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Offer HN: Design, Prototyping, and Manufacturing of Physical Products Guide
117 points by curt 2434 days ago | hide | past | web | 18 comments | favorite
I’ve only been active for about a month, but lurked for awhile. While my transition from physical products to digital has encountered a few difficulties the information here has been invaluable. With experience designing, prototyping, and manufacturing physical products I wanted to provide a guide for people that are going in the opposite direction. Saw a few questions on the subject so here’s a summary of what I use.

Best Cheap Design Package: Ailbre Design (as low as $50) http://www.alibre.com/ I used this before Solidworks, if the design isn’t extremely complicated this is the software to use. Make sure to find a coupon, they offer 50% off about every other month. There are 3 different price points depending on what you are doing. Very active community that helps newcomers learn.

Enclosure Prototyping in the US: http://www.protomold.com/ or http://www.quickparts.com/ I tend to use Quickparts more, but Protomold is also very good. All you do is upload the design and they price it. Also Quickparts offers samples that show you different finishes, materials, and designs problems to avoid. If new, definitely order one.

Design Guidelines: http://www.protomold.com/Resources.aspx Shows you the general rules on materials and design.

Outsourcing Design Work: http://elance.com/ or http://guru.com/ Excellent locations to find extra help, only accept companies after you have talked to them (I suggest IM for overseas) and only if they have sample projects and references within the US. Place a keyword at the end which they must reference in the bid so you know they read your requirements.

Electronics Prototyping in US: This really depends on the type of parts, the mount, and quantity. Generally though I use http://www.screamingcircuits.com/. For just a couple there are a few cheaper options.

Electronics Layout: http://www.cadsoftusa.com/index.htm It’s cheap and gets the job done for simple projects. They have a free version to test.

Parts Supplier: Small scale: http://digikey.com/ Large scale: http://arrownac.com/ If you get in touch with a sale or tech rep at Arrow they can be a great help in putting you in touch with oversea producers. Arrow’s website sucks so just find your local rep and call them.

Producing in China: There aren’t really any go to firms, it depends on what you are building. For rapid injection and electronic assembly I have used http://icomold.com, they even do design and prototyping. The design work is done in the US while the manufacturing is completed in China. They sell steel injection molds for the same price as a lower quality aluminum mold in the US.

The general rule when producing in China is to NEVER have a product completely assembled in 1 factory unless you want copies going out the back door.

How to do it: 1) Have the device produced in 1-2 locations without the software 2) Have the boxes produced 3) Ship the unboxed products to the US, (LA) 4) Hire a firm to box the product and flash the hardware

If there are more questions I would be happy to try and answer them.




Thanks for the great resources. Links:

Best Cheap Design Package: http://www.alibre.com

Enclosure Prototyping in the US: http://www.protomold.com or http://www.quickparts.com

Outsourcing Design Work: http://elance.com or http://guru.com

Electronics Prototyping in US: http://www.screamingcircuits.com

Electronics Layout: http://www.cadsoftusa.com

Parts Supplier: Small scale: http://digikey.com Large scale: http://arrownac.com

Producing in China: http://icomold.com


This is fantastic, thanks!

As someone completely new to this sort of thing, I have zero idea of the scale required for production. How many devices do you need to sell before it's realistically worth mass-producing in China or so? http://www.screamingcircuits.com/ say their sweet spot is 5000 so if that's "prototyping" I assume "production" is much, much more. Below 5000, what are my options? Will they do 5? 50? 500?

Other angle completely: how capital & time intensive is the bureaucracy involved with selling electronic goods? I'm thinking of the regulatory bodies, like the CE mark, I guess the FCC in the US, etc. Anything else that needs to be sorted before selling this stuff to consumers?

I have a friend who can help me out with the electronics side to some extent, but he's not exactly nearby. Do you have any tips (books?) on getting up to speed with modern electronic components? I've got the very basic stuff down: I studied physics (i.e. I know Ohm, Kirchhoff, capacitors, semiconductors, AC circuits, etc. on a fundamental level) and tinkered with electronics as a kid; building simple circuits with OpAmps, 555s or basic logic gate ICs is as far as my knowledge goes. Beyond that I've been using pre-assembled microprocessor devkits which have all the ports and boot-up infrastructure ready to go. The software side is no problem for me. The gap is everything in between though, things like how I'd go about adding extra ADCs and DACs or external digital I/O that's electrically isolated to protect the processor (optocouplers? which one? etc.).


To produce in China you need to be spending at least $50,000 - $100,000, otherwise they won't deal with you. Screaming Circuits also does small runs of 10-20 which is enough to do certification, programming, and testing.

