An Exercise in the Product Realization Process
Slide into your favourite comfies and put on a pot of coffee, this could take a while.
PREFACE: An Introduction
This post was written using the knowledge gained through my work experience, education, hobbies, observations in industry, but most importantly from my amazing family, friends, and co-workers who have all helped me greatly along the way. This is my first attempt at seeing a product through to the end. I hope that anyone looking to start their own business or develop their own product can learn something from my experience.
I am by no means an expert on the product realization process, quite the opposite really. This is simply my interpretation of what the process could look like, and include. My eyes and ears are open to any insight, agreements, disagreements, or comments about the process. I am always interested in having a discussion and learning something new.
CHAPTER 1: Project Background
Back in May of 2021 I published a blog post about refreshing my 1998 Toyota Celica GT-Four in preparation for one of my best friends weddings. While originally not that daunting of a task, this refresh, not unlike most automotive projects, has transformed into a beast of its own. Using the mentality of “if you’re going to do something, do it right”, every nook and cranny of the car is being explored for excessive wear, damage, or general improvement and modernization.
A few years ago, I was commuting from Cambridge to Woodbridge every day for work. In the summer months, I drove my Celica in an attempt to make my commute slightly more bearable. While speedy drives on 400 series highways were a blast in the GT-Four, mileage was not the only thing that the car was accumulating.
Damage and wear, both cosmetic and mechanical, accumulated from the daily 200km round trip was astonishing. My unforgivingly expensive and rare “kouki” (read “late model” or “facelift”, 1998-1999 Celica production) projector headlight assemblies suffered a particularly ill fate when the drivers side headlight involuntarily met with a rock at 120km/h. Like a three pack-a-day chain smoker, the glass headlight lens, almost comedically, received a new breathing hole. This damage kick started a now essential task of rebuilding my headlight assemblies. However, the broken lens was not the only issue with these headlights.
My specific model of Celica is a Japanese market import, meaning the vehicle was originally configured for driving on Japanese, right hand traffic roads. In addition to having the steering wheel on the wrong (right) side of the vehicle, right hand drive vehicles are configured with headlight beam patterns designed for traffic opposite to that of left hand drive vehicles. Driving a vehicle with opposite beam patterns presents an issue, where oncoming traffic is inadvertently blinded by your headlights as you drive. This phenomena poses a large safety risk to both drivers on the road, as well as yourself. A great article depicting headlight beam patterns was published by Vehicle RGB and can be found by using the following URL. For reference, my Celica originally yielded an ECE RHD beam pattern:
As the drivers side headlight required disassembly to repair the broken lens, an opportunity to correct the headlight beam pattern presented itself while the assemblies were apart. On a standard projector lens, the beam pattern is dictated by a light shield that rests between the projection lens and the headlight bulb. The shape of this shield is fixed for its designated market. Loosely speaking, the beam pattern can be converted by cutting, shaping or retrofitting your own light shields within the projector assembly. Alternatively, conversion can be accomplished by fitting entirely new projector lenses within the headlight assembly. After playing with the former several years ago with lackluster results, I began to explore the latter.
In addition to a beam pattern suitable for North American left hand traffic roads, modern projector lenses offer both a low and high beam light output using a single lens. Combine this advantage with a brighter, more uniform light output, and converting to new projector lenses becomes an easy decision. As there is no personally desirable off the shelf solution, how does one go about adapting a new projector lens assembly to the factory headlight housing? Maybe it’s time to design something new.
CHAPTER 2: Project Justification
Before aimlessly running away on a design project, it’s important to ask yourself “why do I want to do this, and what is it going to accomplish?”. If there is little return on investment, no market, or a solution looking for a problem, asking these simple questions prior to initiating a project can prevent resources from being wasted on what could result in a failed product launch.
So what’s the desire to manufacture a full fledged adapter kit as opposed to quickly slapping some brackets together in an afternoon at the shop? Everyone will have their own opinion at this point in the story, but my justification was to learn for the future, and support a community which I’m proud to be a part of.
Lets start with the former first.
In our free time, my brother Adam and I are slowly working on launching our own company, Loose Screws. If everything proceeds as planned, we will be releasing both hard and soft goods under the Loose Screws brand in the not so distant future. While we both have considerable professional experience from working for OEM’s and tier I manufacturing facilities, there is still so much to learn.
Primarily, the intent of this project was to learn what it takes to see a design into reality, both developing and experiencing all of the process steps from start to finish. I wanted to explore best practices, as well as learn the poor ones, and apply this knowledge to future development projects. Ideally, this practice should help encourage a higher probability of success down the road. The beauty with starting on a project such as this conversion is that the product design is quite simple. However, I’ve learned that a simple design does not necessarily equate to a simple execution.
Community support is my secondary reasoning for initiating this project, even more so now in 2022. This year may seem insignificant, but those familiar with grey market vehicle importation laws may recognize the growing number of late-90’s Japanese classics becoming eligible for import. For those less familiar, grey market vehicles, including right hand drive vehicles, are eligible for import into Canada after 15 years from the date of manufacture, and 25 years in the United States.
My particular Celica, the ST205 chassis, was produced from 1994 to 1999. Understanding the 25 year import eligibility laws, the United States can currently import vehicles with a manufacture date of up to 1997. Slowly, this is increasing the total number of right hand drive vehicles trickling their way into North America. As years progress, the total number of ST205 chassis Celica’s treading tire on North American soil is only expected to increase.
Should these owners want to convert their headlights, these vehicles will all require modification to correct the aforementioned beam pattern. Why not support the cause? With a slowly expanding market, as well as potential personal benefit from the manufacture of such a product, the project can be justified and initiated with confidence.
CHAPTER 3: Defining Goals
A problem has been identified, the need for a solution has been recognized, and a project has been justified. Where do we start? Let’s kick off by defining what goals we want to accomplish during our product realization process.
