Let’s Build A Product

I started this blog to share my experience in the design and development of products.  So far I haven’t done as much as I would have liked.  I’ve been getting distracted by stuff I encounter and writing rants about them.  While that’s fun, it’s not what I really wanted to do with this blog.  So I’m going to bite the bullet and actually start talking about the product development process.  I’m dong this mostly because of Makerbot. I watched the early days and I had to cringe at the way they did things. If you knew what to look for you could tell that they had little experience in how to take their idea and turn it into a manufacturable product.  Here’s a picture.


There are a bunch of issues here.  One is all the loose wires. That’s really unattractive and looks like the machine is just hacked together.  Second the laser cut wood case held together with tabs.  That’s not very stable in a product where precision is an asset.  Third, making the sprockets themselves.  That’s expensive and really unnecessary.  There are excellent sprockets available really cheap.  Far cheaper than you can print yourself.

Consider how different Dremel’s intro into the 3D printer market is.


This is a product designed by professionals and it looks like it.  No hanging wires here.  Just a smooth industrially designed case and clean profile.  Is the Dremel as good as a Replicator 3?  I leave that to the comparisons at Make magazine.  Is it a product that’s likely to sell. You bet.

I’m not pointing this out to pick on Makerbot.  They are pioneering in a new product and they got their start in a place where much of the manufacturing skills have atrophied.  If I wanted to help Makerbot out, I should have sent a resume. I could still do that.  I want to use this blog as a way for others to avoid making the same kinds of mistakes.  There’s a huge difference between a professionally designed product and a hobbyist’s hack.  But it’s not a gap that’s overwhelming if you know how to bridge it. It really comes down to some simple rules.

The first set of rules is do your homework.  You’ve got your idea, now there are some things you need to know before you try to make it a product.  One is discover your market.  Even with a new type of product there are ways to explore what people want.  Look at who uses something like your thing.  Go on forums in your hobby.  Talk to the people who might end up selling it. Find out who your competition might be.  You are so much better off doing your due diligence before you start than finding yourself in a deep hole with your life savings invested.

Then check out what kind of regulation might affect your product.  We don’t live in  a red tape free society and there’s always the possibility that some regulation can screw you up. This is a little harder, but you can look at similar products and read the data label.  That will give you a clue as to the agencies and insurance organizations you will be dealing with. It’s better to plan for things like something the Consumer Product Safety people would object to in as early in the  process as possible than have probably expensive engineering changes later.

One thing to consider is having ROHS compliance up front. Especially if your product is going to be sold overseas.  Contacting Underwriters laboratories for guidance is also a good start. It’s also a good thing to purchase things like the general electrical wiring and design standard as your design progresses and follow things like wiring and case grounding standards.  Also consider how durable you product should be and what testing might be necessary.  Consider how the product will be handled in shipping as well.  The earlier you start thinking about  stuff like this the less likely this kind of stuff is going to bite you when you least expect it.

Before we start into design some more simple rules.  I know , more rules.  This was supposed to be fun.  But these are important.  These will make your design as painless as it can be and avoid the frustrations that kill projects. Here they are:
1. KISS(keep it simple, stupid)

2. Don’t make what you can buy

3. Don’t design what you can steal.

The KISS principle is simple in principle but can be hard to implement. You have to consider if you are considering simplicity for the user, simplicity of manufacture or simplicity of design.  A simple design doesn’t help you if only an expert can use it.  Or if the manufacturing cost is so high that very few customers can afford it.  A model T Ford is a simple design, and at the end simple to manufacture, but driving one was fairly complicated.

In general , the fewer parts you have the  better.  Think in subassemblies and  how everything is going together.  Think about service requirements and how easy it is to take  apart something if need be Consider how easy your product is going to be to use for somebody who’s never seen one before.

Don’t make what you can buy.  Look, you are just starting out.  Do you really want to design special hardware?  Using ready made components is going to be a time saver.  It’s also going to be a money saver. Look a vendor can  take advantage of economies of scale that you just don’t have.  Take advantage of that.  Buy your hardware, sprockets, gears, cases, bearings and so forth and modify your design to fit.

Don’t design what you can steal.  First of all most vendors will have  3D models of their parts. Mcmaster  Carr, for instance has 3D Cad files of just about everything they sell.  That’s a huge resource.  ThomasNet also has Cad files for many parts.  Solidworks has the 3D content central  library where users submit models for other people to use.  There are other design libraries out there.

In addition, there are books full of design ideas.  Here are some that I have found useful over the years.




There are more.  The important thing is to not reinvent the wheel.  In fact it’s not to reinvent anything.  Take advantage of what others have done.  Reverse engineer like crazy. Then pay it forward in new and creative, innovative designs.

Now as to the product I want to entertain, I think that I want a laser cutter for making model parts. I think that a lot of people would like an affordable laser cutter.  If this instructables is any indication this is a truly worthy project and a laser cutter is viable consideration. So let’s look into that next time.


The Let’s Build series:



  1. Pingback: A NEW MAKER BLOG, THE ARTS MECHANICAL: Let’s Build A Product!… | CRAGIN MEDIA
  2. Robert Bleck · February 19, 2015

    This is cool. Funny, I just finished being interviewed by an eighth grader who wanted advice on becoming an architect. I think I’ll pass this link on to him.


  3. Bill Begosh · February 20, 2015

    I’m a retired Toolmaker. My career of 50+ years has exposed me to just about every mechanical process known to man. Almost everyday was a day of invention. How do I cut it, how do I hold it. will it distort? Experience produces predictability. I’ve run the gamit from Bell Labs to the Meter/Mix dispensing industry to my own shop.
    Today, pushing a button will produce an action. The question not asked by students today is, “how does it do it?”
    More reading: “Ingenious Mechanisms for Designers and Inventors” by Horton


    • jccarlton · February 20, 2015

      It’s on the list. I’ve got blog post working with references on it.


  4. penneyvanderbilt · July 16, 2015

    Reblogged this on KCJones.


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