Ensuring Research Results in Manufacturable and Scalable Products

(related sections in the author's DFM book are noted in parenthesis)

Most research starts out just trying to prove an idea will work. And then what?

Once it “works” most managers and venture capitalists usually try to rush it into production. And how well does that go?

The “Valley of Death” between concepts and viable products

The official page of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition (led by the most famous high-tech leaders) is quoted as saying

“Experience indicates that even the most promising ideas face daunting commercialization challenges and a nearly impassable Valley of Death between promising concept and viable product. Neither government funding nor conventional private investment can bridge this gap.”

The "Unsurpassable Mountain" after the Valley of Death

And then, if the product does make it into production, it becomes obvious that it costs too much. So then it is time for “cost reduction.” But this site teaches all the reasons why cost reduction after design is so hard to do especially if the cost metrics are all wrong. However, just trying consumes a lot or resources and time while all the changes attempted (usually cheap parts) cause quality problems, make it hard to scale up to stable production, and may also degrade functionality, all of which causes more firedrills to do even more changes.

Why does this happen so much?  

One reason is that some of the most popular “Phase/Gate” processes just skips from “Concept Testing” phase to “Prototype Testing” phase without any product design phase in between!   Other processes are just so rushed that there is not time to do good design.

This tells engineers that once a proof-of-principle or concept experiment “works,” they should skip directly to building a prototype, which will cause all the problems mentioned below.  Fortunately, there also much better alternatives  below. 

If your company has such a dysfunctional "process," don't compromise your research or wait for the process to be changed.  Instead, do everything on this page -- and this site -- in your project is your own "micro-climate" as recommended  at the end of this page

The following methodologies show how to avoid this “valley of death,”

Research determines product architecture

The definitive book on DFM (Figure 1.1) says that 60% of cost is determined by the product architecture. Proofs-of-principles or even experiments can determine or imply the product architecture of limit its options. So, if this is so important, why doesn’t this automatically happen? Here are some real comments why many do not optimize architecture.

“I am just trying to see if it works!” “Once we see if it works, then we (actually some else) will fix that all later ”

But once it “works” (especially if it looks good), management or investors want to rush it into production without commercialization to make it manufacturable and scalable and then the fragile idea starts on the perilous journey across the valley of death and up the impassible mountain to try to reduce it later

What to do in the Research Stage

Concept Simplification.  (Section 3.3.13 in DFM book)  Don’t just jump at the first idea that comes to mind. Brainstorm (Section 3.7) for several more concepts that:

• have the same, or better, functionality and

• are inherently simpler with respect to:

• ways to accomplish the critical functionality which should be the focus of your team

• ways to accomplish the supportive functionality which: should not distract you from you from the critical functionality.  Instead of wasting valuable resources on that,

• leverage proven hardware and software from your existing products.  Even if those is bigger or better than needed, both the product and the project budget will be less in the long run.

• buy proven parts off-the-shelf (Section 5.18), as mentioned in the next point on Prioritization.

• ensure that the final product will be manufacturable and scalable as recommended below.  Always remember:

There are many ways to make something work;
There is only one that is the lowest cost.

Prioritization. (Section 2.2.1) Focus design efforts on what is most important to customers and get the rest off-the-shelf (Section 5.18).

For Electronics  For instance, customers don't buy your products for the power-supply.  But they expect them to work all the time. So, instead of wasting valuable time designing anything that is hard to design and has nasty failure modes (smoke, fire, system failure), specify proven off-the-shelf power supplies that have proven "track records" in your industry.  

This needs to be done first, because, because off-the-shelf power supplies come with voltages
that are prevalent in your industry and you will need to design your product for those voltages.

For Electronics.  Similarly, don't consume valuable resources -- and jeopardize quality -- designing routine electronic functions that are readily quickly available off-the-shelf as modules, sometimes called "single board computers," that have standard interfaces, for instance, for:

  • Processing
  • Memory, which can be increased with plug-in modules, even in the field.
  • Input/Output and communications, possibly based on USB, Ethernet, HDMI, or VGA ports
  • Motion control for actuators, motor axes, sensor inputs, etc.
  • Data acquisition and number crunching.

