When I first started working on tech projects in the early 1980s, the design cycle from product conception to market was about two and a half to three years. Projects I worked on, which included the second generation of the IBM PC and their first laptops, had at least 6-9 months of just discussion about concepts and technology integration before it even got to the initial prototyping stage. Once in that stage, it could take as much as a year to find the right design and then another 9-12 months to get the marketing, channels and channel staff ready to actually sell the product.
But by the mid 1990s, the need to get a product from design to market, due to competition, went into high gear. It would still take 18-24 months to create a new product and get it to market. And, even if we were working on just the next generation of an existing product, it still took 9-15 months to make that happen.
Today, if we had design cycles that took this long, those companies would take a real hit to their market position since competition is more fierce today with start-ups always nipping at the heels of the big tech players and forcing them to move faster than ever before.
One of the major areas where the big companies have had great improvement is in the area of prototyping. Most of the big tech companies have in-house design teams and various means to prototype a product relatively quickly and move it to the next phase of final design and manufacturing fast. I have worked on projects with some of the big players now that could go from concept to final product in 6-9 months and if they were tweaking existing products they could move even faster. But these folks have serious budgets and have acquired specific expertise to do this in-house or through special partners such as those who have the ability to prototype a product even though it might be an expensive proposition.
But what if a smaller company or start-up or even a large company wants to get a product prototyped fast and cost effectively just to test an idea and get it into the hands of some test customers before they decide to go to final manufacturing? One could go to some of the speciality design firms for help, which could be an expensive exercise and, depending the the design firm’s work load, could take a long time. But I discovered an alternative way to do this when a close friend from San Diego recently introduced me to a company that has come up with proprietary technology that can create a 3D model of a product that includes the ability to embed the electronics in the design. They can create a prototype of a product in days or a couple of weeks at the most and for little cost compared to using some of the alternatives today at higher costs and in many cases, longer time tables.
The company is called Nascent Objects and they are based in San Carlos, CA, a city about 20 miles south of San Francisco. My friend in San Diego asked me to go check on them since he had worked with their CEO, Baback Elmieh, in the past to see if I could help them with their business strategy.
When I first met with Baback and his team they told me they learned from their study of more than 500 IoT products created in the last three years that traditional hardware prototyping cycles take an average of five months with a total of 12 months before a product goes to market.
According to Baback, “One reason for this long development time is that building an IoT product requires three separate design processes: electronic hardware, software, and physical form factor followed by series production. In many ways this is a human resources supply chain problem. You have to go shopping for electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, software engineers, industrial designers, and ultimately a manufacturing resource for the finished product. There are huge barriers to entry to put the parts together, getting them to work, testing, and orchestrating a global cast of component, manufacturing, and logistics suppliers.”
What Nascent Objects has done is to create a platform that empowers people to create complete products as opposed to parts. Their web-based design tool lets developers concentrate on form and function of their product while the tool figures out how the product is built mechanically and electronically and how it connects to software services in the cloud and on smartphones.
Unlike traditional product manufacturing, they can produce final parts as customers need them and deliver within days. They can do this because they have created computer graphics algorithms and a new 3D printing process that generates and produces high quality plastic enclosures with embedded conductive circuit traces. They can print the final product instead of putting it together on an assembly line. The need for a complex supply chain, inventory, upfront capital costs, or months of waiting, simply goes away. It puts the creation of IoT hardware on the same time scale as software.
Although their initial products have had an IoT focus, the reality is they can handle products that span various ranges of ideas and needs, although most of their first projects have had an IoT flavor to them. When I first met them, they had taken a Kickstarter project that took 9-12 months from idea to final product and literally recreated it in one day. They have devoloped a fascinating modular approach to tackling some of these projects and, because they have a powerful software engine that can handle design and the electronics integration that can then be applied to the actual 3D prototype design, they can do a lot of these projects very fast and be very cost effective.
Baback also told me, “the cost and complexities in today’s product design process have resulted in significant barriers to innovation. If we can lower these barriers, we foresee an explosion of innovative IoT products and services. Our platform will empower designers and engineers to build and produce their entire product with the same efficiency that we build apps and websites today.”
My own takeaway from my meetings with them is, if their platform is successful, innovators can build electronic products more like software that can get to market in days or weeks no matter how ambitious the idea. These developers will learn more quickly, iterate more quickly, and make products that are a better fit for the problems they solve at a pace that we could never have imagined. While they can’t predict what people will develop on their platform, I could see how Nascent Objects’ approach to rapid prototyping could be a potential game changer for a lot of companies big and small who want to quickly create a product so it can be tested before they take it to the next step — manufactured and into the hands of their intended customers.