Bridging the Knowledge Gap Between Hardware Startups and Manufacturers

Author – Mike Riedlinger


Bringing new products to market at scale that help solve energy problems and reduce greenhouse gas emissions is an urgent challenge that will create huge opportunities for savvy hardware entrepreneurs. In New York State, there are scores of grants and financial incentives available for the creation and adoption of products that help achieve the goals of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act—one of the boldest initiatives in the world. Nationally, we are at the cusp of billions in funding programs that address the many issues of climate change.

Capitalizing on innovative products for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in transportation, buildings, industry, and agriculture requires connecting inventors and engineers with the rich manufacturing assets we have in New York State. 

This is a key focus in the Scale For ClimateTech program. One of the hurdles that we have discovered from working with hardware startups and dozens of contract manufacturers over the past three years is that startup founders and contract manufacturers have different understandings of what “engineering” means and what needs to be done to successfully mass produce products.  


Your definition of “engineering” isn’t always the same definition for manufacturers.

There are more than 1,500 manufacturers in the Greater Rochester, NY region. Many  of these have high-precision machining capabilities for producing high-tech products like those needed for a greener future. But very few contract manufacturers open their doors to work with startups, primarily because most first-time hardware entrepreneurs have the mistaken view that all of the “engineering” work was done by them when they made their prototype product and there is little value for “engineering” services from a contract manufacturer.  

It’s true that startup founders invest a lot of time and money to design and build their product to be sure the underlying technology works the way they believe it should. But that’s “engineering” to meet the inventor’s requirements, and only about 10% of the effort that’s needed to get to a mass-produced product. The other 90% represents knowledge gaps that often exist when moving from prototype to mass production. Bridging these gaps is a big lift for almost all contract manufacturers that do take the time to work with a first-time hardware entrepreneur.

Designing for manufacturing and your customer

Prototypes need to be intentionally engineered to be manufactured and assembled as new products, which is known as “design for manufacturing and assembly.” Consideration also needs to be given to “design for service” if there are parts that wear in use and need to be frequently replaced, along with and “design for sustainability” to embrace the full life-cycle of a product. Contract manufacturers have big investments in their workforce training and specialized equipment. Engineering needs to make the best use of those so that finished products can be made with consistent quality and at costs that suit market needs. This level of “engineering” needs to be done by the contract manufacturing firm working with the startup to meet customer and market requirements.  

Understanding customer requirements and solving their pressing problems with an innovative product that people will pay for is what drives all of this activity. Contract manufacturers are actually as interested in knowing about the market opportunity for new hardware products as they are in seeing dimensioned drawings with critical tolerances and working prototypes. Market and product requirement documents help them design for manufacturing and assembly, and enable startups to bring new products to market at scale.

Advance Your MRL and Access Support

If you’re working on a hardware product that addresses climate and energy related problems, we encourage you to learn more about manufacturing and how to advance your manufacturing readiness level (MRL). In the months ahead there will be more materials and tools available through Scale For ClimateTech. You can also connect with us and reach out to the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) network, including our MEP Growth Services group within NextCorps. If you’d like more information on our region’s advanced manufacturing ecosystem, you can get started here.