The OEM’s Guide to Product Engineering

Last Updated: October 3, 2022

Every original equipment manufacturer’s (OEM) product lineup is unique. As such, their product engineering practices must be equally unique. However, the general tenets of OEM product engineering remain the same, regardless of industry. This universality holds true for organizations operating in industries such as:

If your organization acts as an OEM, it’s vital that you understand the product engineering process. With that in mind, the experts at Metalphoto of Cincinnati (MPC) have created this comprehensive OEM’s guide to product engineering.

Below, we provide a workable definition of product engineering, identify various types of engineering services, and outline the phases of this process. You can use this information to create a product engineering protocol tailored to your organization’s needs. We’ll discuss:

What Is Product Engineering?

Engineer designing a product on computer

In simple terms, product engineering involves transforming a concept or thought into a tangible component that can be created through manufacturing processes. Traditionally, product engineering is performed using computer-aided design (CAD) software.

While CAD software is still critical to product engineering, creating certain types of products requires design teams to partner with software developers and software engineers.

Internet of Things (IoT) devices — everyday items that are connected to the world wide web — are one example. Popular IoT devices include smart watches, smart home control devices (e.g., Amazon Echo), and WiFi-enabled thermostats. The automotive industry also relies on software engineers to develop the software capabilities for today’s connected, increasingly digitized vehicles, and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for medical device OEMs to partner with software developers to produce highly specialized products quickly while enabling the OEMs’ in-house teams to focus on their core strengths.

These connected devices undergo two parallel product engineering processes. The first involves physical product design, whereas the second process focuses on creating the software that makes the device function.

For simplicity’s sake, this guide to product engineering will focus purely on the process of taking products from the concept stage to that of manufacturable objects. This introductory guide is meant to provide a high-level overview of product engineering as it pertains to OEMs.

If you would like to take a deeper dive into the engineering design process, check out our expert’s guide. Our team has produced several other pieces of content that can shed additional light on the design process so that you can develop a more comprehensive understanding of engineering, such as a list of 50 leading engineering blogs and a deep-dive into what it takes to be a successful design engineer.

OEM vs. ODM

Before we shift our attention to specific types of product engineering services, let’s review the distinction between original equipment manufacturers and original design manufacturers (ODM).

An ODM is a manufacturer that designs and manufactures a product entirely in-house. Conversely, an OEM can use specifications and design plans created by another engineering team, so long as they are licensed to do so.

Many organizations, both large and small, choose to operate as original equipment manufacturers rather than ODMs. For context, here is a list of all of the OEMs operating in the United States. You will notice that the list includes top names in the automotive industry, such as Ford, GM, and Tesla. (Check out this list for more resources for OEMs.)

So why are all of these organizations classified as OEMs and not ODMs? Simple, they do not design all components of their vehicles in-house. Instead, they leverage the services of outside product engineering teams and then license the product specifications so that they can manufacture them.

While they are the original manufacturers of these components, they are not the “original designers.”

Types of Product Engineering Services

Engineer examining prototype

The specific services that a product engineering team offers to OEMs will vary based on a multitude of factors. A few examples include the industries that the product engineering team typically works with and what sort of equipment they specialize in designing.

However, virtually every product engineering company offers some variant of the following services:

Design

Design services are the true value proposition of product engineering firms. A talented engineering team can take your idea and create a digital rendering of it using their CAD software.

The best product engineers can accomplish this even if you only have a loose concept of what the item should look like. They can craft a functional product out of even the most rudimentary concepts.

If your organization has already hammered out the broader details of a project, engineers can use this information to “fill in the blanks.” Put simply, they can design auxiliary components that will help you finish your product.

For instance, let’s say that your organization is manufacturing a piece of industrial equipment that will have a control interface. A product engineering company like MPC could create custom front panels that precisely fit the specifications of your equipment design.

These panels will protect the inner workings of the machine while also clearly labeling each button, switch, or control module.

Prototyping

After the product engineers develop your component in a digital format, they will demonstrate what they have created. Once they receive the green light from your team, they will then work to create a prototype of the CAD design. This prototype will give you an opportunity to examine the quality, fit, and function of the product.

Alternatively, prototyping can be performed in-house after you have licensed the plans from the engineering team. However, this approach can be time-consuming and inefficient, which is why most OEMs use the product engineering team’s prototyping services.

If any changes are requested, the product engineers will implement those desired alterations in order to improve product performance. They will then create a new prototype and present this latest product iteration to you.

Once the prototype is approved, they will finalize the plans and enter into a licensing agreement with your company.

Change Implementation

Product prototyping is an excellent way of discovering design flaws in pre-production. It can lead to much higher product quality and reduce the chances of encountering major equipment issues post-production. However, some design flaws will not manifest until a product is exposed to prolonged use.

As you well know, OEMs must constantly strive to improve product quality in order to maintain a competitive edge within their market. Your organization likely has its own robust quality assurance and product improvement program.

When you produce parts using equipment licensing agreements, design changes are handled by the original engineering firm that created the plans. These engineers can implement changes based on the real-world performance data that you gather after a product is brought to market.

Such services are invaluable, as they allow you to refine your offering and deliver higher quality products to your customer base.

What Products Do Third-Party Providers Design?

Engineer working on design in CAD software

The easy answer is “anything you can drum up with your imagination.” The exact answer will vary depending on which product engineering firm you partner with.