As previously mentioned, my main goal was to use this exercise as a learning tool. What is it that I want to learn though? Stating “everything” would be an easy solution, but perhaps not the most effective one. Defining discrete lists of goals proved to be an efficient tool to capture everything that I wanted to extract from this surprisingly monumental effort. Lets have at it.
- Development of company assets and processes:
- Title block
- Part number nomenclature
- Project templates
- Control of commercial off-the-shelf components
- Structuring company documentation
- Costing matrix and pricing strategy
- Tracking and documentation of all processes for future reference
- Development of a functional, reliable design:
- Generation of a comprehensive technical data package (TDP), including:
- Laser cutting and laser marking manufacturing assets
- Design for manufacture and assembly (DFMA) to promote cost-effective, achievable manufacturing
- Generation of a comprehensive technical data package (TDP), including:
- Research and develop relationships with local manufacturing and processing facilities:
- Develop a supply chain for both manufacturing and supplemental processing
- Develop an attractively robust packaging and shipping solution:
- Generation of installation instructions
- Design of suitable package branding
- Source and procure quality packaging supplies
- Deliver a professional, beautiful solution to the end user:
- Financially break even
- Have some fun in the process
- Explore manufacturing capabilities of local vendors for future products
- Explore substrate surface finishes and their impacts on final part finishing cosmetic appearance
- Explore various methods to ship product, both domestically and internationally
- Explore COTS equivalencies and/or alternatives
- Generate a fair profit
- Generate exposure for Loose Screws
- Publish a blog post detailing my rendition of the product realization process
There’s no question about it, defining exactly what you want to accomplish is intimidating. To make brainstorming a little easier, this was approached as both a project planning tool, as well as a project completion checklist. Defining each bullet point made it easier to jump into each one of these goals and develop a plan of attack, encouraging successful project execution.
CHAPTER 4: Understanding Your Market
Performing a market analysis was essential to understanding the potential competition, customer base, and distribution implications. If a similar product, or products, already existed in the target market, the decision would have to be made as to whether or not it would be worthwhile to develop a competing product. Is the market too saturated? Can I do better than what’s already out there? What will differentiate me from the competition?
Thankfully for my particular application, to my knowledge there are no pre-existing adaptation kits available to satisfy this unique retrofit. There is however, one known adapter plate within the community that accommodates an ACME standard projector lens for the ST202/5 Celica. Although the product is similar, it doesn’t accommodate the specific projector assembly I had my eyes on. Therefore, this will then be a new product for the Celica chassis, making potential competition a moot point. At least for now.
In the projects infancy, I was on the fence as to whether I wanted to slap together a quick and dirty retrofit solution, or carry out a full product development project. Curious to see who else may be after a similar solution, I posted a photo of my initial prototype on Facebook asking if anyone would be interested in a retrofit kit to upgrade their vehicle’s headlights.
To my surprise, the community responded with an overwhelming amount of interest. Not only was this exciting as I’ve never previously lobbied a product before, but it also helped establish a potential customer base. It’s nothing short of amazing what can be accomplished using social media these days. Whether it be Facebook or Instagram, our shadowy friends at big data have made it all to easy to both find, and interact, with individuals yielding similar interests via groups and hashtags.
The target market is defined by the reach you’re able to achieve. Since social media has provided us with the ability of international communication, consideration had to be taken to determine how, and where I planned to sell these kits. As all of my potential customers were on various social media platforms, I didn’t believe it to be beneficial to establish an independent web store to gain a market share. Rather, leveraging the tools already available within social media platforms made it relatively easy to advertise and get product into the hands of my customers.
Potential liabilities and other legal implications will come into question depending on the product offered. Both intended industry and country of sale had to be investigated to understand the potential risk a new product poses to the end user, and their surroundings, should the product fail or otherwise not comply with local laws.
Headlights are a vehicle safety feature. For this product to be successful, all potential failure modes had to be considered to ensure that the design was robust and safe for it’s intended use. Honesty, as well as a commitment to ethics, becomes very important as the delivery of a safe product must always take precedence over product sales or rushing to market. Nevertheless, this product was marketed for “off-road use only” not only to protect myself, but also to encourage the customer to understand the potential risks of vehicle safety feature modifications.
CHAPTER 5: Design and Development
Still with me? I applaud you sir, madam, or otherwise, as I would have fallen asleep many a paragraph ago. Let’s talk about design and development, specifically some of the elements that were explored during the inception of this kit.
As previously mentioned, an adapter bracket for the ST205 chassis is not an idea original to myself. While exploring potential solutions to my headlight beam pattern problem on a Facebook group, I was directed to a gentleman who offered laser cut, raw aluminum brackets which adapt ACME standard projectors to Celica headlight housings. Wanting a relatively quick and easy solution, I purchased his CAD file in hopes to have a pair of brackets manufactured locally. It was at this moment that the project truly kicked off.
In addition to desiring a higher quality projector, I felt that the design could use a few improvements. While not criticizing the original design, the brackets manufactured from the aforementioned CAD didn’t fit up quite as nicely as I would have preferred. The need for a redesign was evident, and time was invested for improvement. After mucking around with the original pattern for longer than I care to admit, the decision was made to start from scratch and develop new geometry from the ground up.
Other than what’s inherently constrained by the design envelope (i.e. the headlight housing), starting from a clean slate allowed me to evaluate my own set of design considerations and cook up anything my heart desired. Be it geometry, material, hardware, surface finishes, or part marking, I had creative freedom in its entirety. That’s a really good thing.
The bulk of the retrofit kit’s design consists of reverse engineered geometry, inherited from both the Morimoto and Toyota projector assemblies. The goal of the design was to replicate both OEM’s fastening bolt patterns with respect to the center of their corresponding projector lenses and marry the two patterns together using a flat piece of material.
Once the geometry is known, CAD can be utilized to intersect the center points of the two projector lens assemblies and produce the married adaptation geometry. Interestingly enough, when compared to the OEM published white paper, the measured Morimoto projector lens bolt pattern was drastically different. This exercise demonstrated that it always pays to validate uncertain information.
