Since the dawn of skratchworx, I’ve wanted to explain in step by step detail the process of making DJ gear. It has struck me that many of you don’t know just how many stages go into the complex task of making crazy ideas into real product, and if you did then you’d be better equipped to comment on why gear is the way that it is.
I imagined that this would involve talking to people at all levels, and flying to factories, R&D labs, and generally spending a lot of time and money to deliver a multi-part guide on how stuff makes it from being a scrap of paper to being in your hands. But as the meme goes, ain’t nobody got time for that.
So tapping into our deep pool of industry resource, I asked someone who knows this process inside out to create the one-stop definitive guide. Many of you will know Craig Reeves — he’s worked in the industry for many years delivering products from the drawing board to your doorstep. Craig has forgotten more than many of us know about such things.
This is an indispensable guide, and should you take the time to read it, you’ll have a deeper understanding of the process, and appreciate just how much goes into your favourite gear. What follows is a basic blueprint for anyone who wants to start making DJ gear. But even at almost 4500 words, it’s still a little more than a quick start guide.
Over to Craig…
HOW DJ STUFF GETS MADE
A step by step guide for DJ product development
By Craig Reeves
Before I begin I just want to throw this out there: this is not a blueprint for how EVERYONE makes a product. Each company has a little different take on the steps they follow, their order, what they call things, etc. What I’m presenting to you now is kind of a product development casserole, mixing up the leftovers of the places my friends and I have worked. This is going to be a step by step guide that covers a product from initial idea to its appearance on store shelves. When possible, I’ll make sure not to use industry jargon, and when I do I’ll be sure to explain it.
The Initial Idea
This is where it starts, right? You’re an experienced DJ with good visibility into the market, and you’ve identified a product that meets a need. Maybe that product is simply a modification to an existing product, or maybe it’s a whole new thing that doesn’t exist yet. Having these ideas is what they’re paying you, the Product Manager, to come up with. But no matter how great you (or anyone else) thinks the idea is, an idea alone isn’t enough. The executive at the top of the food chain that pays for everything is going to need more information. They’ve been burned by good ideas that didn’t pay off before, and you don’t become successful by throwing money away. As the product manager you already know this, so you keep that idea in your pocket until you come up with…
You need to write a document that justifies the need for your product. It needs to be short enough that your average CEO will be able to get through it, but long enough to do its job. It needs to cover the business case for the product, the product’s complexity, and the general sales and marketing strategy. This is because you serve 3 gods as a product manager: the CEO/executive staff, the Engineering manager, and the sales manager. Everyone calls this document something different, but the term I see most often is the Market Requirements Document or MRD for short.
Generally speaking, you’re going to have those 3 guys looking at this document and taking away different bits of information.
For the CEO, you need to have a brief business case. This will be a look at the market, showing things like how your product stacks up against other products out there. You’ll also have sales data that will (hopefully) clearly show the CEO that there is money to be made. You’ll include the estimated build cost (BOM – Bill of Materials) and the target sale price, which will allow you to figure out roughly how much profit you should be making per unit. If you’re really good, you’ll also have forecasted sales and rough development costs (taken from previous products) that you can use to estimate your ROI (Return on Investment).
For the Engineering Manager, you’ll need to provide enough information about your product to give them an idea of how complex it is going to be. How much will it cost to build? Do they know a Contract Manufacturer that would be able to make this product (CM for short – a factory you don’t own that you’ll pay to make your product)? Is there an off-the-shelf product from an OEM we can start with (Original Equipment Manufacturer – a factory that builds stuff that other companies sell under their own brand)? These are the questions that the engineering manager will want to be able to answer.
For the Sales Manager, you’ll want to show the profit margin for the product, as well as distributor cost. You’ll also want to have a good “30 second pitch” in there to give the sales manager an idea of why this product is important, how it’s different than the other products in the market, and what kind of marketing push will be associated with it. Your sales manager should be your biggest advocate. If you can get him to buy into the concept, you can use him to work the CEO and Engineering Manager – so you should really cater to your sales manager. Honestly, he should already know about the product concept before the MRD is in the works, because you got his input earlier.
Once your MRD is completed, you will hand it in for executive approval. Those guys will give it a look and decide if your new idea is a go or no-go. If they come back to you and tell you that it’s a pass, don’t give up! Ask them what the sticking points were, and where they felt the idea fell short. If you’re absolutely convinced that your product is a good one, it’s your job to be the advocate for your baby. Maybe your business case needs work, or maybe there’s an engineering issue that needs to be addressed. Sometimes it comes down to available bandwidth (the company is working on other projects and unable to move forward with something new). Either fight for your product or learn from the experience and move on. However, if you get a thumbs up, it’s time to write…
The Product Requirements Document is the document that explains to whoever is reading it how to make your product, and includes everything about what your product is and how it works. The more detail you can put into a PRD the better, because believe me it’s going to cut down on the number of questions later on. It also forces you to really go down the rabbit hole and flesh out your product at the beginning.
