The product development process for a new electronic product (or any physical product) is by no means simple. Since it can be pretty overwhelming, I’ve broken product development down into five manageable steps.
The steps summarized below will get you to the point of having a fully functional prototype. However, after the prototype is completed, there are still many other steps to getting a product to the point of being ready to manufacture and bring to the market.
The purpose of this article is to focus on the five core steps required to develop the prototype for a new electronic product.
Step #1 – Design the Circuit Schematic
The end goal of the electronics design is the creation of a Printed Circuit Board (PCB). The first step of making a new PCB is the creation of the schematic circuit design. A schematic is similar to a blueprint for a house.
Designing the schematic circuit first includes early research to select the best topology and most affordable components.
It may also include running simulations and/or breadboarding (used only rarely in modern electronics).
Step #2 – Design the Printed Circuit Board (PCB)
Using the same software package as in step #1, the designer now creates the PCB layout.
A portion may be automatically routed but most boards require manual routing for optimum performance. The PCB layout is extremely sensitive for power and RF circuits (Bluetooth, WiFi, GPS, etc) and mistakes on the PCB in these areas are common.
When the PCB layout is complete the design software will tell the designer if the PCB matches the schematic. It will also check wire widths, trace spacings, etc. to ensure the layout meets all of the rules for the particular PCB fabrication process being used.
Before beginning the PCB layout it will be necessary to obtain all of the specification from your PCB manufacturer for their process. Each PCB manufacturer has different specifications for their process.
Once the PCB design is completed it’s time to send the data off to a PCB shop for prototyping. You can expect the boards to arrive in about 1-2 weeks (without paying extra for rush service).
Step #3 – Evaluate and Debug the Prototype
Once the first prototype comes back it will now need to be evaluated and if any problems are found, those will need to be debugged.
Hopefully there are no problems, but that’s extremely rare, and there are almost always at least a couple of issues.
Debugging a new circuit is a difficult step to forecast, because until you know what the problem is, you can’t estimate how long it will take to fix it.
Step #4 – Program the Microcontroller
Almost all electronics products today have some kind of microcontroller that acts as the brains for the product.
These are almost always programmed in a computer language called “C”. If the program needs to be super efficient or fast then parts of it may be done in assembly language.
Sometimes the programming will be done by the same person that designed the circuit, but many times a software specialist is brought in to do the programming.
Step #5 – Design the Enclosure
This is almost always handled by a different engineer than who did steps 1 thru 4.
In the beginning all you really need is a 3D modeling expert, especially if you have a good vision of what your product should look like.
Eventually you may want to hire an industrial design engineer to really make it look good. For example, industrial designers are the engineers responsible for making Apple’s products look so cool.
Either way make sure whoever does the 3D model design has experience with injection molding technology. 3D printing is used for low-volume prototyping, but injection molding is used for high-volume manufacturing. It’s a common mistake for 3D designers to create a model that can be 3D printed but not injection molded.
Other content you may like:
- Lesson 4: The Strategic Way to Develop and Sell Your New Electronic Hardware Product
- Idea to Prototype: Understanding Product Development Costs
- Product Development Timeline: How Long It Takes to Develop a New Hardware Product
- How Much Does a Prototype Cost?
- PCB Design Software: Which One is Best?