Lastly, the distance from the mounting face of the projector body to the outward most point of the projector lens was required for both assemblies. This distance determines the offset required to ensure that the protrusion of the projector lens from it’s mounting surface won’t interfere with the finishing shroud that mounts overtop of the lens, as well as remain cosmetically appealing.
Using an optical comparator, a Vernier caliper and a ruler, measurements were collected, validated thrice, documented, and imported into CAD. This information established the baseline of what would become my new design, where the housing geometry could then be developed, and massaged, to suit the new projector assemblies.
Consideration of how the product is going to be manufactured during the design and development process is essential. A design is worth little if it can’t be manufactured, or manufactured for a reasonable cost. Design for manufacture and assembly is a critical practice, which considers how a part can be manufactured or assembled, from what material, and from what material stock, shape, and size.
As the bracket was designed to retrofit the new projector lens using a flat piece of material, few considerations needed to be made. Laser and waterjet cutting processes were evaluated for cost, value, edge quality, manufacturing lead time, and vendor availability. Stock material sizes were also investigated to prevent the need for additional preliminary material processing, which would otherwise drive up cost and lead time.
Regardless of the design work being relatively straightforward, several design iterations were drafted, evaluated, and improved upon before landing on a design that I was happy to start prototyping. A conceptual TDP can now be developed. This package would include the 3D models which technical drawings will then be based off, the drawings themselves, standards and specifications, manufacturing assets, and the definition of commercially available components.
Not only is a package required for technical detail, supporting creative assets now become essential pieces of the product realization puzzle. Information such as installation instructions, packaging artwork, and part marking assets had to be developed to create the best customer experience possible. Not only must the part look… the part… but the customer experience has to spark emotion, and promote the perception of quality from initial product receipt to final installation and use.
I’m fortunate to be part of a talented family. Whether it be top notch financial advise from my brother Matthew, creative direction from my brother Adam, or the mountains of small business knowledge shared by my parents, I’m constantly supported by those in my immediate circle. As I suck at most creative things, Adam showed me the ropes on what it takes to design and generate aesthetically pleasing, effective laser marking assets for professional part marking. Admittedly not knowing the first thing about industrial design, the process was as humbling as it was satisfying. It’s remarkable how graphic placement, alignment, padding and scale play into the effective communication and aesthetic of your final product. After communicating my desires, Adam composed all of the artwork in a single evening, to be later sent off to my vendor for part marking.
CHAPTER 6: Prototyping and Design Validation
Not unlike the result of Marty McFly reuniting his then-teenaged parents, this is where all of the hard work started to fade back into something real. Prototyping is intimidating, discouraging, expensive, and exhausting. Prototyping is also absolutely invaluable. It is at this point where all the thoughts and ideas turn into a tangible product, you begin to validate what works in the design, and what needs improvement. It’s not all pain. This part of the process can actually be a lot of fun if approached with an open mind.
What could this look like? Trying to make parts out of paper or cardboard to validate geometry before manufacturing with the desired material or process. Playing with different types of materials and fasteners. Exploring different vendors to build relationships, and evaluating their processes. Experimenting with new metrology equipment to enable more accurate design inputs. Finally, repeatedly applying this information through an iterative processes, watching the design mature into something you’re proud to call your own.
One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from my big-person job is how much knowledge can be gained from running a small batch of prototypes. Quite obviously, fit, form, and function are common words thrown around in the vast world of manufacturing, but what do they really mean? Expanding on the intent of these seemingly simple terms can yield great benefit in evaluating overall product application, both as a detail part as well as a functional assembly. It can determine if the selected vendors are capable of adequately delivering on their offered manufacturing processes, evaluate if the design inputs are accurate and robust, or if the selected manufacturing processes are even suitable for the finished product.
In fear of sounding like a broken record, how does this information apply in the real world? For this project, prototyping helped identify that waterjet cutting produces a draft angle on all cut edges whereas laser cutting produces a straight cut edge with additional post-processing required to remove material flashing and burrs. As these adapters require tapping, the precision and accuracy of this geometry prior to tapping becomes important to ensure that the thread location, orientation, and integrity can be consistently achieved. Through the use of time studies, it was determined that the value of having more precise part geometry outweighed the drawback of spending additional time deburring. Had both options not been explored, more challenges could have been faced down the road.
Those same prototypes were then prepared for anodizing using various abrasive blasting techniques, each producing unique surface finishes. The prepared prototypes were then evaluated to determine which blasting technique produced the most attractive finished surface after anodizing. During the process, a minor anodizing defect was identified, where localized anodic burning was occurring at the process contact points. This feedback was then provided to the vendor, who then corrected the defect for the production run.
Level and crisp laser marking was another challenge identified right from the onset of manufacturing. Unfortunately, this was an issue that deserved much more of my attention than I gave it. Queue the importance of prototyping, vendor development, vendor management and quality control. Quite obviously, identifying an issue with a contracted service is critical, but striving for effective corrective action is even more important.
Are requirements adequately defined to achieve expectations? Are the expectations realistic? Does the vendor sufficiently understand what has been communicated? How did the vendor respond to quality concerns or unfavorable feedback? Is the relationship with the vendor mutual and healthy? Are both parties willing to work together towards a common goal? Is the vendor willing to be held accountable when necessary? Can feedback returned from the vendor be trusted? Many of these questions can be asked and answered during the prototyping stage, acknowledging and applying this information can be immensely beneficial.
Let’s be honest here, the vendors weren’t the only ones with issues to correct. Prototyping highlighted an oversight I made during the initial design phase which, when actuated, would cause the high beam solenoid to interfere with the adapter bracket. This interference would limit the light cutoff shields travel, preventing adequate light output when powering the high beam circuit. The clearance was revisited, a new bracket was 3D printed, and part geometry was promptly validated. Thankfully only a small mistake to overcome… this time.