I talked a little earlier about how everyone does things differently. Nowhere is that more true than in the PRD. Some companies have PRDs that include wiring diagrams, others are glorified napkin sketches. Personally, I lean towards proving more detail, even if I’m dealing with an OEM. In any case, a PRD usually contains these things:
Product Description – This is a basic overview of the product, what it does, and how it does it.
Basic Business Case – This is stuff you should be able to copy over from your MRD. You’ll want to include your target BOM, your estimated sales price, estimated yearly sales (to determine volume), desired launch date, and how many years the product will remain for sale (these go in to help figure out things like if they can get a volume pricing break on components, etc.).
Key Features – Imagine this as the bullet points that will go on the product box.
Dims and Weights – Product Dimensions and weight.
Product Image or ID – This lays out the ID (Industrial Design – the way a product will look) of the product. This can be anything from a Photoshop or Illustrator mockup to a rendered 3D model. Typically you’ll have a guy or department that will give this to you based on your input, so you’ll at least need to have enough info to give the ID team something to work with.
Main Competition – What other products are out there like yours? Is there a product that can be used as a reference for performance, build, or sales? Who will you be selling against?
Product Elements – What are the main components of your product? This section lists each component in your product and defines what it is and how it behaves. Typically you’ll have several views under the PE section, breaking down the surface into functional groups. For instance, let’s say one of the elements is a button. Is it lighted? Is the button soft rubber or hard plastic? Does it need special support underneath it because it’s used in performance? What happens when it’s pressed? You need to define this for every single component in your product – including the case and anything else.
Functional Parts – Where the Product Elements section is more about what a control does, the Functional Parts section talks about what each part is. Is that button a contact button or a tact switch? Does that switch need to be super durable or sealed? Is that knob a rotary pot or an endless encoder? If it’s an encoder, what resolution does it have? What is the resolution of the screen? This is where you define specific parts used in the construction of your product.
Leveraged Technology – Is there anything in your product that relies on a new or unfamiliar technology? You will define that here. This is also a good place to show any common components with other products at your company. Let’s say that you’re making a USB MIDI controller, and you sell another product that has an MCU (Micro Controller Unit) that works in the same capacity really well. Maybe you can use that MCU and benefit from higher volume pricing (and reduce your BOM cost). If so, you would put that in here as well.
Product Specifications – This is going to vary a lot depending on your product. You might have a ton of target specs for something like a speaker, headphones, or a mixer. Maybe not as many for a MIDI controller. In any case, if you have anything that requires specification – including power requirements – you would put them here.
Operational Conditions – The environmental conditions in which you would expect your product to operate successfully. Usually this is a cut and paste from another PRD because your company already has a standard defined. But if there’s a special need – maybe you’re making the BURNING MAN Special Edition Mixer – you can put that here too.
System Requirements – If your product connects to a computer, you’ll define the system requirements here. This also ties in directly with your product packaging.
Packaging Requirements – Does your product need to be in a 4 color glossy box, or a dull white job with one color printing? How many single products go into a Master Carton? Does your product need to be in a poly bag or a velvet cover? Is there an instruction manual or a quick start guide? Does it come with batteries or a USB cable? That all gets covered here.
Firmware Description – The firmware is the software running on your product’s MCU that tells the product how to work. I’m going to simplify this section a lot because firmware complexity varies greatly depending on the product. Your product might be as dumb as a flashlight or as smart as an iPhone. In either case, you’re going to have to document every single functionality you can think of in this section. If your product has a screen, this can be a daunting task – but the more work you do on the front end the more fleshed out your product will be. And remember that the PRD is a work in progress. You’ll revise this document many times before everything is settled, so sometimes it’s better to get what you can out there quickly and revise as needed.
Compliance – If you need ROHS, UL, etc. (and yes you do) that all goes here. This is also usually a cut and paste from another document.
Testing Requirements – This section will break down the kind of testing that needs to be done at the factory. Maybe this is something complex, like running a sound quality test using an Audio Precision machine, or as simple as a visual inspection for a problem component.
Seems like a lot? It is. The PRD is the embodiment of your product in print. This document is going to teach everyone else what your product is and how to make it. PRDs can be as short as 20 pages or as long as 100. Whatever it takes to get it all on paper.
