Article Technical Rating: 7 out of 10
So you want to develop a new electronic hardware product? If so, you’re in the right place.
Let me start with the good news – it’s possible! This is true regardless of your technical level and you don’t have 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 development process!
However, I won’t lie to you. It’s a long, difficult journey (nothing great in life is ever easy). In order to succeed you have to learn a whole lot about new product development. It’s also not exactly a cheap goal to develop and launch a new hardware product. To succeed you must know all of your costs. This includes the costs to develop the product, to scale it, and finally the cost to actually make it. For more on this topic be sure to read my article The Costs to Develop, Scale, and Manufacture a New Electronic Hardware Product)
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.
Next, we’ll move on to developing the electronics with the end result being a circuit design (schematic) and Printed Circuit Board (PCB).
Finally, we’ll discuss the development of any custom shaped plastic pieces required, which for most products includes at least the outside case. You will learn how to produce a 3D model that can create your plastic parts using injection molded plastic technology.
Part 1 – Product Development Strategies
There are three options when it comes to developing a new physical product:
1) Do the product design yourself (or in-house if you’re established company). You’ll need to be really good at both electronics circuit design and 3D modeling for injection molding.
2) Find a design engineer to become a co-founder.
3) Hire a freelance design engineer or design firm.
Keep in mind that very few engineers will be knowledgeable in both electronics circuit design and 3D design so you will likely need at least two types of design engineers.
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.
If you completely outsource your entire product development then you have to ask yourself “what is my purpose?”. A software startup would never dream of completely outsourcing all their programming, so as a hardware startup neither should you.
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 the founder of a new product startup without having a detailed understanding of new product development.
The more you learn the better you’ll be able to manage the work done by your engineering team. Some of my favorite websites for learning about electronics are All About Circuits, Adafruit, Sparkfun, Make Magazine, Build Electronic Circuits, and Bald Engineer.
Part 2 – 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Often these steps are performed by two different companies. One company will produce the PCB boards based upon the PCB layout files. Then another company will solder the components onto the board.
For component soldering I recommend a company named Screaming Circuits. They have a partnership with Sunstone Circuits so you can order both the boards and component assembly together on Sunstone’s website.
It takes 1-2 weeks to get completely assembled boards, unless you pay for rush service which I rarely recommend. The cost for a few assembled boards will usually be $1k to $2k.
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.
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.
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 3D Design
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.
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.
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.
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 Case Prototypes
Now it’s time to evaluate the case 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.
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.
Video demonstrating injection molding process.
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!
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 intial molds. It is wise to run at least several thousand units before upgrading to multiple cavity molds.
Have any questions? If so, feel free to contact me directly. I greatly enjoy helping out entrepreneurs.
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