How product design and development services can help manufacturers in the sustainable energy sector with positive brand association
As the demand for sustainable and affordable energy rises, manufacturers in the off-grid sector have a unique role to play in navigating toward the adoption of accessible solar energy solutions. To succeed in an increasingly dynamic market, it is important for manufacturers to address the specific needs of end-users and the demands of the market itself. While manufacturers in the traditional market face design and product development challenges which center mainly around consumer preferences and market trends, manufacturers operating in the off-grid sector are faced with a wider array of challenges. Manufacturers in the energy access sector may focus their efforts on technology and the development of quality products in addition to customised solutions and the financial viability and affordability of their products, including giving consideration to “Pay-as-you-go” (Paygo) technologies.
Manufacturers who prioritise the development of robust solar products (often including Paygo features) that can withstand challenging environmental conditions, while delivering efficient and consistent performance are able to increase their staying power in the sector. By investing in research, design, and rigorous quality control, manufacturers can ensure their products meet the highest standards and withstand the test of time, warranting the trust of consumers and driving long-term success.
How the process works
* In the following texts we have used fictional names to protect the anonymity of our manufacturing partners
Generally speaking, the product design process of devices involves the development of specialised software, firmware and hardware components that are capable of facilitating remote usage, monitoring and payment management (in the case of Paygo being involved) as well as the ability to track energy consumption. A qualitative process will move from market research to manufacturing after design validation and establishment of the supply chain.
First phase: Research and product conceptualization
This initial phase is key as it lays the foundation for a successful and impactful solution. This stage can involve market research and an assessment of user needs, which collectively shape the direction and limitations of the product. During this process, the manufacturer and the development engineering partner are able to identify target markets, understand the specific requirements and challenges faced by potential users, and design a product that aligns with their needs, thus ensuring its relevance and effectiveness.
To better understand the relevance of this initial phase as a means to lay the groundwork for a successful product launch, we can pull from a previous mission with a manufacturer wherein SolarisLab engineers have assisted with development.
Research scenario: When a manufacturer, who we will refer to as WattsUp!*, was looking to develop a high precision battery management system, SolarisLab engineers conducted market research and assessments of other manufacturing brands with devices available on the market. By evaluating the market alternatives, we were able to compile a list of criteria and match that against the results of potential user surveys.
Depending on the nature of the user feedback, the manufacturer is able to identify the user demands for new product design. In this case, in order to make a notable impact with a new Paygo solar solution, we concluded that it was in the interest of WattsUp!* to include a temperature sensor mechanism and work to improve the accuracy of their existing SOC (state of charge) mechanism as well. It was necessary to develop these new features while maintaining those which users already had a favourable opinion regarding, namely the data storage capacity, usage metrics accuracy and ease of installation.
*Tip for generating and evaluating product development ideas
Focus on user-centered design principles to create a product that is intuitive, easy to use, and addresses the pain points of the end-users. Involve potential users in the design process through surveys, interviews, and usability testing.
Following this, the insights gathered are translated into realistic product characteristics. The consulting engineers can then collaborate with the manufacturing client's team to translate the requirements into a conceptual design.
Conceptual Design Scenario: In the following case, SolarisLab engineers had a set of criteria established with WattsUp!* to guide the creation of features for a charging station to be designed as the basis for their newest Paygo market entry. Based on features of a previous device and data collected through surveys in the initial market research process, the engineers were able to understand the strengths and areas for improvement for further evolution of the design.
These 3D renderings showcase a series of in-house conceptual product designs for Paygo solar incubators, a duplicator, a charger and a repeller. By providing illustrations like these, we are able to give manufacturers like WattsUp!* the opportunity to visualise the fine details of a potential charging station and adapt for example the number of ports based on feedback from user surveys regarding the client base’s capacity needs.
Second phase: Engineering
Following the planning stage, it’s time for the engineering to begin, however, it is just as important for the engineers to maintain the same degree of collaboration and open communication with the manufacturer they’ve partnered with to ensure their efforts are heading in the right direction. This collaboration assures quality by incorporating the manufacturer's needs in the quality control processes, testing requirements, and industry-specific compliance standards.
Engineering design scenario: Using digital tools in the engineering process brings significant benefits, including improved efficiency and accuracy. Tools such as computer-aided design (CAD), simulation software, and automation systems enable engineers to streamline workflows, iterate designs more rapidly, and make informed decisions based on precise data, ultimately leading to faster product development cycles and higher-quality outcomes.
In the above project completed with manufacturing organisation LiteLease*, SolarisLab engineers were able to address concerns which arose regarding the design and fitting of PCB components for a stationary charger with IoT being developed. Here, the optimal process includes rendering a simulation in 3D CAD to have a full mechanical assembly simulation, this is the process which SolarisLab uses for each manufacturing client. This process helps to define the size, shape and location of cut holes within the CAD program allowing in this case, the correct access to the electronics when performing maintenance. Here, at an early stage possible issues regarding manufacture or components coalition can be easily identified.