Speaking of, when it comes to making mistakes, discouragement comes far easier than I care to admit. For whatever reason, I constantly put a ton of unrealistic pressure on myself, setting an expectation for perfection. Maybe it has to do with the seemingly everlasting feeling of imposter syndrome but failure never feels like an option.
But it is. In fact, not only is failure essential, it defines who we are every day. Re-evaluating failure as the process of learning a new lesson is so much more constructive than focusing on the feeling of crashing and burning. This project was just the tip of the iceberg with respect to learning from my mistakes and failures. God, there’s been so many mistakes. What becomes essential is learning and understanding where things went wrong, regrouping, regaining your focus, and carrying on with a new tool in your pocket.
It’s at this point that all of the hard work has resulted in a validated final design and complete technical data package. The design review is complete, drawings accurately represent design intent and procurement can now be entertained. Just don’t do what I did and release multiple drawing revisions before completing this stage, no sense in capturing rolling changes in discrete lettered revisions.
CHAPTER 7: Establishing a Supply Base
Save for any concurrent vendor development accomplished during the prototyping phase, the project has been vastly internalized up to this point. Commitment has been relatively low, work has been completed at my own pace, and nothing has been set in stone. If you’re not managing your own manufacturing and processing, the establishment of a supply base is where this all starts to change.
Involving third parties in the project forces you to stomach a certain level of commitment. This means timelines, money, and the surrender of your precious parts for subsequent processing, where the risk of scrap is always present. This is where things start to get a little scary.
If this post isn’t evidence enough, I like working with defined structure to promote a means of organization and risk mitigation. This structure helped me progress through the establishment of my mini supply chain, while still being able to sleep at night. The goal was relatively straightforward, solicit requests for quote to manufacture bracket blanks, perform bracket tapping, anodizing, and procuring hardware. Easy, right?
Let’s face it, Covid has been brutal to the entire world, but particularly to small businesses. In addition to pandemic related struggles, there has been a huge shift in domestic to overseas automotive goods manufacturing, hitting our local economy even harder. My point? I believe there is so much value in supporting local businesses to help our own neighbourhood strive and survive. A huge initiative of this project was having all manufacturing and processing performed locally, helping support the industry that’s in our own backyard. Through hard work and sacrifice, as well as the support of local clientele, my dad has been fortunate enough to be able to maintain his HVAC business for over 30 years. Why not extend that same support to other local small businesses?
The challenge? Domestic manufacturing is seldom as economical as that of overseas origin, resulting in either increased consumer cost or lower profit margins. The ideal vendor would offer a balance of quality, cost and lead time, preferably in that order. Vendor capability may also come into play, where certain manufacturing processes simply aren’t locally available, or only available from a single source. Both circumstances present a level of risk. Fortunately enough, the Kitchener-Waterloo area checked all of the boxes required for this project, allowing me to establish an entirely local supply chain.
Simple Google searches yielded great hits on capable local vendors, allowing RFQ’s to be sent to multiple potential sources of supply. As this project was intended to be a tool for learning above all else, I wasn’t overly cautious about the loss of what would become my intellectual property. However, since the completion of this post a non-disclosure agreement detailing limitations of use has been considered and drafted. These documents will be made available prior to beginning any future business discussions or sharing of intellectual property.
Sourcing vendors to manufacture product is essential, but to me, there’s more to the story than just the receipt of high quality products and services. Striving to build healthy two-way partnerships rather than just a customer to vendor relationship. Promoting business practices which nurtures mutual benefit and open communication. Collaborating with partners in a manner which encourages both parties to buy into a common goal, and be excited about delivering on that goal.
Finally, taking the time to learn and understand capabilities and limitations to best execute on both current and future projects. Although the scope of this project only allowed for limited use of these ideologies, I firmly believe that establishing a business with these values at its core will always provide the best operational foundation.
What about lead time? What happens if a vendor is late on delivery? What if the incoming product doesn’t meet your quality requirements? Project management comes into play when timelines are introduced, making vendor lead time commitments increasingly important. Knowing how to identify the bottleneck, or critical path, in the supply chain is learned very quickly, forcing you to schedule your jobs accordingly to mitigate production delays.
Building buffers into the production schedule can help offset these challenges and help achieve the target customer delivery date. However, this isn’t always an easy task to manage. Time buffers were essential in mitigating delivery delays for this project, where I would have otherwise been delivering product weeks later than promised. The establishment of a healthy line of expectation communication with vendors makes this process infinitely easier, as everyone is able to effectively plan with transparency and advance notice.
As the two photos above may suggest, both hardware and packaging are all too easy to be forgotten. Thankfully, these two pieces of the puzzle are relatively easy to figure out if the design accommodates commercially available components. Generally speaking, this product is readily available through multiple sources, there is usually some level of quality control already performed by the manufacturer prior to shipment, and the product can be shipped to your front door in under a week.
A word of warning, while quality control can be less of a challenge with COTS, this does not mean that internal quality control processes should be circumvented in an assumption that the incoming product will be acceptable. Regardless of the source, remaining cognizant of the quality of any incoming product or service has always proven to be the best practice.
CHAPTER 8: Understanding Cost and Target Revenue
Before profit margins and sale price are able to be established, an understanding of the true definition of cost is required. As there were so many factors I had never previously considered until getting my feet wet, this was perhaps one of the largest realizations I had to make while progressing through this project.
With each stumble upon a new cost factor, my list of hard and soft costs was updated to ensure every expense was captured and evaluated. This list mind you, doesn’t even include any in-house manufacturing capabilities. And no, the dummy (read: “me”) doesn’t count.
