Ultimate Guide – How to Develop a New Electronic Hardware Product

Article Technical Rating: 7 out of 10

So you want to develop a new electronic hardware product?

Let me start with the good news – it’s possible! This is true regardless of your technical level and you don’t necessarily need to be an engineer to develop a new product (although it certainly helps).

Whether you’re an entrepreneur, maker, inventor, start-up, or small company this guide will help you understand the new product development process!

NOTE: This is a very long article so here's a free PDF version of it for easy reading. Or if preferred, here's a handy PDF cheatsheet of all the steps discussed in this article.

However, I won’t lie to you. It’s a long, difficult journey to launch a new hardware product (nothing great in life is ever easy). In order to succeed there is so much to learn.

Be sure to also read my article 13 Reasons Why Hardware Startups Fail (and How to Make Sure Yours Doesn’t).

In this guide I’ll first discuss the product development strategies for both technical creators (engineers, makers, and small companies) and non-technical entrepreneurs wishing to create a new electronic hardware product.

Then, we’ll move on to developing the electronics followed by the development of the plastic enclosure.

Product Development Strategies

There are three options when it comes to developing a new hardware product:

1) Do the product design yourself (or in-house if you’re established company). You’ll need to be really good at a variety of engineering disciplines.

2) Find a design engineer to become a co-founder.

3) Outsource to a freelance design engineer or design firm.

Keep in mind that very few engineers will be knowledgeable in all of the areas of engineering required for most products.

Product Development Engineers

Developing a new electronic product usually requires multiple product designers.

The preferred route would be for you to design the product yourself, or at least as much of it as you feel comfortable. If you do tackle the design yourself just make sure you get an independent design review, especially for the circuit board design.

However, I recommend getting independent design reviews regardless of who does the design. At Predictable Designs we always get design reviews from independent engineers on everything we design. We also commonly perform design reviews for other engineers.

Finding engineers that are interested in becoming co-founders is probably the next best option. However, that can be very challenging so most non-technical founders outsource product development to freelance design engineers.

The downside of bringing on co-founders is it reduces your equity in the company. However, it greatly increases your chance of success and of getting outside funding. Many investors simply won’t put money into a solo-founder startup.

The best known product design firms such as Frog, IDEO, Fuse Project, etc. can generate fantastic designs of products, but they’re insanely expensive. Startups should avoid these expensive design firms at all costs. Top design firms can charge $500k+ to fully develop your new product.

Make sure you find an electrical engineer that has experience designing the type of electronics required by your product. Electrical engineering is a huge field of study and many have little experience with circuit design.

For the 3D designer make sure you find someone that has experience with injection molding technology, otherwise you’re likely to end up with a product that can be prototyped but not mass manufactured.

That being said, the further you can take the development of your product yourself the better off you will be in the long run. Don’t make the mistake of being a hardware startup founder without understanding product development.

Don’t make the mistake of being a hardware startup founder w/o understanding product development.Click To Tweet

NOTE: If you're serious about developing a new electronic hardware product then download our free cheat sheets - 15 Steps to Develop Your Electronic Product and Summary of the Costs to Develop Your Electronic Product.

 

Electronics Development

Critical Components Selection

The first step of designing the electronics is to select the various microchips (i.e. integrated circuits), sensors, displays, connectors, and other electronic devices needed based upon the desired functions and target retail price of your product.

In the U.S., Digikey, Arrow, Mouser, and Future are the most popular suppliers of electronic components. You can purchase most electronic components in ones (for prototyping and initial testing) or up to thousands (for low-volume manufacturing).

Electronic components commonly used in circuit designs

Some examples of electronic components commonly used in product designs.

I recommend creating a detailed system block diagram. Most products require a master microcontroller with various components (displays, sensors, memory, etc) interfacing with the microcontroller via various serial ports. By creating a system block diagram you can easily identify the type and number of serial ports required. This is an essential first step for selecting the correct microcontroller for your product.

The more you learn the better you’ll be able to manage the work done by your engineering team. Learning some basic electronics will pay off in the long term. Some of my favorite websites for learning about electronics are All About Circuits, Adafruit, Sparkfun, Make Magazine, Build Electronic Circuits, and Bald Engineer.