So now that you’ve done your PRD and handed it in, a lot of different things are going to happen. First, you’re going to go through another executive review. If that passes, your PRD will then go to a lot of different people.
These people are in charge of buying the stuff you need to make your product. That might mean they look for (and get bids on) an existing product at an OEM, or it could be individual parts used at a factory to build your baby.
OEM or ODM
An ODM is an Original Device Manufacturer (and we defined the OEM a little earlier). The difference between an ODM and an OEM is sometimes blurry, but generally an OEM makes their own products and an ODM makes the products you design. In either case, this is the factory your product gets built in. Typically someone in Sourcing will give them your PRD and get a quote on the product, then you’ll decide which one to choose from there. Most companies in MI (and especially DJ) do not have their own factory, so contract manufacturing is a necessity.
These guys are the electrical engineers – the ones who will define how to build your product from a component level. They decide everything from how many layers your PCB (Printed Circuit Board) will be to what specific parts will be used. These guys build a virtual model of your new baby in software, which will not only go to the factory, but also back to the industrial designers so they can adjust the concept designs to reflect the newly defined internal components. Sometimes this resource is at your company, and other times it’s handled by the contract manufacturer.
I said the sales guy is your friend before. This is your other buddy. Your assigned Project Manager is in charge of organizing operations at the factory your product is being built in. They coordinate your project and make sure all of the different departments are working on time and towards the right goal. He’s your main point of contact on your product’s development once the ball starts rolling, so love your Project Manager. Buy him or her beer or cigarettes whenever possible, because they’re typically overworked and underpaid.
This is another one of those highly flexible steps. Some companies wait till the last minute to bring marketing in on a product – others involve marketing from the MRD. These guys will have their hands on anything involving product presentation. That’s box art, advertising, documentation – really everything anyone sees that isn’t the product itself. I’ll talk more about marketing a little later.
So now we wait?
You’ve been pretty much a one man operation to this point. Now life gets interesting, because you have to start putting out fires. Especially in the beginning few weeks, there are going to be a lot of questions you need to answer. Things you didn’t think about before now, revisions that need to get made. You may need to rethink a whole layout because of a single issue. This is one reason why having a little negative space in your design (open areas with no controls) is a good idea. Give yourself room to move if you need to. Negative space can also make a product appear less intimidating to a user. In the same vein, make sure you’ve got enough capacity in your chosen MCU to handle all of the inputs and outputs for the controls on your product. One small change can cascade into a world of pain if you constantly run right up against the edge of your component capabilities.
Once you’ve put out most of the initial fires and the factory has a good idea of how to proceed, you’ll reach…
Hand Made Samples are the first “fully realized” version of your product you’ll receive. I put fully realized in quotes because they’re usually rough in a lot of ways. Maybe the case was 3D printed and looks like it could be used as sandpaper. Maybe the control alignment is way off. Maybe the firmware is a mess (or missing altogether). Whatever the case, this is where you start evaluating your product. You’ll make extensive notes, take pictures, and bring all this to the attention of your CM.
You’ll never be more excited with your product than when you get that first HMS sample. It’s the first time that thing that’s lived in your head for so long is actually a physical product. It’s a very cool feeling.
Starting with HMS, you get to play the first round of a game called “Is It Good Enough?” with your CM. Let’s say one of the issues with your HMS is that the case wobbles when it’s sitting on a desk because it’s warped 4mm on one of the corners. When you bring this to the attention of your CM, they will first tell you that the issue wasn’t seen in their facility, and that your desk must be warped. You then use digital calipers and a camera to show that indeed one of the corners is warped, and that it’s not a problem with the desk, thank you. They will then came back and tell you that this issue must only be on that one sample. You’ll then verify that the problem exists on all samples sent. They will take a day (or more) to confirm the issue on their side. Finally they will acknowledge the problem exists, but give you a reason why it will be difficult to fix (we need to increase the draft angle, the injection mold needs to be changed to allow for more even heating, etc.). Back and forth, again and again.
Keep some gas in the tank, sparky, because this is just the opening round and you’re playing with a negotiation ninja trained from birth to talk you down. It’s his job, just like it’s your job to get the product made to your specification.
Once you’ve gone through several HMS iterations, the factory will be ready for the next step…
This is the Tool Made Sample. When a factory makes a product, there are tools specially made just to aid in the manufacture of that product. A good example of this is an injection mold. Injection Molding is when you squirt hot melted plastic into a metal form that’s been carved to a specific shape. When the plastic cools, you have a specifically shaped piece of plastic that they’ll use in your product (maybe that part is the case, or a knob or fader cap). So when I say tool made sample, what I mean is a sample made with the tooling that was created to manufacture your product. TMS is really important, because you get to see the results of the tooling.