The summation of the following contributing cost factors can be used as a good starting point. Time for a deep breath:
- Non-recurring engineering (labour hours, prototyping, iterative design)
- Raw material (aluminum plate)
- Internal manufacturing and processing (labour hours for subsequent handwork, abrasive blasting, part finishing, packaging construction)
- Outsourced manufacturing and processing (laser cutting, tapping, anodize, laser marking)
- Quality control (labour hours for receiving inspection)
- Commercial off the shelf components (hardware, packaging)
- Printing services (instruction manuals, package labelling)
- Creative design (laser marking, instructions, packaging assets)
- PayPal, e-commerce fees and currency conversion (percentage of sale, foreign currency exchange rates)
- Staff skillset capabilities and labour resources (engineering, creative design, procurement, accounting, marketing, quality control, assembly, packaging, shipping / receiving, legal)
- Manufacturing facility and available utilities (shop space, tools, compressed air, hydro, gas)
- Administration and relative tools (Outlook, Word, Excel, phone calls, emails)
- Engineering tools (SolidWorks / CAD)
- Graphic design & creative tools (Photoshop, Lightroom, Illustrator)
- Metrology equipment (standard measurement and test equipment, optical comparator, thread gauges, gauge pin set, surface plate)
- Marketing asset generation tools (DSLR camera, lighting)
- Part transportation (shipping product or physically driving parts to and from vendors)
- E-commerce / retail solutions (domain, email, e-commerce subscription)
- Vendor communication (labour hours liaising for procurement and quality control)
- Customer communication
That’s a substantial amount of crap, all of which contributing to a better understanding of true cost. Combine all of these costs with the multiple manufacturing quotes received from vendors and suddenly you find yourself buried deep in excel spreadsheets. Order quantities of 1, 2, 50, and 100, and their respective price breaks, were evaluated in a cost matrix to determine the optimal production manufacturing lot sizes for both the best cost to the customer and my desired profit margin.
Converging on lot size price breaks across all selected vendors in the supply chain helped save considerable cost, even if it meant manufacturing more product than the order demanded. This additional inventory is always beneficial for potential warranty replacements, R&D, or even additional sales down the road. Having more is always better than not enough.
Breaking down all of the information received from the supply chain into separate line items and applying a manufacturing markup proved to be the easiest way to understand where, and how, markup can be fairly applied to the adapter kits. I’m not going to tell you what I believe to be fair markup for a product, nor am I going to defend my markup decisions for these kits. Do the research, understand what similar products are selling for, account for potential unforeseen cost, and always keep an open perspective.
Although this project was not entirely conducive to the evaluation of different pricing strategies, keep in mind that not all costs need to be recovered in the first manufacturing lot. This was one challenge I had to overcome as the adapter kit sale price had to be both fair for the customer but also substantial enough to recover my costs in single production run. As I was only ever going to produce a single run of kits, the unfortunate reality was a higher customer purchase price to ensure I didn’t walk away with less money than I started with.
Speaking of starting cash, how does one go about funding a project? As previously discussed, having an understanding of all costs can be incredibly unnerving. If you don’t have the cash on-hand but you’re able to sell yourself right (figuratively, please), the bank is always willing to help. Crowd funding (i.e. group buy) is another option that’s gained a lot of traction over the past few years, and an option that I chose to pursue for the adapter kits. I asked all customers to provide an initial 50 percent product cost deposit up front, and the remaining 50 percent before product shipment. This funding methodology not only established a mutual level of commitment but also established concrete production numbers to feed back into my price matrix.
Choosing to fund a project with cash from your own pocket is incredible, but doesn’t come without its own challenges. Having enough money to continue progression on all things life demands is always the main challenge for me. As I like to be relatively aggressive when funding a project, temporarily occupying a few thousand dollars presented delays on other projects I wanted to complete before winter was over. Priority management and finding a balance, especially with patience, really helped here.
CHAPTER 9: Marketing & Brand Identity
Proper marketing, the topic I know the least about. At the time, showcasing and communicating my intended project was one area that I really stumbled though. However, if your marketing effectively communicates your product and drives sales, can it really be classified as improper marketing technique? Probably still yes.
I’m not going to lie, I didn’t spend a ton of time in the beginning of this project marketing these adapter kits. The goal here was simple, establish who I am, what it is that I was designing, provide a rough cost, get an understanding of market interest, and detail my contact information. All of this was accomplished by posting a quick photo of the Morimoto projector packaging, paired with the first rough cut adapter bracket prototype, on a few Celica GT-Four Facebook pages. To my surprise, a production run was locked in within 48 hours. You guys rock.
Demand has been driven and deposits have been secured. We’re all done here, right? It would have been so easy to call the marketing quits here, but I would have sold myself short. Admittedly out of phase with respect to the structure of this post, I hadn’t yet spent any time on package design and project artwork.
So? Who cares?
What I began to realize throughout this exercise was the importance of, and within the automotive accessory world, the general lack thereof, meaningful brand identity. It’s far too simple to slap a fast-bro-guy name and trendy logo onto a company and sell a bunch of merchandise that has absolutely no substance. Even if profitable, the company doesn’t stand for anything, it’s a shell that exists solely to make money from today’s pop culture and trends. If this tickles your fancy, all the power to you, but to me this just feels… empty.
Your brand, hell, your hard work, should stand for something. It should be an extension of your values, your soul. Why not establish the brand as something more than just a tool for income, rather a tool for communication, telling your story in everything you do? Referring back to a few chapters ago, let all avenues of the brand spark emotion, even before the customer lays their hands on the product. While I just scratched the surface of branding during this project, especially as it relates to the true Loose Screws (see originally pictured Carvalho Design branding), it has helped establish a foundation to build upon.
Part of the marketing process that I wanted to play with was harboring excitement via continual updates during the manufacturing process. Not only did this provide full transparency during manufacturing, but the beautified updates (attempted, at least) helped drive excitement and kept customers satisfied while their money was tied up in someone else’s hands. The photos above were taken on family vacation last year and in many ways, was the beginning of the kit becoming real.
Time to crank up that anxiety.
CHAPTER 10: Pulling the Trigger
This part was tough for me. Generating that first purchase order and hitting the send button took everything in me to commit to. The easy assumption to make here is that the money received from crowd funding was used to fund the project. In reality, every penny required to get these kits in the hands of my awesome customers came out of my own pocket.