Some companies, like Metalphoto of Cincinnati, produce a broad range of items such as nameplates, custom front panels and faceplates, graphic overlays, signs, and labels. Organizations in countless industries take advantage of our products for equipment identification purposes, such as equipment ID tags constructed of durable Metalphoto® anodized aluminum, polyester, and other material options to meet your application’s requirements. Our high-quality products can withstand the rigors of industrial environments or daily use in outdoor settings, all while maintaining a high level of readability.

Other product engineering companies specialize in serving clients in only one or two industries. The automotive industry is a prime example. Numerous product engineering companies design and produce components specifically for automotive manufacturers. Some of the top companies in this space include Lear, Dana Incorporated, and Visteon.

None of the aforementioned companies engineer a full array of automotive products. Instead, each entity has mastered the art of engineering a focused lineup of products and components for automakers.

For instance, Visteon primarily creates cockpit electronics for automakers like BMW, Honda, GM, and Ford, just to name a few. Conversely, Lear engineers electrical wiring systems and seating for automakers.

Key Phases of Product Engineering

Engineer examining prototype from 3D printer

Now that we have explored what product engineering is and the types of services that are available let’s turn our focus to the actual process of transforming a mere idea into a manufacturable product.

Whether you partner with a third-party product engineering team or handle the task in-house, your process will likely include the following phases:

Product Conceptualization

Product conceptualization is the process of coming up with an idea. At the most basic level, this involves asking the question, “what problem do I want to solve?” If you want to develop a new piece of industrial equipment that is more durable than its predecessors, you should view the question through this lens.

After you have determined what problem you are facing, start developing ways to address it. Using the above example, your solution may involve upgrading the protective paneling, assembling the shell of the equipment with welding and screws to make it more vibration resistant, or other tactics.

Combine this basic concept with your industry knowledge and expertise. At this point in the product engineering process, you will have a rough idea of what you want to create.

Development of Product Architecture

Next, you will need to connect with a product engineering team. The engineers will create a digital rendering of your concept and present it to you. If the rendering does not align with your conceptualization, changes may need to be made.

Patience is key during this process. While modern CAD software has condensed the product design and engineering process, it can still take several weeks. Complex concepts might take even longer, especially if you request several design changes during each check-in with your engineering team.

It is vital that you and your engineering team have open lines of communication. While this will likely not be a problem when using in-house engineers, it can become an issue if you are outsourcing the project. That is why you must carefully vet prospective product engineering partners before starting the process.

When vetting product engineering companies, make sure to ask plenty of questions. Specifically, find out what industries they typically partner with. Also, find out what their normal turnaround time is, how often they plan to check in with you, and what services they offer. Ask how long the company has been in business as well.

If a firm has never worked with your industry before, it might not be the ideal partner for your company. Ideally, you want a partner that knows the challenges facing your industry almost as well as you do.

Most importantly, be clear about your expectations. If you want to be contacted every week via phone, let them know this. Also, tell them how soon you would like the rendering to be completed. They will know if they can accommodate based on the complexity of your request and can help you set realistic expectations.

Prototyping

The prototyping stage is where things begin to get exciting. Finally, your concept is being brought to life, and you get to see if your design will adequately meet the demands of your intended application.

Prototyping can usually be performed relatively quickly once your rendering has been finalized. Typically, product engineers will only create one or two prototypes. If you need additional prototypes for testing and validation purposes, be sure to ask for them in advance.

Validation and Testing

Validation and testing are precisely what they sound like. During this phase of product engineering, you get to run the prototype through the paces and see if it holds up. Essentially, you’re evaluating whether the product does what it’s designed to do and solves the problem it’s intended to while meeting the needs of end users. Make sure to note its performance during testing and validation, as this information will be helpful to the engineering team should you request design changes later.

If your prototype survives validation and testing, you are ready to move on to the next phase, licensing and production at scale.

Scaling Production

Even the most expertly engineered products are bound to experience a few hiccups during the scaling process. This occurrence is perfectly normal. With that in mind, flexibility is essential. Be prepared to make on the fly adjustments as you find a partner to produce your newly engineered part or component.

Remember, there are plenty of facilities that provide outsourced manufacturing services. Don’t settle on the first provider that you speak with. Shop around until you find favorable terms and a manufacturer that cares about producing quality products as much as you do.

Performance Review

Once your product is launched, it is time to start gathering feedback from your consumer base. Find out what consumers like about your product and begin thinking about ways to make it better.

More importantly, listen to the detractors and identify their complaints. Negative feedback will tell you far more about the efficacy of your product than positive reviews ever will — as long as you can sort out the genuine grievances from the comments left by those impossible to please consumers, that is.

After you have compiled a healthy amount of information, meet with your team and go back to the drawing board. Examine what gripes you can address with mild product modifications. Find out how much making those modifications will cost you. This knowledge will help you determine what alterations to make and when to make them.

Product Refinement

The final phase of the circular product engineering process is refinement. This stage is integral if your company hopes to stay relevant and maintain a healthy market share.

Modern consumers have come to expect businesses to perform product refinement. In fact, 63% of consumers prefer to wait a while before buying a new product, whereas only 21% purchase products immediately after they are released.

If the majority of consumers see that you are not innovating and refining your product lineup, they may decide that buying it is not a worthy investment.

Final Considerations

Navigating the product engineering process can be incredibly challenging. Therefore, many original equipment manufacturers elect to outsource some or all of product engineering processes to experienced third-party entities.

This approach alleviates much of the burden on the OEM’s in-house team while simultaneously expediting the engineering process and preserving product quality.

If you are an OEM and want to leverage product engineering services from a highly experienced firm, contact Metalphoto of Cincinnati today for a free quote. We engineer and manufacture panels, signs, graphic overlays, nameplates, front panels, and equipment and asset identification solutions.

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