Pre-Design Your Product to Estimate Production Cost

I highly recommend that you estimate the production cost for your product before you begin designing the full schematic. In order to do this you’ll need to first create a pre-design of your product.

It’s critical to know as soon as possible how much it will cost to manufacture your product. You need this number in order to determine the best sales price, the cost of inventory, and most importantly how much profit you can make.

Once you’ve selected all of the major components then you should have enough information to accurately estimate the production cost for your product (Cost of Goods Sold – COGS). Most entrepreneurs and developers skip this step and proceed right to designing the full circuit schematic (see my next step). That’s a mistake.

Knowing the production cost (plus the development and scaling costs) is so important that I created the Predictable Hardware Report to do this for new electronic products. This report includes a preliminary design of your product along with accurate estimates on the cost to develop, scale, and manufacture it.

Don’t make profit an after thought. Does Apple start developing a new product before knowing how much profit they can make? Of course not, and neither should you.

See my article describing in great detail all of the costs to develop, prototype, scale, and manufacture (including COGS) your new electronic hardware product.

Circuit Design (Schematic)

The next step is to create a diagram of the electronics design, called a schematic diagram, that is similar to a blueprint for a house. In most cases you’ll need a schematic circuit for each block of your system block diagram.

The schematic shows how every component, from microchips to simple resistors, connects together. Creating the schematic or circuit diagram is the core step in designing electronics.

You’ll need special electronics design software to create the schematic. I highly recommend a package called DipTrace which is really affordable, powerful, and easy to use. There are dozens of electronics design packages available but I’ve found Diptrace to be best to option especially for new designers (although it’s powerful enough to use for really complex designs).

Printed Circuit Board Design

Once the schematic is done you will create the design for the actual Printed Circuit Board (PCB). The PCB is the physical board that holds and connects all of the electronic components. For many projects creating the PCB layout can be the most time consuming step.

PCB Layout Product Design

The PCB is designed in the same software that created the schematic diagram. The software will have various verification tools to ensure the PCB layout meets the design rules for the PCB process used, and that the PCB matches the schematic.

The smaller the product, and the tighter the components must be packed together, the longer it will take to create the PCB layout. If your product routes large amounts of power, or offers wireless connectivity, then PCB layout is even more critical and time consuming.

For most PCB designs the most critical parts are the power routing, any high-speed signals (crystal clocks, etc) and any wireless circuits.

Bill of Materials (BOM)

The Bill of Materials must now be generated. This is usually automatically created by the schematic design software. The BOM lists the part number, quantity, and all component specifications.

PCB Prototypes

Creating electronic prototypes is a two step process. The first step produces the bare printed circuit boards. Your circuit design software will allow you to output the PCB layout in a format called Gerber with one file for each PCB layer. These Gerber files can be sent to a prototype shop for small volume runs, or the same files can be provided to a larger manufacturer for high volume production.

The second step is having all of the electronic components soldered onto the board. From your design software you’ll be able to output a file that shows the exact coordinates of every component placed on the board. This allows the assembly shop to fully automate the soldering of every component on your PCB.

For producing your assembled boards I highly recommend Seeed Studio Fusion. They offer fantastic pricing on quantities from 5 up to 8,000 boards. They also offer 3D printing services making them a one-stop shop.

I also recommend Sunstone Circuits and San Francisco Circuits which I’ve used extensively to prototype my PCB designs.

Printed Circuit Board for a new product after all components have been soldered

Example of a fully assembled Printed Circuit Board (PCB).

It takes 1-2 weeks to get completely assembled boards, unless you pay for rush service which I rarely recommend.

If you really want to squeeze down the size of your PCB then you may want to look at more advanced PCB production methods. Advanced processes have advanced costs, so it’s best to only them use if it is essential for your product’s success.

Evaluate, Debug, and Repeat

Now it’s time to evaluate the prototype of the electronics. Keep in mind that your first prototype will rarely work perfectly. You will most likely go through several iterations before you finalize the design. This is when you will identify, debug and fix any issues with your prototype.

This can be a difficult stage to forecast in both terms of cost and time. Any bugs found are of course unexpected, so it can take time to figure out the source of the bug and how best to fix it. Evaluation and testing are usually done in parallel with the next step, programming the microcontroller.

