Rapid Prototyping in Lean Startup Methodology


In his book Lean Startup Eric Ries tells us that startups used to spend years developing and perfecting a product without ever showing it to prospective customers. Failures were often because the customers did not have the opportunity to say whether the product was interesting to them.

A different approach is to build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), measure, learn and iterate. The virtuous circle (build, measure, learn) is designed to tell you whether you are heading in the right direction or if it is time to make changes and pivot.

A few years ago CMI realized that our contribution to the development of a new product was to assist the customers in the design but even more importantly, to make rapid prototypes that can be shown to  prospective customers.

As a mass production facility our company was not organized that way. Development engineers had to negotiate with the plant management to get access to the production equipment while the product had to follow the manufacturing flow and often languished at bottlenecks for days. The quality department was involved despite the lack of clear inspection/testing criteria.

The solution was to set up an independent department called The Development Center with dedicated equipment and resources capable of turning around prototypes in record time. The key to our success was also to align the Development Center with the sales team by having the Development Center report directly to the Sales Manager. The Development Center is considered a cost center and has its own P&L. We even opened a new account which allows our engineers to urgently purchase some items without management approval (with some limitations obviously).

In mass manufacturing excellence and consistency are obtained through standardization. The role of our manufacturing engineers is to convert the customer requirements into standardized process instructions. Nothing is left for our workers to guess.  Even a new employee, freshly trained, can make it right the first time.

In contrast, for the development center we established a methodology that we call “Free Engineering”. Our development engineers take full responsibility from design to manufacturing to testing and shipping. Working in concert with the customers the engineer will carry out the product review upon receiving the customer data and submit feedback with questions if necessary. The objective is not to simply comply with the customer requirements but to be part of the solution by understanding the product functionalities and users’ implied expectations.

The plan is not to aim for the moon from the first set of prototypes. The process of product development is incremental by nature. Our approach is to start with a simple mockup in an effort to show the physical characteristics of the product (size, weight, flexibility, texture…) and gradually add functionalities in the following iterations.

Speed is of the essence. We live in a world of instantaneous communications where product life cycles have been reduced to months. We aim at helping our customers get their products to market in a few months.

In the “Free Engineering” methodology the development engineer is able to build prototypes from A to Z in a few days with little support from the rest of the company. Processes are mostly digitized as opposed to tooling dependent; testing is often rudimentary; engineers are trained to perform their own visual inspection.

Let’s be clear: these prototypes are not representative of our production capability. Product qualification will come later once design is finalized. That being said, Design For Manufacturing (DFM) is one important aspect of the product development process, we alert the customer as early as possible about possible challenges and offer solutions.

Lean startup methodology is not limited to startup industries. Large companies are now adopting Eric Ries’s recommendations and the supply chain has to adapt to these new expectations. Agility, responsiveness, swiftness will not be achieved by simply hammering the message out loud to your team. You need to undertake profound changes to your organization and put actions where your mouth is.