By Dr. Sophia Yin
Have you ever seen a product for pets and thought, “that company should change the product just a little and it would be perfect for me and my dog,” or noticed a lack of product on the market and thought, “If only someone made something that did THIS, everyone would buy it! I wonder why this product hasn’t already been made?”
Well, today I want to introduce a new product, the Foobler, a time-release treat ball food-dispenser, and show you what goes into the making of a product. In 2002, I had the pleasure of working with The Sharper Image to develop the Treat&Train® professional dog training system, which consists of a remote controlled treat dispenser with a clinically tested protocol for training dogs to be calm at the door and in other situations. Luckily for me, the product has gained a strong following among veterinary behaviorists, top agility trainers, as well as owners who want a fun and effective way to improve their dog’s behavior. I personally have 4 machines in regular use at my house!
Now, 12 years later, the engineers that I worked with—Greg Snyder, Tristan Christensen, and Fred Schechter—are back working together again using what they learned about dogs during the Treat&Train study to make a cool new food toy.
I got to see the product, test it out, and get the low down on how it was developed. Here’s what I found during my interview.
Dr. Yin: First, can you introduce yourself and explain your part of this project.
Tristan: I’m Tristan Christensen. I’m the designer for the project. I came up with the concept of the general product look and shape.
Greg: I’m Greg Snyder, and I’m the mechanical engineer on this project. I figured out how we could get the idea to work mechanically.
Fred: Fred Schechter, I'm a designer but, in this case, I was brought in to help with the marketing and crowd funding.
Dr. Yin: One thing about The Sharper Image (TSI) is that it had fantastic engineers. So I want our readers to know a little bit about the process that goes on when you develop something for a company like The Sharper Image. Can you explain what the turn-around time for a product was?
Greg: It all depended on what product it was, but the product ideas would come internally or, in the case of the Treat&Train®, externally, in that case, from you. From concept to actually being on a store shelf, sometimes it was as fast as six months. Some more challenging ones would be closer to twelve months or so.
Dr. Yin: Can you explain what happened during that development period?
Greg: It starts with an idea followed by hand sketches. Then someone makes a prototype with things they have lying around in the garage. Next, you go to formal 3D mechanical drawings. From this, you make a real prototype, which you can test. Once you test it, you can make revisions until you get the product working right. Then you get your final version and test it. Once it’s tested and you know you can make it at a price that is affordable, you pay a manufacturing company to make the molds and tooling. That is, they have to create the molds that the liquid plastic is injected into to create the plastic parts for the projects. Once done, the manufacturer creates the first sample products and you test them to fix any problems. Then, a couple of weeks later, you have final samples and can place an order for the product.
Tristan: We plan about 2-3 months in design and development, and at least another month to 2 months to get the prototype developed, get pre-production ready, shake out all the little details that come up when you first build a prototype, things that you need to change and modify. So usually that process is about between 3 and 6 months. And then tooling is usually 45-60 days. Once you get that ready, you’re working on a whole bunch of other things in between—packaging, instructions, making sure you know how the product works, but you need to also make sure that the buyer is going understand how the product works as well.
Dr. Yin: Okay, now, most companies, when they’re developing a product, take way more than 6-12 months. Why were you able to get products done so quickly?
Greg: At Sharper Image, Richard Thalheimer actually saw the real value of a core group of good engineers, people who have experience in bringing a product to life. And he actually set up a satellite office about 20 or 30 miles away from the accountants and the people that introduce a lot of meetings and things that don’t necessarily bring the product to market more quickly. We had our little office where we could really focus on things. And we were probably working on 30 different projects at a time, and sometimes you’d be inspired by one thing, which would help another product along. All the creative people were together. And that’s the core of it, is really focusing on the project, and then worrying about the marketing afterwards. And letting them take that.
Dr. Yin: Well, I remember when you were working on the Treat&Train and there would be something that would come up, like dispensing didn’t work, and then you would tell me about it, and you would say, “Oh, there’s a little problem, but I think we have about 5 solutions that we’re gonna try.” So it was good because as soon as I knew that there was an issue, you already had 5 solutions that you were going to try, so I could tell that it was really efficient.
Greg: We had very good prototyping capability at The Sharper Image. Since then it’s improved. There’s now a whole world of 3D printing and rapid prototyping, you can draw something and have the modified design in your hands within hours.
Tristan: The process has become so much more streamlined now.
Greg: It’s also working with really good suppliers in general for the manufacturing side. You want to find a good supplier that matches the product that has equally good and efficient engineering and capabilities, one that understand the speed to market, and understands the product idea.
That’s how a product is developed. What was the actual process for the Foobler™ and what IS the Foobler™? Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog to find out.