MicroController Programming in C language

Most new electronic products require programming to function (called firmware).

Programming

Nearly all modern electronic products include a microchip called a Microcontroller Unit (MCU) that acts as the “brains” for the product. A microcontroller is very similar to a microprocessor found in a computer or smartphone.

A microprocessor excels at moving large amounts of data quickly, while a microcontroller excels at interfacing and controlling devices like switches, sensors, displays, motors, etc. A microcontroller is pretty much just a simplified microprocessor.

The microcontroller needs to be programmed to perform the desired functionality. Microcontrollers are almost always programmed in the very common computer language called ‘C’. The program, called firmware, is stored in permanent but reprogrammable memory usually internal to the microcontroller chip.

Certification

All electronic products sold must have various types of certification. The certifications required vary depending on what country the product will be sold in. We’ll cover certifications required in the USA, Canada, and the European Union.

FCC (Federal Communications Commission) certification is necessary for all electronic products sold in the United States. All electronic products emit some amount of electromagnetic radiation (i.e. radio waves) so the FCC wants to make sure that products don’t interfere with wireless communication.

There are two categories of FCC certification. Which type is required for your product depends on whether your product features wireless communication capabilities such as Bluetooth, WiFi, ZigBee, or other wireless protocols.

Products with wireless communication functionality are classified by the FCC as intentional radiators. Products that don’t intentionally emit radio waves are classified as non-intentional radiators. Intentional radiator certification will cost you roughly 10 times as much as non-intentional radiator certification.

Initially you may want to use electronic modules for any of your product’s wireless functions. This will allow you to get by with only non-intentional radiator certification, which will save you probably at least $10k.

UL (Underwriters Laboratories) or CSA (Canadian Standards Association) certification is necessary for all electrical products sold in the United States or Canada that plug into an AC outlet.

Battery only products that don’t need to plug into an AC outlet do not require UL/CSA certification. However, most major retailers and/or product liability insurance companies will require that your product be UL or CSA certified.

CE certification is needed for the majority of electronic products sold in the European Union (EU). It is similar to the FCC and UL certifications required in the United States.

RoHS certification ensures that a product is lead-free. RoHS certification is required for electrical products sold in the European Union (EU) or the state of California. Since California’s economy is so significant, the majority of products sold in the U.S. are RoHS certified.

Enclosure Development

Now we’ll cover the development and prototyping of any custom shaped plastic pieces required. For most products this includes at least the case that holds everything together.

Development of custom shaped plastic or metal pieces will require a 3D modeling expert, or better yet an industrial designer.

If appearance and ergonomics are critical for your product, then you’ll want to hire an industrial designer. For example, industrial designers are the engineers who make portable devices like an iPhone look so cool and sleek.

Plastic cases for a smart phone

Development of a custom enclosure is necessary for most new products.

If appearance isn’t super critical for your product then you can probably get by with hiring a 3D modeler, and they are usually significantly cheaper than an industrial designer.

Create a 3D Computer Model of the Case

The first step in developing your product’s exterior is the creation of a 3D computer model. The two big software packages used for creating 3D models are Solidworks and PTC Creo (formerly called Pro/Engineer).

However, Autodesk now offers a cloud-based 3D modeling tool that is completely free for students, hobbyists, and startups. It’s called Fusion 360. If you want to do your own 3D modeling and you’re not tied to either Solidworks or PTC Creo, then definitely consider Fusion 360.

3D Model of New Product Design

Creating a 3D model is an essential first step to product design.

Once your industrial designer (or 3D modeling designer) has completed the 3D model you can then turn it into physical prototypes. The 3D model can also be used for marketing purposes, especially before you have functional prototypes available.

If you plan to use your 3D model for marketing purposes you’ll want to have a photo realistic version of the model created. Both Solidworks and PTC Creo have photo realistic modules available.

You can also get a photo realistic, 3D animation of your product done. Keep in mind you may need to hire a separate designer that specializes in animation and making 3D models look realistic.

New Product Design - 3D Printer

Low-cost 3D printers have revolutionized new product prototyping.

Order Case Prototypes (or Buy a 3D Printer)

You may also consider purchasing a 3D printer, especially if you think you will need several iterations to get it right. 3D printers can be purchased now for only a few hundred dollars allowing you to create as many prototype versions as desired.

