Discover the pros and cons of using custom or COTS parts in your new product along with how each will affect your development roadmap and business goals.
The need to make wise decisions about your product’s development is an intrinsic part of the process. And as a technical leader, one question you commonly face is how to source the components for your future product. Is it better to use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) parts and modify your product’s design to accommodate them? Or is it best to create something custom that’s specifically tailored to and optimized for the design?
As with most things in product development, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. True, there are some obvious times when one option is the clear choice over the other. But in most cases, you’ll need to weigh your competing demands — cost, development schedule, IP protection, team capabilities, and more — against the pros and cons of each option available.
Here’s what to consider each time you face this particular question.
Sometimes there’s simply no alternative to designing a custom part. You can be confident that a custom solution is the best path forward if:
Any time a COTS part would impact the integrity or functionality of your solution, it’s time to consider custom.
On the other hand, there are plenty of times when reaching for a COTS part is the right choice. And frankly, at times it would be stupid to go through the hassle of designing a custom component. Don’t hesitate to consider using an off-the-shelf solution for needs like:
Don’t reinvent the wheel if a COTS part will easily do the trick — even if you think the part would be cheaper if you create your own version. For example, if you’re looking for ways to stretch your development budget, you might look at a connector and think, “How hard could it be to create a cheaper version of our own?”
It’s much harder than you might imagine.
Many of these standard-issue products have taken years for suppliers to perfect. In most cases, your engineers won’t be able to replicate a decade’s worth of learning in a month or two — nor is it the best use of their time and energy (or your budget) to try.
Of course, most of the time making the decision about which path to take is more gray and murky than black and white. And to arrive at the best possible course of action, you’ll need to weigh a number of factors and demands.
Spinning up a good, old-fashioned pros and cons list is always a helpful exercise. To get you started, here are some of the pluses and minuses we’ve experienced when choosing between custom and COTS parts.
The most common reason to opt for a custom-fit solution is that you can create the exact part you need. It fits like a glove, blends with your existing design language, and won’t require any jerry-rigging or workarounds to get it to function.
The biggest con of developing a custom solution is that it requires significant technical expertise and bandwidth to build. Some teams just aren’t equipped. Beyond that, there are other drawbacks to keep in mind:
If you find that you truly do need a custom part, but your team doesn’t have the bandwidth or capability to manage all this, you can engage a product development firm that does. But you’ll need to be realistic about your needs at the outset and build the cost of a third-party engagement into your product development plan.
In many ways, the pluses and minuses of choosing a COTS part are simply the opposite of the pros and cons of going custom. However, it’s worth stating that with an off-the-shelf solution:
Still, there are challenges to keep in mind. If you select a COTS part, you’ll:
It’s also common for COTS parts to add more capability to the product than the design truly calls for, which can further add to the cost involved. For instance, if you need touchscreen capability, you might think adding tablet computer would be a good solution. But in reality, you’d end up paying for complex, expensive features you don’t need.
As you’re nearing a final decision, take everything you’ve thought about to this point and weigh it all against the business goals you’re trying to achieve. Whichever avenue you ultimately choose must align with your strategic plans.
Be sure to also weigh the opportunity cost inherent in each potential path. What tradeoffs or sacrifices are you making that could cost you down the road?
When it comes to choosing between custom or off-the-shelf parts, there’s often more than one acceptable approach. Therefore, the deciding factor might be this: Which choice will best support your business’s long-term product development roadmap?
If the off-the-shelf part you’re considering meets your needs — and if you’re fairly certain it will be available for years to come and won’t be modified — you’re probably safe in selecting the ready-made option. But if your COTS solution requires customization to make it fit — or if there are supply chain issues that could make it impossible to source it in the future — you should consider going custom.
No matter which path is best, you don’t have to walk it alone. A good product development partner like M3 can help you make smart decisions about your product from the concept phase all the way to development and beyond.