The bureaucracy involved in electronics is why I got out, I had to close my last company because of new idiotic regulations passed by Congress that skyrocketed my costs. The certification process is pretty easy if you have a partner in China, they will take care of it for you.

The hard part of selling is getting into the sales channels, most large retailers require whats called a Dun & Bradstreet Rating (a credit report for business). It will take quite a while to get and you must already have a couple million in sales. Target, Wal-Mart, and Best-Buy all operate the same way which makes getting started a little difficult.

As for learning electronics, I am self taught. My education was in Mechanical Eng, Biomedical Eng, and a MBA, while I had a couple electronics and programming classes most of what I know was self taught through trial and error. Then if there was a device I wasn't comfortable designing, I'd hire it out.


Industrial designer/mechanical engineer here too. For fairly complicated or complexly surfaced plastic injection plastic products, machined and fabricated metal, composite parts... I recommend designing it in SolidWorks and finding a freelancer off Craigslist to draw it up. They can render it photo-realistically, create manufacture drawings, and have CAD files you can send out for quoting.

And if you are just starting or have low-medium volumes, have it done locally. There are hundreds of injection molders, tool makers, machine shops, fabricators, etc... in every metropolitan area in America. I can't tell you haw many fuck ups, quality issues, extra expenses, importation problems, wrong/bad material used, corners cut, longer than promised lead times... I have had to manage. Rule of thumb - they will say yes to anything you ask for even if they can't. That said, if you have a good relationship, you can save a lot of money.


Curt, very well done, I've been looking to get into the physical product space for quite some time after spending the last 15 years traversing the four corners of the internet. This is just the resource I've been looking for. We def need to chat, I'll shoot you an email based on your profile contact info.


Thanks a lot! This is a great guide. One more question, if I may:

I am considering a small hardware business (so far I am in the process of building the prototype for my own use). My project has to fit a wide assortment of differently-shaped phones. Also, as it's a niche product aimed at a hobbyist market and not of massive appeal like the Glif (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/danprovost/glif-iphone-4...), I will need to make rather small runs for each phone.

I am thinking of building it in two pieces: the actual electronics (a bigger run, because it will be shared by all phone models) and a foam housing made to measure for each phone model. The electronics will be the same for all phone models, and will go into the foam shell. Then the foam shell will clip on/around the phone.

¿How would you fabricate small runs of shapes made of high-density foam?


I've never used foam before but I do know the material and they can't be prototyped the same way plastic parts can. What you're going to have to likely do is have them milled which will raise the cost considerable. Look for a local shop in your area, they are all over the place. If you don't have a time constraint you should be able to negotiate a lower price.

When you say 'small run' how many units? Part size? How many variations. If the quantity is large enough you can have an single mold produced with each part variation. While you will have extras it'll drastically drop the per unit cost. Most of the cost is the mold and setup (fixed costs), the materials cost next to nothing (couple dollars/pound).


Part size: think about the same total volume of foam that an iPhone or an Android phone have. The size envelope is like two stacked pack of cigarrettes (obviously there are holes for the electronics and for the phones to be stuck in).

I don't know the number of units or of variations yet. Once I have a working prototype and software my plan is to start a project in my local Kickstarter-alike which would tell me how many to make and, just as importantly, for how many different models of phones.

Oh, and right now I am building the prototype the old way, with sheets of the material, x-acto and glue. CAD/CAM software and milled prototypes won't come into play until I have something that works. Then I will start trying to price the production. Right now I was just taking advantage of your offer to share your experience.

Thanks again.


Something I want to add. When prototyping there are different prototyping methods, each with its pros and cons depending on your goal. Depending on the purpose of the prototype: aesthetics or functionality (stress testing) is which method you select and the company you choose. They will have information on their website also the reps are pretty helpful.


This is awesome. Thanks! Since you're apparently out roaming the digital wilds, how would you suggest finding someone to help me design a product I want to prototype? The idea is pretty well baked, and I have some general product outlines, but need a designer to realize next phase.


Thanks for all of the useful resources; is it okay if I email you with some followup questions?

On a more helpful note, has anybody had luck with http://cloudfab.com/? I signed up but never had anything printed.


Feel free to email me


I can second Alibre as a decent CAD package. I've used quite a few of them (SolidWorks, Autocad, NX, Catia, ProE, Alibre), and Alibre does pretty well compared to some of the bigger names.


How many others on HN are physical product people? I have a degree in Industrial design as well and would be interested in talking with others who've gone the physical product route!


This really is wonderful kick-starter material. Thank you. Just seeing some of the terminology you use and how you break down the topic/domain is instructive.


No question here, just a thanks for putting up this handy and concise list of proto fab resources - good stuff!


AMAZING. Saved me boatloads of time.

Thanks a bajillion!


This is excellent. Thank you.




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