Plastic prototypes are built using either an additive process (most common) or a subtractive process. An additive process, like 3D printing, creates the prototype by stacking up thin layers of plastic to create the final product.

Additive processes are by far the most common because of their ability to create just about anything you can imagine.

A subtractive process, like CNC machining, instead takes a piece of solid production plastic and carves out the final product.

The advantage of subtractive processes is that you get to use a plastic resin that exactly matches the final production plastic you’ll use. However, for most products this isn’t essential but its important for some.

With additive processes, a special prototyping resin is used, and it may have a different feel than the production plastic. Resins used in additive processes have improved significantly but they still don’t match the production plastics used in injection molding.

One big warning is that both prototyping processes (additive and subtractive) are completely different than the technology used for production (injection molding). You want to avoid creating prototypes (especially with additive prototyping) that are impossible to manufacture.

Numerous companies can take your 3D model and turn it into a physical prototype. ProtoLabs is the company I personally recommend. They offer both additive and subtractive prototyping, as well as low-volume injection molding.

When designing the prototypes make sure your designer understands all of the restrictions for injection molding.

In the beginning you don’t necessarily need to make the prototype follow all of the rules for injection molding, but you need to keep them in mind. Otherwise, you’ll have a hard time migrating to production.

Evaluate the Enclosure Prototypes

Now it’s time to evaluate the enclosure prototypes and change the 3D model as necessary. Generally it will take several prototype iterations to get the case design right.

Although 3D computer models allow you to visualize the case, nothing compares to holding a real prototype in your hand. There will almost certainly be both functional and cosmetic changes you’ll want to make once you have your first real prototype.

Plan on needing multiple prototype versions to get everything right.

Developing the plastic for your new product isn’t necessarily easy or cheap, especially if aesthetics is critical for your product. However, the real complication and costs arise when you go to transition from the prototype stage to full production. Make your life easier by starting with a local manufacturer and then only migrate to Asian manufacturing once your production volume approaches 10k pieces.

Before migrating to Asian manufacturing I recommend that you get help from experts in offshore manufacturing like those at Dragon Innovation. Dragon is famously known for helping to setup Asian manufacturing for the Pebble smartwatch.

The Transition to Injection Molding

Although the electronics are probably the most complex and expensive part of your product to develop, the plastic will be the most expensive to manufacture. This is due to setting up production of your plastic parts using injection molding.

Most plastic products sold today are made using a really old manufacturing technique called injection molding. It’s very important to have an understanding of this process.

Two pieces of steel (the mold) are held together using high pressure to form a cavity in the shape of the desired product. Then, hot molten plastic is injected into the mold. Injection molding technology has one big advantage – it’s a cheap way to make millions of the same plastic pieces.

Injection molded plastic has been around since the mid-late 1800’s. Current injection molding technology uses a big screw to force plastic into a mold at high pressure, a process invented back in 1946. Compared to 3D printing, injection molding is absolutely ancient!

InjectionMolder

Injection molding technology is unbeatable for high volume production. Image supplied courtesy of Rutland Plastics.

Injection molds are extremely efficient at making lots of the same thing at a really low per unit cost. But the molds themselves are shockingly expensive. A mold designed for making millions of a product can reach $100k!

This high cost is mostly because the plastic is injected at such high pressure, which is extremely tough on a mold.

To withstand these conditions molds are made using hard metals. The more injections you want the mold to be able to withstand, the harder the metal must be and the higher the cost.

For example, you can use aluminum molds to make several thousand units. Aluminum is soft so it degrades very quickly. However, because it’s softer it’s also easier to make into a mold, so the cost is lower – only $1-2k for a simple mold.

As the intended volume for the mold increases so does the required metal hardness and thus the cost. The lead time to produce a mold also increases with hard metals like steel. It takes the mold maker much longer to carve out (called machining) a steel mold, than a softer aluminum one.

You can eventually increase your production speed by using multiple cavity molds. They allow you to produce multiple copies of your part with a single injection of plastic. But don’t jump into multiple cavity molds until you have worked through any tweaks or changes to your initial molds. It is wise to run at least several thousand units before upgrading to multiple cavity molds.