Third phase: Design validation
Validation of concept and prototyping are critical aspects of the product development process. Through validation, engineers can verify the functionality, reliability, and safety of the product, mitigating the risk of potential failures or dissatisfaction among customers. By conducting thorough validation tests and analyses, engineers can gain valuable insights into the product's performance, identify any potential issues or shortcomings, and make necessary improvements before finalising the design. During the validation stage, product design can still be altered based on the findings and feedback received. It is still possible for engineers to identify areas for improvement or discover new information during this validation process. These discoveries may require modifications to enhance performance, address potential issues, or incorporate additional features. Thus, the validation stage serves as a valuable opportunity to fine-tune and optimise the previously prototyped product design before it moves further into the manufacturing and production phases.
In the development of electronic products in general there are important types of validation tests that are also commonly used for the development of solar products. These processes include product walkthrough, which helps to identify overall points of vulnerability within the hardware or firmware before the product is released.
Product durability is another crucial factor for Paygo manufacturers in the energy access sector to consider. Given the nature of the offgrid end-user client base, it is necessary for solar solutions to be durable to ensure long term sustainability in situations where access for the sake of maintenance services may be limited. Paygo manufacturers need to design and produce solar home systems that can withstand realistic environmental conditions and provide reliable energy access over an extended period. As part of the validation process, engineers run modelled devices through durability tests which can include repetitive tear down and assembly of the product in addition to dropping the device from various heights and angles to test its robustness.
Another important type of validation test is the usability and responsiveness test, which involves testing the hardware and firmware to ensure that they are easy to use and responsive. This test is particularly important for Paygo hardware development, as ensuring that users can easily interact with the hardware can diminish the risk of tampering and misuse while helping assure product repayment. For a similar reason, it’s essential to run validations tests for products that operate featuring IoT connectivity.
Validation scenario: In this case, working with LiteLease* we wanted to ensure that the SHS was capable of accurately transmitting and receiving information relating to payment, available credit and performance.
During a functionality test, a low credit alert can be simulated on a Paygo device by sending credit tokens via GSM to trigger the threshold for the credit balance within the interface. This simulation allowed the engineering team to assess the responsiveness and accuracy of the connectivity and low credit features on the product and spot any potential issues or improvements which need to be made before the final product release.
Fourth phase: Finalization and Manufacturing
Quality control and testing before and during the manufacturing process are crucial to ensure product quality and consistency. In addition to closely inspecting the quality of a finished product, it is crucial for manufacturers to aptly source their materials in a way that meets their quality standards while respecting their budget. Choosing high quality suppliers from the outset ensures product reliability and longevity for end-users.
Finalisation scenario: For the final phase of our consultation with WattsUp!*, our focus shifted to establishing all aspects of the manufacturing process and assembling relevant files to be shared with the suppliers in China and India. This includes the DFM CAD files, BOM listing, electronic schematics and Gerber formatted designs. By sharing these comprehensive guidelines, we ensure the manufacturer’s suppliers accurately source and assemble the necessary components for cost effective production of the device.
Sample BOM for SHS device component and completed design
Additionally, it is important at this stage to share the testing procedures necessary with the supplier to ensure the correct functioning of the electronics and firmware components used. These procedures outlining specific quality checks aid in identifying potential hardware or firmware errors to be rectified so that the initial result meets the expectations set during the planning stages. Maintaining effective and open communication and collaboration with the suppliers during this process is a key element in delivering high quality products to enter the market.
The SolarisLab product design process
The SolarisLab design process prioritises user-centricity and scalability as seen in the above examples. By conducting extensive market research and user needs analysis to inform our design decisions we can engage in iterative prototyping and testing, incorporating user feedback at each stage to refine the product's features and functionalities. The resulting tailored products are well adapted for the target market, providing reliable and affordable energy access to off-grid communities. Our curated process guides manufacturers through the phases of ideation, design, engineering, validation and manufacture
In the constantly evolving Paygo marketplace, partnering with an experienced design & engineering company for product development can be a pivotal decision for the growth of a manufacturing organisation. Investing in a comprehensive design and development process is essential for manufacturers in order to achieve product value and drive business growth. By prioritising product quality through continuous testing and validation, SolarisLab engineers help manufacturers deliver durable, reliable and user-friendly energy access products. By optimising production and minimising engineering issues, a comprehensive design and development process contributes to long-term cost savings and scalability, empowering manufacturers to seize opportunities for expansion and meet the increasing demand for sustainable energy solutions.
For more information about how our process works and how we can act as consultants on your next product development project contact us!
* fictional name for manufacturers