I stared at a metro map in the Hong Kong airport trying to figure out which ticket to buy. Finding a solution, however, was tough. I was fatigued from a 14 hour flight from Los Angeles and my eyes kept glazing over, losing their way amongst the brightly colored lines. Luckily my traveling companion Peter Szucs, our lead designer at Graft Concepts, had worked in Hong Kong a few years prior and he was quite familiar with the island. Just one Airport Express and Octopus card later, and we were on our way. In a few short days, we’d meet up with fellow co-founder Danny Wen and officially start a month-long stay to oversee the early stages of manufacturing for the Leverage iPhone case.
It had been six months since we had all decided to form this company, with the intention of creating high-end accessories for mobile devices. Naively, I had projected that we’d be at this point three months ago. With this being my first experience in developing a physical product, my expected timeline turned out to not quite measure up to reality. I thought, “don’t we just create a cool design, make it in CAD, and send it off to be made? In a month or two we’ll have a finished product shipped and ready up at our doorstep, right?” Nope.
This is the first product that our team has collaborated on from start to finish. Through the process, I’ve learned a great deal from my partners. I thought I’d share our experience. I hope it will help readers out there who are considering creating their own physical product, but haven’t yet gone through it all themselves.
The Ideation Phase
Our first step was to get as many ideas onto paper as possible. Having an industrial designer is very helpful in this first step, especially one who can translate their sketches into 3D computer models later in the process. If you need an industrial designer to help you out, there are many freelancers who post their portfolios on coroflot.com. Pete was able to take our features and vague descriptions of what we were looking for into something visual so that everyone was in agreement on what the product should look like and how it should function.
As you are probably aware, there are many variety of iPhone cases out on the market. If you were at last year’s CES, you would’ve seen more than 200 vendors selling Apple related accessories. This year is bound to be just as big (50,000 square feet worth).
We knew we had to differentiate from all the other types of iPhone cases out there. We wanted to aim for a higher-end product and attempted to keep a lot of the iPhone aesthetic intact. Armed now with at least 50 different sketches of various ideas that we had been throwing around, we narrowed the concepts down to down to 2 different designs. More sketches were generated based on these final two ideas in order to refine the form and features.
Our intention was to launch with two products. One that had elements often associated with watches and jewelry. Elements like small screws, mechanical features, metal accents, and fine beveled edges. This design evolved into the Leverage. Our other design was a bit more architectural and after making numerous prototypes for it, we realized we would have to shelve it. Our remaining funds did not enable us to produce two concurrent products. Hopefully we can incorporate the design in future versions of our offerings. Tradeoffs related to funds, features or feasibility would come up a lot in the product development process.
For instance, some of the team wanted a large port for the headphone jack which would allow more third party headphones to it without having to use an adapter. The tradeoff was that having a larger hole for the headphone meant that there would be less case material around the in the area around the headphone jack, which would mean a weaker case. The general rule for plastics is to have 1.5 mm of thickness to ensure it passes a drop test. With the iPhone 4 being so thin, we didn’t have much room to play with. We had some seriously passionate debates on the issue, but in the end, it was decided that having people complain about their headphones not fitting was better than having customers complain about their cases breaking.
Now that we had a design, the next step was to create a 3D computer model. The 3D model is then used to create the prototypes and the basis for the tooling. Apple actually provides the public with full dimensions of their iPods and iPhones. From their files, we are able to use those measurements for the Leverage.
Once the 3D computer model looks good, we move into the prototyping phase where physical models are built. For fast and quick models, we go to our local rapid prototyper/machine shop. We usually get our first models 3D printed in Polyjet or Stereolithography (SLA). These methods work great for what we need. They offer some very tight tolerances and don’t require any extra sanding or other finishing. The material is also fairly similar properties to the final product. There are lots of 3D printing options becoming quite accessible to anyone. There are now many online services that allow you to send them a 3D file and they will mail you back a 3D printed model for a vary fair price. Some good places to find out more about 3D printing (in no particular order) are:
So after a we have physical prototype printed, we do a test fit on an iPhone. We make further adjustments to the 3D computer model and then print another unit to test the fit. This process is repeated until we get satisfactory results.
Sourcing and Engineering
While doing the prototyping, we were concurrently looking for engineers to help ensure that our design could be manufactured. We were also requesting quotes from contract manufacturers. The search for a factory started with going through sites like Alibaba and Global Sources, looking for suppliers with similar products, or ones that worked with both metals and plastics. Protomold was another very intresesting option, but since we had so many different pieces in our design, and assembly was needed, we had to look elsewhere. We also tried MFG.com which is a site that lets you upload your CAD file and allow factories to bid on your job. We didn’t have much luck with either of those options probably because we did not go in with a strategy of how to quickly and properly vet all those factories. These sites deserve further inspection on the next round of products we produce.
With time constraints looming (we wanted to make sure we got a product out before the next version of the iPhone was announced), we decided to try a sourcing agent. We had gotten a referral to a sourcing agent who was extremely helpful and familiar with factories in China and worked to get quotes for us. While all this was happening, we were talking to engineering firms here in the US. Even though our design looked like a finish product, we still needed an engineer to make sure it was manufacturable.
I got some recommendations of some engineering firms from a former college professor (Danny and I went to USC, Pete had gone to Art Center). These engineering firms were based here in the United States and had had connections to factories, all of which happened to be in Asia. Using a factory that the engineering firm had experience with was extremely appealing, but the problem was that the US engineering firms was they were too expensive for a new company such as ourselves. Some wouldn’t even give us a quote because we were so small. Luckily Pete remembered working with some really good engineers who had started their own firm. Enter Kaspar and Stefan of 4tec solutions.
Kaspar and Stefan are two Swiss guys who provide engineering services and work as our liaison to the factories. They’ve been a huge help in not only the engineering of the product (the nice snap you feel when you close the Leverage is attributed to these guys), but whenever the factory runs into a problem, they always have a solution ready to go. Every product has production issues, but these guys have really made everything go smoother. Plus, their prices were just within our budget!
Our 3D computer files were sent over to Kaspar, and as soon as they made their modifications. We had another set of prototypes made, this time the prototypes were made from the actual materials we had planned to use in the final product.
While 3D printing cost us a few hundred dollars, and the prototypes made of metal and plastic cost a few thousand, the cost was minor compared to the start of the actual manufacturing. In the next post we describe the cutting of a tool and getting the first shots.