NOTE: If you're serious about developing a new electronic hardware product then download our free cheat sheets - 15 Steps to Develop Your Electronic Product and Summary of the Costs to Develop Your Electronic Product.

***

Have any questions? If so, feel free to contact me directly. I greatly enjoy helping out entrepreneurs.

If you have feedback or questions then by all means please leave a comment below.

Finally, if you found this guide helpful please share it across your social media networks. You’ll find share buttons below. I really appreciate shares!

Leave a Reply 32 comments

Sanket Mane - December 7, 2017 Reply

Hello John,

Excellent information. Great Job!

Papoo Sankaran - September 27, 2017 Reply

Hi John,

I found your extremely interesting as an electrical engineer with many years of experience in manufacturing custom-built products of low technology, I have joined hands with highly qualified electronics and automation product developers and also mechanical tooling specialists to develop new products . Your article gave inputs on various aspects of a product development venture, Good article, keep posting more of such stuff

    John Teel - September 27, 2017 Reply

    Hey Papoo,

    Thank you so much for the positive comment! Let me know if I can ever be of help. I do now offer low-cost consulting plans if you ever need another engineer to help out.

    Best wishes,
    John

sonali - September 19, 2017 Reply

i am a beginner and am stuck with what connectors do i use for final design of my project. Project is designed for 3d printer and we are mostly using stepper motors , drivers, sensors and switches.

Ben - August 25, 2017 Reply

Hello John,

Love the article and all the helpful information. I am an aspiring entrepreneur and have a new product idea for a medical electronic device. However, I am no engineer.
Where do I even start?

Thank you,
Ben

    John Teel - August 28, 2017 Reply

    Hey Ben,

    Thanks for the positive comment! I suggest you begin by downloading my free cheat sheet 15 Steps to Develop Your New Electronic Hardware Product. You’ll also get a free email course where I go in-depth into each of these 15 steps. This should help break down the process for you into more manageable steps. Always feel free to ask me any questions by either commenting on a post, or emailing me directly.

    Best wishes,
    John Teel

Dat - May 10, 2017 Reply

Hi John,
I found this blog via your Quora posting. Thanks for writing up your experience. Wonder if you possibly share any experience for rugged design, either housing (IP69k) or cooling for internal heat transfer, vibration, electromagnetic, etc. I see most of the knowledge is considered as confidential information of companies and very difficult to find document or books on rugged design in fundamental way to develop knowledge gradually throughout applying the knowledge in real-world tries. Really a problem for hobbyists want to turn their prototypes into real-world products.
Thanks,

Jack - May 10, 2017 Reply

Hi John,

Great guide! Thank you for the valuable information.

After the mass manufacturing of plastic casing and the PCB, what about the assembly process? Do you have any knowledge in that to share?

Thank you!

    John Teel - May 10, 2017 Reply

    Thanks for the comment Jack! I’ll be sure to add some info to it soon about final product assembly. Final assembly is normally a very labor intensive step so labor costs primarily determine the assembly cost. So most products eventually we’ll be assembled in a country with low wages such as China. Assembly fixtures are usually required to hold the various parts to ease assembly.

    Thanks again,
    John

Hitesh Agarwal - May 8, 2017 Reply

Hello John,

Thank you for this insightful post.
However, I wasn’t able to access premium content even after sharing the email address. Can you pls help?

Hitesh

    John Teel - May 8, 2017 Reply

    Hello Hitesh,

    Thanks for the comment. I apologize for the issue you mention. It appears as if the problem shows up only for certain browsers, and normally I only test with Google Chrome. I’ve got people working to resolve this issue. In the mean time you can also simply download the PDF version of the article (see the link in the yellow box at the top of the article). My apologies for any inconvenience.

    Best wishes,
    John

      John Teel - May 8, 2017 Reply

      Hi again Hitesh,

      We’ve determined the issue is caused when using older versions of some browsers. This mainly seems to happen with older versions of Firefox. I suggest upgrading your browser then trying again.

      Thanks,
      John

Evie Jones - April 26, 2017 Reply

Great article! When it comes to electronic hardware products, I usually don’t have a clue. However my partner and I recently moved house and I needed to up my game. I even helped to rewire the house and used a cable stripper!

    John Teel - April 26, 2017 Reply

    Thanks for the comment Evie!

