NPI: A How To Guide for Engineers & Their Leaders
Leading from the Front
Screws & Glue: Getting Stuff Done
Choosing the best CAD software for product design
Screws vs Glues in Design, Assembly, & Repair
Best Practices for Glue in Electronics
A Practical Guide to Magnets
Inspection 101: Measurements
A Primer on Color Matching
Developing Your Reliability Test Suite
Guide to DOEs (Design of Experiments)
Ten Chinese phrases for your next build
NPI Processes & Workflows
Production: A Primer for Operations, Quality, & Their Leaders
Leading for Scale
Production Processes & Workflows
Building the TeamEstimated reading time: · link copy link
To design a great product, you must start by designing a great team. I've shipped four products from prototype to production, seen over 100 NPIs, and interviewed hundreds of leaders. Those experiences taught me some important lessons about building high-functioning hardware teams. Whether inside a large company or as part of a startup, building a new hardware team is about more than just adding hardware engineers -- you’ll need software, manufacturing, and operations as well.
How big should the team be?
The most important principle is that team size should correlate to product confidence.
You can also get creative and keep a team small by augmenting it with Joint Development Manufacturing (JDM) resourcing from a factory partner.
Who should be on the team?
The key to keeping your small team effective is to stack the deck in your favor by filling it with people with experience in exactly what you need to do. Prior experience in the type of production environment you have (high-volume, regulated, zero-defect requirements, etc) and first-hand engineering/operational know-how will go a long way toward doing more with less. In the case of the five-person team, every single member had significant prior experience, making the super lean team possible. As another example, Rylo had only a single product design engineer. This engineer has previously been through multiple high-volume, high-quality programs at a large company. He was able to design and deliver the mechanical and manufacturing design for an entirely new product on his own, with resulting product quality rivaling that of the biggest brands (who might have assigned five or more product design engineers to develop a similar product).
What are the roles on a hardware team?
A hardware team has four broad disciplines: design, technology, operations, and software. Big teams can use many people to cover all the roles within these disciplines. Here’s an example of some of the individual hardware-related roles you might find on a big team:
- Mechanical Engineer
- Industrial Designer
- FEA Engineer
- Materials Engineer
- Engineering Program Manager
- Reliability Test Engineer
- Electrical Engineer
- Antenna/Bluetooth Engineer
- Camera Engineer
- Display Engineer
- Battery Engineer
- And more...
- Test Station Designer
- Manufacturing Engineer
- Operations Program Manager
- Tooling Engineer
- Quality Engineer
- Supply Chain Manager
- Firmware Engineer
- Hardware Test Engineer
- Software Engineer
- Web Developer
- And more...
Small teams have to cover these roles with far fewer people. This means that for most new teams, there will have to be a decision on which roles to cover in-house and which ones to outsource.
What can I outsource?
First, ensure you cover roles related to your core technology in-house. Ultimately, your requirements will be unique. There are a few general guidelines that typically ring true (though we’ve seen exceptions):
- I’m biased, but you usually don’t want to outsource the mechanical design . You want at least one person overseeing mechanical engineering and product design on your team -- or at least systems engineering (a kind of electro-mechanical generalist who can own a JDM program). They will own your product's overall function, reliability, fit, and finish -- and likely the physical parts that make up your core technology. They will be empowered to fix issues, and they will be incentivized to do so to prevent long and grueling trips to your factories overseas. This person is often versatile and can fill in for a broad range of expertise, including some operations roles, and lean on vendors when needed.
- You usually don’t want to outsource roles related to factory relationship management . This person will own the relationships between your company and its vendors, which are critical for program success. Better relationships can sometimes mean better quality, price, or service with a vendor. This team member will also own the schedule for getting your product out on time, essential for hitting your sales goals.
So what can you outsource? Specialized roles unrelated to your core technology are a good place to start. Some examples of roles that can typically (but not always) be outsourced are:
- Industrial design . Even if product design is part of the core technology, most of the contribution from the industrial designer is compartmentalized and upfront. Moreover, continued industrial design “meddling” can reduce the efficiency of your mechanical engineers (this one comes from experience).
- Siloed technology engineering roles . These roles, such as battery engineers, display engineers, or camera engineers, are often too specialized to provide ongoing value throughout the entire development process. Even for electrical engineering, it’s sometimes the case that your electrical design is simple enough that you don’t need a dedicated full-time person and can instead rely on another engineer on your team with sufficient EE experience, contract a resource for a short-term engagement, or leverage a JDM partner. If you’re building an innovative camera product, you may need a camera engineer in-house -- but maybe not a battery engineer if you can source off-the-shelf parts.
Again, these are not hard and fast rules. We know of one successful hardware company that realized their core technology was truly only software -- so they built their tiger team to reflect that, concentrating staffing decisions to focus on software application design, UX, and UI. They built only a minimal in-house team for the actual manufacturing and managed to outsource their mechanical engineering.