Some off-the-shelf modules come with thoroughly debugged software, which will free SW engineers to focus on your product's unique software.

For Industrial Equipment.  Similarly, don't waste valuable resources designing  anything that is readily available off-the-shelf such as?

  • guards and shields
  • stairs, railings, and platforms
  • material handing devices, dispensers, conveyors, even palletizes
  • mechanism controllers, actuators, and sensors
  • cable assemblies using standard connectors
  • cabinets, enclosures, partitions, fans, doors, latches, and locks, which are available from catalogs or can quickly be built to-order in many standard sizes

Off-the-Shelf parts will actually cost less because the parts and their tooling is already designed.  If this is not immediately apparent, then "cost" must be defined as total cost (Chapter 7) See total cost web page. 

The paradox of product development is that off-the-shelf parts must be chosen first 
and then the product is literally designed around them.

For everything else that really needs to be designed, project teams need to do the following:

Part Availability:  The very first experiments or proofs-of-principle must be based on readily available parts and materials. If not done early, there may not be enough parts available for production. Do not count of changing parts for availability when going into production because these difficult changes take time and resources to do, and, even worse, introduce many new variables that  degrade quality and even compromise consistent performance

Parts from Bins or Lists.   Do not pick parts from any part bin in the factory or any entry on an "approved parts list" because most of those are still there for legacy parts, which have obsolescence challenges. And even if you pick a part value that is used on current products, you may pick a duplicate part number, which may not be as available as the most common part number.

 Inherently scarce parts.  Do not  base research on “rare Earth” elements or single-source suppliers or availability only from one country. And to avoid resistance later, avoid materials that have regulatory challenges or  could be toxic to people or the environment. 

Rather, select parts from standard parts lists (Section 5.8) that have been approved for new product designs. 
 If not already done, you will have to create standard parts lists for your research hardware,
especially for any that may have availability problems..

Rescue Parts.  Do not tune a design or rescue something that is not working with unusual parts with many increment values. like shims (often done in .001" increments), resistors (from racks of 1 ohm increments), crystals (with whatever frequency that makes it work), coils (with whatever number of windings that makes it work), obsolete component packaging (e.g. lead-through parts when products are now manufactured on Surface Mount Technology equipment), or any other unusual parts or obsolete technology.

Rather, make your design robust enough to work with readily available standard parts
that can be automatically assembled and soldered. 

Questionable Sources.  Do not pick parts from hobby shops, hobby part sites, lab equipment catalogs (that have vast inventories of non-production parts, or surplus warehouses (which has been done in high-tech areas!).

Rather, work with your Purchasing Agents to find good parts from their best suppliers

If you can’t make it work with easily available parts from good suppliers, the research may not be feasible.

Achievable Tolerances. The very first experiments or proofs-of-principle must be based on tolerances that are routinely achievable in production environments.  If not done right, products will always be unnecessarily too costly and hard to build because tolerances are so hard to loosen later,    The root cause of this is the common temptation to do whatever it takes to make  one  proof-of principle “work,” so .they specify tight-tolerance parts. This brings them immediate acclaim, but will doom the product’s chances for cost effective production.

Optics and Systems Needing Precise Alignment.  Most research efforts for optics and lasers prove it will work on a precision ground marble slab with precision mounting blocks for all the mirrors and lenses, which are tediously adjusted until it "works."   If that is just thrown over the wall to manufacturing, the "product" would have (a) many tight tolerances specified for all key dimensions and (b) onerous, slow, difficult, and costly alignment procedures with high skill demands (next point). 

