validation. Validation of DFM is critical, but costly from a time and money perspective. You need to build product to test it from an engineering and design validation standpoint, which pushes the schedule; when companies are under heavy time pressure, they’ll skip these builds and in some cases go straight to production — and finding these problems in mass production is often much too late.

HWY1: If you had one piece of advice to give startups looking to manufacture in China, what would it be?
AC: Relationships with your suppliers are critical; you have to understand their capabilities, challenges, and businesses. It’s not just about flinging a design over the fence and hoping they can build it; it’s working very closely with your supplier to enable a successful project for both teams. The buyer/supplier relationship needs to be a mutually beneficial partnership, and in order for it to be like that, you need to know your suppliers very well. Developing strong relationships means you can leverage them when times get tough.

HWY1: In your talk, you mention that there are things that go fast in China that are slow here in the States and vice versa; do you have examples of these off the top of your head?
AC: If you’re ordering components for prototyping in the US, you’re probably using a website like Digi-Key; they’d be able to turn that around in a week, maybe a little less. In China, you can go to an electronics supermarket and just buy components the same way you’d buy groceries; this is very normal, especially in Shenzhen. So prototyping in China is very rapid.

An example of something that can take longer in China than in the US would be a small change to a graphic on one of your packages. Because of language barriers and differences in culture or subjectivity, that change could cause you a lot of problems; it needs very clear description and direction. Small changes of this type can take longer than you’d expect.