This financial decision was made to be risk-adverse, where if any part of manufacturing failed and the project had to be cancelled, I could promptly refund the pre-orders. This made committing to a low volume production run easier, as I only had my own money to lose. Very quickly, risk management became a subconscious theme for this entire project.
This was my first production consumer product, so while money is at risk of being lost, so is my reputation. It’s not just my own reputation either, as the final decision was made to apply Loose Screws branding to the adapter kit, the reputation of the moniker itself was also at stake. Timely delivery of a high quality, high value product had to be achieved to set the bar as high as possible for the establishment of solid roots for the brands future. My solution? Under promise and over deliver.
My goal was to work ahead of schedule wherever possible. I figured the best way to achieve this goal was to structure my project schedule with generous time buffers that I anticipated could be completed sooner. Coordination with vendors during the quoting stage allowed me to establish a “best possible scenario” manufacturing schedule. This date, combined with planning concurrent work to be completed on my end, enabled me to project an internal project completion date. Apply some liberties with respect to anticipated delays, create a healthy padding, and a comfortable shipment lead time can be communicated.
Similar to climbing to the summit of a rollercoasters first drop, my anxiety was nearing it’s peak. Not wanting to be the single cause of my own project’s failure, PO’s were placed to progress the project and get past the unnerving mental obstacle.
Excitement is often times a double edged sword, as I almost instantly ran into challenges. Credit applications? Advance payments? Business billing address? PayPal business verification? Sounds like this can licking trash bandit hasn’t yet incorporated.
An undertone of unprofessionalism was immediately apparent, as I felt caught off guard with my pants down. I wasn’t legit. While most of my problems were solved by means of pre-payment, I couldn’t receive payment through PayPal without first proving that the company I was representing and product I was selling were real.
The problem was certainly real, and one that had to be handled diligently. Coordinating with one of my closest friends, Sean, he was able to submit all of the required incorporation information that Adam and I agreed upon. Seemingly overnight, Sean forwarded us what felt like Charlie’s golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, our certificate of incorporation.
Business affairs suddenly felt like a possibility. The incorporation and its relevant outputs felt like my first real demonstration of commitment, both to my customers and the project as a whole. Quite obviously, this wouldn’t be the last. As the supply chain was sparked alive, suddenly I was at the valley of that rollercoaster drop and everything started to get exciting.
CHAPTER 11: Product Receipt and Quality Control
I’ll never quite forget the first box of parts sitting on my front doorstep, emanating what appeared to be a golden glow of greatness. Only mere seconds away from slicing the tape open and exposing my spectacularly perfect parts, ready to be forwarded on to the next step in the manufacturing process by the setting of the current days sun! Anxiously unclipping my pocket knife from my oil spattered jeans, I pierced the packaging label and flapped open the distressed cardboard…
Huh… These kind of look like shit.
But did they really? A few chapters back we learned that laser cut parts, while geometrically sound, require post-process cleanup to get them to an aesthetically pleasing finished state. My excitement and anticipation for part receipt overshadowed the reality of that additional post-processing value add. While this was known and agreed upon with the vendor, it’s one thing to see a handful of prototype pieces requiring additional work versus an entire production order.
Nevertheless, this highlighted the importance of incoming quality control. What are we looking for though? Every part design is inherently unique, composed of it’s own materials, geometry, supplemental processes, and finishes. In the case of these parts, at this stage in the manufacturing process material properties and part geometry must be verified.
Material properties are verified through the mill’s certificate of conformance, where chemical composition and mechanical properties are checked and compared against the corresponding material standard. In an effort to keep part cost to a minimum, part geometry was verified against a 3D-printed “gauge” of sorts, the printing process of which exceeded the precision of the laser cutting process by ten fold. Having many years of experience working in Quality departments, I’ll be the first to admit that this was far from an ideal way to inspect a part. However, given the scope of the project and the required feature precision, it worked surprisingly well.
We now know our material is correct and our part geometry is within defined tolerances. Only once these requirements are verified can we begin to look at adding more value to these parts, the value add at this stage being deburring and tapping. Laser piercing, cut start / end conditions, and material blowout were evident on every raw cut in the order. These conditions required an assortment of hand tools to remove the burrs present and smooth out all rough surfaces, making the parts safe to handle and aesthetically pleasing.
In parallel with part cleanup, every part was further inspected for feature imperfections. Parts that exhibited excessive material piercing or rough start / end conditions were rejected from further processing. Acceptable parts found their way into increasingly tall stacks headed to the machine shop for tapping. My acceptance criteria was strict, making part fallout a welcomed inevitability.
Like organic produce, lower volumes of acceptable product drives up unit cost, as a higher dollar value is required to offset the cost of scrap product. Additional parts on top of what was required were ordered to support on-hand inventory, account for scrap, and take advantage of minimum order quantities, lead times, shipping costs, and volume price breaks.
The remaining parts were sent off for tapping and upon return, were sent through the abrasive blasting cabinet to prepare the exterior surfaces for anodizing. To avoid any unnecessary surface contamination, all brackets were individually blown off with filtered compressed air, removing any remaining loose material, and bagged for protection.
Speaking of bagging (there’s a joke there), incoming hardware needed to be inspected and packaged as well. In an effort to maximize efficiency, hardware packaging was completed while the brackets were soaking in their sulfuric acid hot tub. Herein lies another challenge, availability of time while maintaining a full time job.
My significant other Kylene can attest that this project consumed months of weeknights and weekends. Months. For a stupid pair of brackets. This, on top of pouring everything in me to be the best I possibly can be during my day job. It’s exhausting. After almost a year of elapsed time, I’m not confident that I’m fully awake from all of it. Coffee has helped combat the excessively late nights, but there’s nothing that I’ve found to combat the mental distraction. It’s a game of stamina, and striving to find efficiencies throughout the process.