When you receive your tool made samples, you need to scrutinize those samples closely. If anything is wrong with them, this is not the time to let it slide (or else you better be comfortable with seeing that error later in the process). You’re looking at everything from the alignment of the seams and buttons to the finish of the case and the performance of the product. This is also where your feature set is usually frozen, because at this step there’s been a pretty major expense to develop the tooling and any changes can cost a LOT of money. There will be several rounds of TMS, and several more intermediate rounds of the negotiation game to be played. TMS is also an important milestone in your product development because it’s usually where you get marketing involved in a major way.
Marketing (yes those guys again)
Now that your product is “real”, you need all the other stuff that goes along with it. Anything you specified in your PRD to be included in the box (as well as the box itself) will be created by your marketing team. They’ll work on all of the deliverables that need to get done for the factory first, so that’s things like the packaging design, manual, quick start guide, any software vouchers, etc. The factory needs these things ASAP so they can get the product into a manufacturing run. But this is also where you’re going to start moving forward with your “external” marketing efforts. These are things like advertising, artist endorsements, performance and instructional videos, early reviews, etc. And you’ll have some product to hand out to key people from your previous TMS runs so you can get this stuff done.
You’ll also get with marketing to develop some material specifically for your sales guys. This can take a lot of forms, from sales pitches and product spec. sheets to competition info. Your company has a lot of products to sell, and a ton of details to remember about them. If you can give your sales guys a cheat sheet and some easy to remember points about your product, they’ll be more comfortable selling it – and the sales people at your local retailer will be more likely to recommend your product to a customer if they know a little bit about it. This step is where the sales people are going to really start pushing retailers to “load in” your product (to buy your product for sale in their stores), so give them the ammo needed to do their job.
That’s a lot of stuff to get done right at the end of the process, and this is a problem your marketing guys run into WAY more often than they’d like. No one likes a fire drill and, as the product manager, you need to make sure marketing gets your product into their pipeline with enough time for them to do the work. You need to have some visibility into not only what marketing is doing, but also what the other departments are developing. Yes, your project manager is going to handle some of this, but you don’t want to dump on him any more than you want to dump on marketing, so having a little visibility really helps things run along smoothly.
By this point, you should have the tooling in good shape. Now the factory is going to produce a small run of your product (probably also in its packaging) to test how the production line is working. This not only verifies that the tools can stand up to full speed manufacturing, but it also allows the factory to verify that the quality control checks are also doing their job. This is also where the level 9000 negotiation game is going to be played. At this point no one wants to make any significant changes to anything, so stakes are high for everyone. You’re going to get push-back on everything except the most obvious problems. This step is where you pull out the microscope, because by now things have to be perfect. Once you and the factory have agreed that everything is correct, you’ll reach…
This is it. You’ve reached the end of the beginning. The factory will begin producing your product in large volumes based on the quantities you’ve specified. Your finished product gets boxed, and then put into a Master Carton (a large box that holds a number of your product in retail packaging). Those master cartons will get loaded into a container and put on a ship that will land in the port(s) of your choosing. From China to the US it takes a freighter nearly a month to make the trip, so there’s a little lag. This is usually when you’ll begin a lot of your outbound marketing.
Once that freighter arrives at your port, the product needs to get split up and shipped to the retailers and distributors that will end up selling it. In some cases, this can take another 2 weeks. It really depends on where it’s going, and what’s happening to it once it gets there (for example, is it going to a store chain with their own distribution hub, or directly to a specific retailer).
And finally, available for sale!
Your product is now available for sale in retail stores. Boxes are on shelves, and people can get their hands on them. That doesn’t mean that your job is done, though, because getting a product to market is only the beginning of the process. There are a lot of things you need to do to service that product once it’s available, and of course you’re also working on your next products as well. You have to keep that production pipe full.
An obvious bit of info I’ve avoided in this article is the amount of time it takes for each step. There isn’t a good answer for that. It could take 6 months or 3 years to take a product from concept to store shelves. And the factors that can affect your timeline are as varied as the products themselves. Not to mention, every organization is different.
I want to put just one more point in here. Product development is a team exercise. Yes the product usually starts off as an idea in one person’s head, but it takes a team to realize that product. No matter how good your idea is, it’s just an idea until other people get involved – and ALL of those people deserve credit. I like to think of a product idea as a hunk of ore. It takes a lot of work to refine that ore and turn it into a sword – and every step of the process is an important contribution upon which the other steps are based.
So that’s it for now. I hope this has given you guys a little deeper look into what goes into the products you own. I’ll of course keep track of the comments and chime in whenever appropriate.