The holy grail of manufacturing IoT products: make them interactive and scalable. The production at the back end is enormous, complicated, and highly vulnerable to failures. Therefore, the developers should embrace the thorough feasibility of the idea on paper before taking it on to the production floor. Since the ecosystem has to accommodate numerous variables for hardware product development and manufacturing, the foundation must be strong.
In the following guide, we walk you through the major manufacturing options you can pick for your IoT product.
Although not counted as a mainstream activity in manufacturing, prototyping holds critical importance in IoT projects because it lays the foundation for the IoT product in focus. It is a trial version of the connected components of the hardware such as sensors, circuit boards, microcontrollers, embedded systems, and mechanical parts such as motors, outer casing, buttons, etc. Prototyping aims to evaluate the functional correctness of the product idea in the real world rather than on paper. In IoT, prototyping is an important phase in the development lifecycle because there are multiple electrical, mechanical, firmware, and software components tied together.
Traditionally, prototyping was a slow process and consumed months for a medium scale build to move from paper to production. However, with the advent of rapid prototyping technologies, IoT project owners have greater flexibility in minimal development. In this process, a scale model of a single mechanical component or the entire product is developed using CAD data.
The most common method for rapid prototyping is 3D Printing. Not only mechanical parts but also PCBs can be 3D printed nowadays. Here, the construction materials are deposited, connected, and solidified under computer control. The end output is a three-dimensional object positioned layer by layer. The CAD models are saved in an STL file format that works as a reference source for the 3D printer to generate the output. It can take anywhere between hours to weeks, depending on the size of the part and the capability of the 3D printer to come up with a new prototype part. Fun fact – Even SpaceX uses 3D printed parts in their rockets.
CNC Machining uses rotating computer-controlled tools like end mills, drills to eliminate materials from a solid block. This is done to impart a particular pattern or shape to the product. Here, the same design file can be used for multiple machines, thereby producing multiple prototypes at once. CNC helps in making multiple cuts at various angles and performs metal fabrication. CNC could be costlier than 3D printing, but it is highly accurate and gives you the confidence to finalize your design.
Choosing Prototyping Partners
It is recommended to outsource prototyping to experienced agencies. This is because a manufacturing partner will help resolve procurement complexities thereby ensuring fast track development. Check for a verified listing of IoT vendors across disciplines. Browse their offerings and cross-check for extremely negative reviews. To cut through the chaos, however, you can partner with marketplaces that provide on-demand resources. AT&T, for example, has started offering on-demand IoT project consultation services for the planning and development of products.
Prototyping partners provide expert consulting in manufacturing across different tooling techniques.
Low to Mid Volume Manufacturing
Soft Tooling is a less costly and simpler method of developing multiple components of an IoT product. Since IoT systems are a mesh of multiple small scale components combined, soft tooling helps fill the gaps and produce an airtight build. The materials used are flexible and easily moldable as per the specs of the overall system.
However, Silicone is the most popular material for soft tooling for its ability to withstand extreme temperatures. It is used through Injection Molding of Liquid Silicone Rubber (LSR) or Silicone Molding. Alternatively, the vacuum can be used to draw liquid into the mold (Vacuum casting). Similarly, the casting process using sand is known as Sand Casting.
Choosing a Low to Mid Volume Manufacturing Partner
Since soft tooling is less costly, it is a preferred technique for medium-to-low volume manufacturing requirements for IoT products offering simpler applications. While choosing a partner, check for their efficiency in validating a design concept through functional testing, approvals, visualization, presentations, etc.
However, soft tooling has its limitations too. Most materials other than Silicone lack wear resistance and affect the durability of the product. It is important to know that it is difficult to make changes to the patterns once built. Thus, the manufacturing partner should specialize in using different materials appropriately. They should be able to use various materials to ensure quick turn-around time and produce up to a few hundred pieces. The ideal use of soft tooling is to produce 50 to 1000 units for early-stage consumer trials.
High Volume Manufacturing
High volume manufacturing for IoT products having metals, alloys, and other ‘hard’ materials is a critical domain. It is expensive, time-consuming, and not suited for small scale products. This is because the product in development has to go through multiple production cycles, heat treatments, stringent tolerance levels, and testing and operational standards that they must adhere to. Therefore, producing any durable and high precision parts can only be achieved through hard tooling.
Hard tooling is strictly meant for projects wherein the volume requirement goes up to tens of thousands of units. Otherwise, it will not recover the cost that goes into tooling. Here, the most commonly used materials are nickel, aluminum, steel alloys, and others that have high tensile strength. Although they take more time, the end output is highly durable and lasts longer.
The molds have to be crafted very carefully to avoid errors. Given the complexity of IoT products, it is recommended to outsource hard tooling to a partner specializing in precision machining.
Choosing a High Volume Manufacturing Partner
Hard tooling finds extensive applications in an industrial setup. Thus the partner should have substantial experience in hard tooling of mechanical, electrical, and electronic products. They should help you with high volume production requirements of thousand to millions of units. Hard tooling has high NRE costs, because of which it is recommended only for high volume production.
Engage In a Partnership
Although growing, the IoT industry is facing a shortage of skilled resources. Subsequently, project delays and failures are an unresolved issue.
Amidst all this, a manufacturing partner could absorb the pressures so that you get to focus on core business areas. As we usher into 2021, there’s an ocean of opportunities ahead. Try and make the best out of it.