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Making Manufacturing Easier for the Makers

Posted By Jeff Moad, February 02, 2016 at 7:20 PM, in Category: The Innovation Enterprise

Ayah_Bdeir_littleBits.jpegAyah Bdeir and her five-year-old company, littleBits, have become stars of the maker movement by emphasizing simplicity and ease-of-use. The company, which makes color-coded, interchangeable parts that snap together to form ready-to-use electronic circuits, says it is all about “democratizing hardware.” littleBits’ customers—from children to other makers—use the company’s little electronic Lego-like parts to bring intelligence to everyday items, like a door bell that sends a text when it’s rung.

The company, now with 110 employees, has already sold millions of its components, and Bdeir has become a “maker” celebrity, honored by tech publications as a rising young star and invited to TED conferences where she speaks about littleBits’ mission to empower ”everyone to create inventions, large and small, with our platform of easy-to-use electronic building blocks.”

With all of her focus on ease-of-use, it’s easy to understand why it irks Bdeir to recall just how difficult it was to actually get littleBits’ products from prototype into mass production. Although Bdeir is a trained electrical engineer and a graduate of MIT’s Media Lab, she told an audience last week at Oracle Corp.’s Modern Supply Chain Experience Conference  that actually getting her company’s products manufactured was a painful and slow, two-year process.

Although she relied on contractors for the heavy lifting of production and distribution, Bdeir said, it was on her to learn from scratch the concepts and vocabulary she needed to set up every aspect of her business, from scheduling, to inventory control to logistics.

While the process was surprisingly painful for her, Bdeir said, at least she had an engineering background, so she had a technical foundation for learning all she needed to know. But many among the millions now embracing the maker movement and innovating new products do not have the same foundation. Many of them, Bdeir said, speak the language of designers and are even less prepared to tackle the intricacies of production planning and execution on their own. Without that capacity, she fears, many great ideas may never reach markets in any significant way.

The bottom line, said Bdeir, is that traditional manufacturers need to find a way to make it easier for the maker, DIY crowd to get their innovative new products produced. “There’s a need for manufacturers to work with inventors to make this transition easier,” said Bdeir.

Manufacturers could start, she said, by offering inventors a range of supply chain and other services that inventors could tap into easily on a pay-as-you-go basis. In working with inventors, manufacturers could also adopt some of the rapid development and prototyping techniques that the software industry now uses to get code out fast. And, Bdeir said, manufacturers should get more comfortable with 3D printing and other prototyping tools that many inventors use to create their products.

Bdeir noted that a few start-ups have emerged aiming at providing just those kinds of design, manufacturing, and supply chain services to inventors. One, PCH International, offers a wide range of services, from idea acceleration to inventory management, manufacturing, packaging, and fulfillment. Another is Dragon Innovation, which also certifies maker designs for manufacturability, giving confidence to investors.

There’s no reason why traditional manufacturers and supply chain partners shouldn’t offer similar production services to the burgeoning universe of makers. After all, traditional manufacturers are the experts when it comes to getting new designs into production with efficiency and quality. And, for traditional manufacturers, the maker world can be an amazing source of new product innovation.

Some traditional manufacturers are already taking this approach. Electronics manufacturing services provider Flex is investing in innovation incubators and accelerated processes to better support innovative start-ups and individuals. And global cosmetics manufacturer L’Oreal recently signed a global strategic agreement with PCH International.  Under the deal, PCH is working with start-ups to develop new products that will be sold under the L’Oreal brand. The first such product, originally developed by start-up MC10, is a stretchable skin sensor designed to monitor UV exposure and help consumers educate themselves about sun protection.

It should be a win-win for all involved. L’Oreal gets access to a stream of innovative products, and start-ups working through PCH get access to world-class manufacturing resources not to mention a world-class brand.

Written by Jeff Moad

Jeff Moad is Research Director and Executive Editor with the Manufacturing Leadership Community. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Awards Program. Follow our LinkedIn Groups: Manufacturing Leadership Council and Manufacturing Leadership Summit

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