Rather, the architecture  should be optimized  to provide the necessary tolerances at the least cost with the least skill demands.  This can be accomplished with Guideline P14 (in Section 9.2 in the DFM book), which shows how to fabricate many dimensions at tight tolerances by laying out the architecture so that all dimensions can be machined on one part in one setup (one chucking) on a multi-axis machine tool, like the first illustration on the Flexible Manufacturing article at: .  However, this must be optimized in the architecture stage to ensure all the critical dimensions are on one part.

If you can’t make it work with achievable tolerances,, the research may not be feasible.

Skill Demands. Similarly, the other half of doing "whatever it takes” is to use highly skilled technicians, who pride themselves at being able to make anything work, even unmanufacturable designs. The result is that such designs will have low quality, slow throughput, and may not work consistently without the original skill levels, which would keep cost high. 

For example, instead of designing the usual hard-to-build welded machine frames that have high skill demand, design assemblies of parts that are automatically machined on CNC machine tools and then assembled precisely and rigidly by various DFM techniques, as described at the following page.  An added bonus is that such a frame can be designed to be a back-ward compatible "drop in" replacement for current products.  If this is done first, it can actually help fund the research and then become the basis for the proof-of-principle.  All of this is described at: , which has many illustrated examples.

If you can not make it work with high skill,, the research may not be feasible.

Widely Available Processing. The very first experiments or proofs-of-principle must be based on widely available processing equipment, like ordinary CNC machine tools. Needing unusual, extra precise, or custom-made machine tools or processing equipment will raise costs, show deliveries, and even hamper scalability.

If you can only build it on ordinary machine tools, the research may not be feasible.

Concurrent R&D. Concurrent Engineering should start early to ensure that research will be manufacturable and scalable (Chapter 2). The  web-page on Scalability shows how to use concurrent engineering to design scalable products.  This would prevent the above problems, but will be precluded if research is done in isolation in universities or research labs and then thrown-over-the-wall to “industry” or, worse, to offshore factories, who will just “build to print” -- whatever is on the prints.

Paul Horn, who oversees research at IBM says: “Everything we do is aimed at avoiding a ‘handoff’ -- there is no ‘technology transfer.’ It is a bad phrase at IBM.” Research teams stay with their ideas all the way through to manufacturing.".

Conclusions on Time and Resources:   Doing all of the above  may take a little more time and effort up-front, but will avoid many more times the months, and resource-hours later trying to fix the design with changes after so much is "cast in concrete" and boxed-into-many-corners.  

Conclusions on Cost.   If research is done "on the cheap" with inadequate "seed money" or trying to getting venture capital funding with anything that "works, the result will most likely be lost investments at  the  “Valley of Death” quoted above.


Implementation:  Even before this is incorporated into the company product development process, all of this can be implemented  immediately by a project in its own microclimate, (introduced in Section 11.7.2) in project "obeya" rooms (Section 2.7.2  in the DFM book).

After research has taken all this into account, then the product design will be much more successful designing products for manufacturability, low-cost, and high-quality, as taught in the most effective product development seminars. 

Consequence of not doing this:.

If all the above is not done proactively in the research phase, then un-manufacturable proofs-of-principle or prototypes will then have to be commercialized which preserves the research "crown jewels"
and then re-designs everything around it for manufacturability, as shown at

See Commercialization clients listed near the bottom of:

n customized seminars and webinars, these principles are presented in the context of your company amongst designers implementers, and managers, who can all discuss feasibility and, at least, explore possible implementation steps

In customized workshops, brainstorming sessions apply these methodologies to your most relevant products, operations, and supply chains.

Call or email about how these principles can apply to your company:

  Dr. David M. Anderson, P.E., CMC 1-805-924-0200; e-mail:


copyright © 2018  by David M. Anderson

Book-length web-site on Half Cost Products:

[DFM Consulting]    [DFM Seminars]    [DFM Books]    [Credentials]    [Clients]   [Site Map

[DFM article]     [Half Cost Products site]   [Standardization article]   [Mass Customization article]   [BTO article]   [Rationalization article]