Then add a dash of vendor management into the mix, and you can feel the bags continue to swell beneath your eyes. I should count myself lucky that most of my vendors required very little communication outside of the prototype phase, but everything wasn’t sunshine and rainbows. Queue up what I’d consider to be the low point of this entire project, laser marking.
Adam did an excellent job designing beautiful artwork for laser marking my brackets, and what I would have otherwise considered to be the highlight of the finished product. Ironically, this seemingly small value-add was the highest overall cost for these kits, which made it incredibly frustrating when in reality this was perhaps the largest visual detractor in the whole kit.
During prototyping I noticed the laser marking was both slightly blurred as well as marked on a small angle. Going back and fourth with the vendor, little effort outside of an acknowledgement was made to correct the issue. The blame was placed on the part geometry, blurred lines were disregarded, and communication was kept to what seemed like a minimum. Outside of being a shop that doesn’t take accountability for poor quality, this is also one of the challenges of being a small company with tiny manufacturing volumes – you’re just a small drop in a large bucket.
Writing all of this in hindsight, these flags should have prompted me to look elsewhere. Or rather, try harder with the vendor to get the quality that I expected. It’s far too easy to point the finger at everyone else, but I need to look in the mirror and take accountability for not doing everything in my power to get the vendor exactly what was needed to make these parts right. Minor improvements were made for production, but the final level of quality still didn’t meet my expectations.
As laser marking was the last step in the manufacturing process, it carries the highest risk of scrapping the largest part value with respect to both money and time. My mistake was not fighting for perfection here, and that was a hard lesson to learn. Nevertheless, the brackets and hardware were now complete and in my hands. Time to get the kits packaged and ready for shipment to the customer.
CHAPTER 12: Packaging and Fulfillment
Let’s quickly touch on customer experience again. We’ve already detailed what’s required to provide a comprehensive and complete product, but what’s needed to really make the product stand out? While attention to detail always has to be at the forefront, it’s essential to have some creative fun in the process to share with those that chose to trust their hard-earned money with you. Customer experience was the focal point when these kits were packaged, trying to make the kits as special as possible while sticking to a pocket friendly budget.
Instructions are essential, why not present them in a fun form factor that mimics the joy of an origami swan? What about showing pride in the manufacturing country of origin by including a tasty treat which represents the country’s identity, even if it is a little stereotypical? Off the shelf boxes are by far the most economical choice for packaging product, but why does that mean that the packaging can’t feel bespoke? Put yourself in the shoes of the customer and ask what would make the unboxing experience fun, and special, to you.
Playing with different ideas for box seals was a blast, where I ended up choosing adhesive backed label paper for my box seals to eliminate the need to purchase two separate packaging items. This gave me creative freedom for the box design, where I could have otherwise explored something as simple as a box stamp or even a label-less design. With properly formatted artwork, borderless labels could be printed overnight at any local print shop, making the final touch to my packaging an easy feat.
The next part is where everything came together. Similar to the goods themselves, all incoming packaging materials were inspected, verified and staged in front of the TV. As final inspection and packaging can be a lengthy process, setting myself up for efficiency was key. Stacks of parts, boxes, bubble wrap, labels, construction paper, instruction manuals, maple candies and business cards were scattered all over the living room, while the pleasantries of Bridgerton serenaded me in the background.
Boxes and instruction sheets were folded, bubble wrap was cut to size, lengths of tape were stuck to the table in volume, and physical counts of parts were verified for final kitting. Unlike Krusty Burger employees wrapping up burgers that take a bite out of you, attention was required to make sure all contents were both included in the box, and suitably packed to preclude damage in transit. It was a lengthy process, but as I laid the last shipping label on the final kit, another 2:00am night was suddenly in the books.
One opportunity for improvement would have been to perform a packaging time study to improve visibility on labour cost. While the project was profitable, this was partially because I didn’t charge for my own labour. This, from my experience at least, seems to be the looming theme of entrepreneurship. I’m hoping that this changes as Loose Screws matures, but I’m not going to hold my breath.
Speaking of, entrepreneurship has demanded the establishment of business accounts with seemingly everyone in the world. Including account setups with vendors, distributors, and the Government, shipping providers also found their way into my swim lane. During the fulfilment process, a substantial amount of time was spent finding the most economical, reliable shipping supplier. This led me to setting up a Small Business Account with Canada Post, where small businesses, and in turn customers, benefit from cost savings.
The Small Business Account also provided the ability to generate shipping labels whenever, wherever. Paired with free packs of adhesive backed shipping label pouches, this allowed me to pack and label my padded shipping envelopes during evening hours and drop parcels off during lunch breaks. Many a laundry basket were crammed full of retrofit goodness and packed into the trunk of the 86 for parcel drop-off.
Instant generation of tracking numbers and worldwide delivery estimates made it possible to immediately communicate shipping updates to my customer base. As emails were sent and padded envelopes slowly trickled out of the house, fulfilment was nearing completion. Delivery confirmation receipts were the final ticket I needed to take a load-off and start coming down from the high of this project.
CHAPTER 13: Post-Delivery Actions and Project Closure
Post-delivery actions are equally as important as the rest of the project, but for reasons outside of monetary gain. From here, while the time dedication required to close the project out is minimal, the next few steps can drastically change the way both existing and potential customers view your brand.
Externally facing, this could be as easy as walking customers through their retrofit projects, soliciting customer feedback, or handling product replacement and warranty support. Imagine having spent your hard earned cash on a company who ghosts you immediately after purchase. How would that make you feel about the company and their values?
There’s no shortage of crappy people out there. I don’t have enough fingers or toes to count how many times I’ve been dissatisfied with the level of customer support I’ve been given after purchasing a product or service. The funny thing is that all it takes is simply listening, caring, and having empathy for someone’s concerns to be able to effectively respond to a problem. The amount of respect that’s gained by just listening to someone can be worth its weight in gold, even if it’s just to make the individual feel heard. Customers aren’t the only ones who deserve communication either, vendors should be told when they’ve performed well. Not all vendor feedback needs to be bad news, as providing praise to the vendor helps maintain a healthy long term relationship.