Pradeep Kumar - March 2, 2017 Reply

Kindly provide your email to get in touch with you.
We have been working on high speed designs like PCIe GEn3/gen4, 10G, GTx, etc.
We are FPGA based system design house , leading one in India.

Regards
Pradeep

Matt - January 26, 2017 Reply

I provided my e-mail and I can still not read the rest of the article?

    John Teel - January 26, 2017 Reply

    Hi Matt,

    Sorry about that and I’ve not seen this issue before. Are you trying to view the article on the same device you used to enter your email address? When you enter your email address a cookie is stored on that device which allows you to view the full article. Nonetheless, I’ll email you a special URL link that will allow you to view the full article.

    Best wishes,
    John

Chris Allen - January 18, 2017 Reply

Hey John,

Very thankful for the wonderful post.

I am into an Industrial hardware product business from recent years. Now I have started my online store on the web. Got some valuable point from you detailed post which will help a lot o make my business successful.

    John Teel - January 19, 2017 Reply

    Thanks for the comment Chris.

    Best wishes with your new business!

    Regards,
    John Teel

Laurie Seibert - January 13, 2017 Reply

Hey John….you have done an amazing job by sharing this blog with everyone. I have never expected that someone can explain about the hardware so well. Very impressive. This blog is so helpful for me to understand the things. Great Job!

    John Teel - January 13, 2017 Reply

    Thanks Laurie for your comment! That makes me feel good to get feedback like yours and making hardware design understandable for the non-engineer is exactly my goal. Best wishes! John Teel

alan - December 23, 2016 Reply

Hey John,
Really amazing job. I am surprised to see how nicely you provided details of each step. I am going to share it on my Google plus as my friends like to read about hardware. Good job..

    John Teel - December 23, 2016 Reply

    Hey Alan,

    Thanks for the positive feedback and for sharing! I really appreciate that. Let me know if I can ever help you out.

    Best wishes,
    John

max - December 15, 2016 Reply

do you work with voice activation

    John Teel - December 15, 2016 Reply

    Hi Max,

    Yes, I have. I also received your email. I love helping out young students like yourself.

    To answer your question about how voice activation works. Sound is a vibration of air. A microphone converts this air vibration into an electrical signal. This electrical signal represents the sound wave. A specialized microchip then converts this analog waveform into a digital representation (via something called analog-to-digital converters). This is done because the “real” world is analog, but computers are digital. Usually this same microchip also has a Digital Signal Processor (DSP) which is basically a specialized computer chip optimized to process signals. This DSP can then determine what was spoken by analyzing the signal waveform.

    Okay, I hope this helps!

    Best of luck with your project!

    John

Iñigo Oñederra - September 28, 2016 Reply

Hi John,
I find your post really interesting, and I want to make a contribution related with component selection and obsolescence. When selecting a component (Part 2, first paragraph), I also consider very important to analize the component status into its lifecycle and check if the candidate has alternative parts (identical or very similar) to reduce the risk of stop product manufacturing due to component unavailability. Of course, this can entail to spend more time at product design and validation stages, but it is very likely that you are solving future problems.

    John Teel - September 28, 2016 Reply

    Thanks for the comment Inigo! Excellent point and one I’ll be sure to add to the article (this article is always a continuing work in progress).

    Thanks again for the insightful feedback!

    Best wishes,
    John

Peter von Zweigbergk - September 21, 2016 Reply

Hi John,

Thanks for a very good and detailed post!
I am an Industrial Designer and I work with a hardware startup in Brazil at the moment. I can really recommend the Autodesk Fusion 360 software for the 3D modeling. It´s free for startups and it´s all in the cloud. Worth checking out.

Thanks!

    John Teel - September 22, 2016 Reply

    Hey thanks for the positive comment Peter!

    Also thanks for the recommendation on Fusion 360 and I didn’t it was free for startups. I just checked it out and I’m impressed with it and love the fact that its free for students, hobbyists, and startups! I’ll be adding a link to Fusion in this article shortly.

    Best wishes,
    John

Junhyuk Lee - September 13, 2016 Reply

Can I traslate this post to korean?
I want to share this post with south korean.

    John Teel - September 13, 2016 Reply

    Absolutely Junhyuk, just please be sure to include a link back to the original article on my website.

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