Have an idea you’d like to bring to market? In this series, John Teel walks through the process of scaling up from prototype to production. Follow each installment for a closer look at how to incorporate individual components.
Do you dream of developing a hot, new hardware gadget and bringing it to market? Maybe your goal is to make the world better with your product, or perhaps you just want to get filthy rich selling your product.
Developing a project prototype using an Arduino, Raspberry Pi, or other development platform is a fantastic first step. However, there is still a lot to do if you want to make it into something that can be manufactured and sold to the masses.
In this article I’m going to break down the process into manageable steps so you can get started on making your dream come true!
Step 1: Select the Core Electronic Components
The first step is to select the primary microchips (i.e. integrated circuits), sensors, displays, connectors, and other electronic components based upon the desired functions and your target retail price.
Some of the best places to find and purchase electronic components are the big distributors like Arrow, Digikey, Mouser, and Future. Components can be purchased as singles (for prototyping and initial testing) or up to thousands (for low-volume manufacturing) from any of these suppliers. AdaFruit and SparkFun are two of the best resources for electronic modules, kits, sensors, cameras, and other electronic parts.
Step 2: Design the Circuit Schematic
Once all of the core components are selected, the next step is to connect them all together in a schematic diagram. The schematic diagram is similar to a blueprint for a house.
The schematic shows how all of the components, from microchips to simple resistors, connect together. The schematic is an abstract representation of the electronics design. For many this can be the most difficult step to learn because it requires a fundamental understanding of electronics design engineering.
I suggest starting with a prototype based on an Arduino or Raspberry Pi, then you can copy a lot of their open source schematics once you are ready to migrate to a fully custom design. If you don’t have a good understanding of electronics then you have three choices: find a co-founder who does, teach yourself the fundamentals of electronics, or hire an electronics design engineer to either fully design the circuit or at least to review your design.
Step 3: Create the Bill of Materials
Now it’s time to create a detailed parts list called a Bill of Materials (BOM). The BOM lists the part number, part description, quantity, and possibly the part pricing. You should have already selected the more important components in step #1. So now you must specify all of the secondary components like capacitors, resistors, inductors, connectors, etc.
Note that the BOM can be created after step #4 if desired, but doing it early allows you to more quickly estimate the production cost for your product.
STEP 4: Design the Printed Circuit Board
Now it’s time to take the conceptual schematic diagram and turn it into real world electronics: a Printed Circuit Board (PCB).
A PCB is the physical board that holds and connects all of the electronic components. For many projects creating the PCB layout is more complicated and time-consuming than designing the original schematic.
In most cases, the tighter the components are packed together the longer it will take to create the PCB layout. This means that for really small products, such as wearable technology devices, it will take extra time to create the PCB layout.
If your gadget uses large amounts of power, or offers wireless connectivity, then the PCB layout is even more critical and time consuming.
For wireless communication products you’ll need to pay extra attention to the PCB layout for the RF (Radio-Frequency) circuits which typically means the antenna. Antenna layout is not only critical, but it’s also complicated. Incorrect antenna layout is probably one of the most frequent mistakes on PCB designs. I highly suggest you get either the antenna manufacturer, or an independent engineer to review your antenna layout before prototyping. Just be sure to hire an engineer experienced with antenna PCB layout since most will not have the necessary experience.
Keep in mind that you’ll probably still need to have your antenna tuned to achieve peak efficiency. Many times your antenna manufacturer will provide this tuning service.
Step 5: Order the PCB Prototypes
Producing electronic PCB prototypes is a two step process. The first step is producing the bare printed circuit boards. For this step I use either Sunstone Circuits or San Francisco Circuits, but there are many other choices as well. The second step is having all of the electronic components assembled on to the PCB. For this step I usually use a company called Screaming Circuits.
Assembly is usually the most expensive step and in my experience is about two-thirds of the total PCB cost. To save money you can of course solder components yourself if you are good at soldering. However, many modern components are leadless (the leads are below the part) making them impossible to do by hand.
In most cases it will take a couple of weeks to get completely assembled boards, unless you pay extra for expedited service. I typically start off ordering about 5 assembled boards which will usually cost around $2,000.
If super small size is absolutely critical for your product (think wearable tech and Internet-of-Things devices) then you may need to consider more advanced PCB production methods to achieve the desired size. For example, using buried and/or blind vias will allow you to pack everything incredibly tight. However, these advanced vias can easily triple your prototype cost, so it’s best to only use them if it’s essential for product success.
Step 6: Program the Microcontroller or Microprocessor
Most electronic devices contain a microchip called a Micro-Controller Unit (MCU) or Micro=Processor Unit (MPU) that serve as the core “brains” for the device. As the names imply an MCU is great at controlling things, and an MPU is great at processing data. An MCU is pretty much a slow MPU with less memory and less pins, but with more built-in peripherals for interfacing with the outside world. An MCU doesn’t require an operating system like an MPU based system, making it the much simpler solution.
For example, an Arduino is a microcontroller (MCU) based development system whereas a Raspberry Pi is a more powerful microprocessor (MPU) based platform with a full operating system.
Whether your product uses a microcontroller or a microprocessor it’s going to need to be programmed. This program (called firmware) will most likely be developed using the “C” computer language.
Step 7: Evaluate, Debug, and Repeat
The first version of any new product is never market ready, and any issues will be fixed in the next prototype iteration. There will almost always be some issues, so don’t be unrealistically optimistic when creating your development and funding plans. Plan for reality.
This can be a challenging step to forecast in terms of both cost and time. Any problems found are of course unexpected, so it will take time to figure out the source of the bug and determine how best to fix it. However, any company developing new hardware products has the same obstacle to overcome.
Step 8: Certifications
In order to sell a new electronic product in most countries there are several types of certification required. The exact certifications needed depend on the country/region where the product will be sold.
I’ll warn you that obtaining certifications isn’t cheap and most products will cost at least $10k to $30k to certify. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce this cost such as by using pre-certified wireless modules. Below is a quick overview of the certifications required in the USA, Canada, and Europe.
FCC (Federal Communications Commission) certification is required for all electrical products sold in the USA. Products that don’t purposefully radiate electromagnetic energy (i.e. no wireless functions) are classified as non-radiators. On the other hand, wireless products purposefully transmit electromagnetic energy and are classified as intentional radiators. It is much more expensive to obtain FCC certification for an intentional radiator.
UL (Underwriters Laboratories) or CSA (Canadian Standards Association) certification is required for any electrical product sold in the USA and/or Canada that plugs into an AC electrical outlet. Products running on only batteries with no recharging capabilities do not require UL/CSA certification. However, most retail chains and/or product liability insurance companies will require UL/CSA certification for any electronic product.
CE (Conformité Européene) certification is required for products sold in the European Union (EU). It is similar to the FCC and UL certifications required in the USA.
RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) certification is required for electrical products sold in the European Union (EU). It certifies the electronics are free of lead.
If your product requires electronics it will no doubt increase the complexity of developing the product. This means increased development cost, time, and risk.
To lower your development risk (and usually your cost and time) I highly recommend that you get a second opinion on any design before prototyping it. Second opinions, commonly called design reviews, can greatly reduce the chance of errors. On the bright side, migrating the electronics from prototype to mass production is relatively straightforward.