Don’t be a dick. Be kind.
What about internally facing post-delivery actions?
For starters, I needed to get my own headlights back together. Having sourced new-to-me headlight assemblies out of the UK, and having my headlight shrouds re-chromed via vacuum metallizing from a shop in Bulgaria, I had all the pieces of the rebuild puzzle ready for assembly. The headlight lenses were cleaned, new butyl sealant applied, and the assemblies were baked in the kitchen oven, making reassembly a smelly breeze… Sorry Ky.
As for results, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
Next up is project closure review, where initial goals are compared to the results achieved, lessons learned are captured and cost structures are revisited. Finally, open items can be actioned to accomplish the originally planned goals.
Did you achieve everything you wanted to? If not, why not? Did you come out with more than you originally anticipated? As this step can save you from making similar mistakes down the road, take some time to reflect, especially with a warm beverage in hand.
For me, the project closure review reminded me that I hadn’t even taken a proper photo of the new light beam pattern for this post. Imagine that, the actual result of this entire project not being detailed in this monstrously long sea of text. Catching this was a good thing too, as I was able to play around more with photography and artificial canned fog from Atmosphere Aerosol. Otherwise, both my primary and secondary goals were fulfilled and I was happily able to support the GT-Four community.
A final review also allows you take a step back and mentally reward yourself for everything that you’ve accomplished. Not taking the time to both celebrate and appreciate what your hard work achieved makes it all to easy to float on to the next project without stopping to smell of proverbial flowers of “Hey… I finished it… Cool…”.
So, as we do on this blog, where are we now?
Even though this project took way longer than anticipated to complete, I feel like this drastically accelerated the GT-Four’s progress towards being ready for Mike and Britt’s wedding. If nothing else, tackling projects in the background while keeping these kits as the focal point really helped tie a bow on a ton of small odds and ends on the Celica. The cars progression and current state is getting me excited, something that the Celica hasn’t given me since I first bought the car all those years ago. It feels real again, and much less of a turd. Never not a turd, though.
I’m equal parts happy as I am tired. It’s been a fun ride, and I’ve achieved everything that I wanted to from this project.
POSTFACE: Concluding Thoughts
Maintaining inspiration has always been one of the hardest parts of a project for me. I’m sure my parents would be the first to attest that I’ve spent more time starting projects than I’ve ever committed to finishing them. The primary difference here is that completion of this project was for much more than just myself. Loose Screws, the Celica community, and the wedding commitment are all promises made that I couldn’t turn a blind eye to. This alone was incredibly rewarding.
I’d be lying if I didn’t disclose that there wasn’t nothing in it for myself. While not defined goals, there was always a vested interest in pursuing continuous learning and professional development while progressing through the project. Respecting the creative process has allowed me to work on my photography, writing, and verbal communication, and by extension, the application of these skillsets for Loose Screws. These developments, being transferable knowledge, will help ensure that I’m in a better state of me for the future. Imperfection has proven to be the perfect tool for learning, and continual improvement should always be chased.
Kenny, a great friend of mine and I, talked about manufacturing straight razors together many years ago. Knowing what I know now and having eight more years of work experience under my belt, I often wonder what that would have looked like, had I had more time to stay committed to the project. In retrospect, I don’t believe I was mature or experienced enough for proper, valuable, manufacturing input for those razors, further contributing to the advantageousness of this project. Work interfered at the time, but that’s a project that I would love to revisit.
In addition to the massive knowledge gain with a relatively small investment in a simple product, so much of this project was simply the exploration of entrepreneurship and what it has to offer. In contrast to the seemingly common assumption, my interest in entrepreneurship has never been about chasing what’s now dubbed as “fuck you money”. To me, it’s so much more than that. Done right, it’s the freedom to sustain a comfortable standard of living while working on something you’re truly passionate about, and accomplishing it your own way. There’s no higher order to answer to, or be shit on by. No rat race up the organizational chart. It’s spending the majority of your life just doing what you love. The dream.
Fortunately for the ears of my current employer (I hope, at least), it’s going to be years until I get there, and if I do manage get there, who knows what it’ll look like. The benefits of having an employer outweigh the realities of self-employment with respect to personal sacrifice, cash-flow and harsh work-life balance. When it comes quality of life, I have my opinions on what the greater offering will be.
Still, if there was a single lesson to learn from all of this, sacrifice would be it.
Eluded to previously, it’s not the financial resource commitment that has bothered me with this whole project, rather the time. It’s the waking hours spent mentally working on the project when the physical work has been tucked away for the day. The distraction from everything that’s going on around you when you’re searching for solutions to problems. This dedicated mental engagement makes it almost impossible to fairly share your mental capacity with the rest of what life demands. Relationships suffer, tasks outside of the project’s scope remain incomplete, social engagements become out of reach. Without a doubt this was, and always will be, the largest cost.
What put the icing on the cake for me though, was seeing build photos from the awesome people who were kind enough to purchase one of my kits. The creativity, quality, and passion that drove these retrofit projects still puts a smile on my face as I write this post. I’m a firm believer that this community is as unique as it is special, and it shows in the continuous commitment to the platform. We’re all in it for the same reason, we love these rally tourers. If I’m able to provide the tiniest sliver of support to the GT-Four community, my mission is accomplished.
Shout out to Chris Hamlin (photo credit for the pictures below), as the addition of the laser etched Boo is the chefs kiss in his retrofit project. As my rear view mirror Shy-Guy danglie may suggest, I have a soft spot for anything video game related baked into a build. Chris’ headlights are no exception.
Watching a design mature into a final deliverable iteration made it a joy to see this project through to the end, even with the aforementioned sacrifices that come with the territory of entrepreneurship. This post won’t be the only example of Loose Screws product that occupies this space.
Until then, thanks for reading.