FAQ: Which Should I Develop First: Electronics, Enclosure, or Software?

Developing the electronics, enclosure and software simultaneously is the ideal situation. Their development has to be staggered a bit, but there can be considerable overlap between these different parts of your product development.

The one limitation is when you’re really restricted on how much capital you have for development. If you’re developing the electronics, enclosure and the software all at one time, that can be a really significant drain on your finances.

Entrepreneurs that are bootstrapped may want to spread some of this out. But if you have the money, and you’re just looking to get the market as fast as possible, then you can do the development simultaneously.

I recommend you start by estimating the size of your Printed Circuit Board (PCB).

You need to first select all the components – the connectors, the microchips, etc., that are going to go on the PCB. Then, with the right experience you can get a pretty close estimate of the size of the PCB. This is what I do as part of my custom report service.

At this point, you can have your industrial designer, mechanical engineer, or 3D modeling expert start on the enclosure design.

In the end, the PCB will be somewhat different than your original estimate. It’s not going to be exact, although you could precisely lock it in, especially if you err on the slightly larger side.

If you think your product could fit it on a board that’s 2” x 2”, but you have room for up to a 3” x 3” board, then you could potentially go with the 3” x 3” board since your confidence will be very high that requirement can be met.

Having a slightly larger PCB is not going to add significant cost to your manufacturing cost. In most cases, assuming your initial estimate on the PCB size is pretty accurate, it will be easy to make slight modifications to your enclosure design to fit the final dimensions of the PCB.

You will want to ensure that there’s ample communication between the electrical engineer that’s designing the printed circuit board and the industrial designer. You don’t want either of them going off on their own for too long.

If one or both of them aren’t sticking with the original estimated PCB size, that can cause issues once you have to make those pieces fit together.

Just make sure to monitor this closely. Make sure that the EE and the industrial designer can communicate ideally through you.

You can connect them up for direct communication, but make sure you’re always copied on all the emails. You don’t want to be in a situation where you have engineers communicating a lot without you being involved. This is your baby!

So far we’ve discussed how to do the enclosure and the electronics design simultaneously once you have the PCB size estimated.

You can actually do your software development at the same time too. A lot of people think that you have to completely finish the hardware, get a prototype back, and then begin working on the firmware.

Well, that will be true to some extent, and to completely finalize the firmware program it will require that you have the final hardware.

But you can begin immediately to make significant progress on the firmware by purchasing a development kit that is based on the same microcontroller you will use in your production design.

For instance, I’m a big fan of the STM32 line of microcontrollers from STMicroelectronics. These are Cortex-M based controllers. ST sells various development kits that use many of the different iterations of their microcontrollers.

For instance, one of them is called ST Discovery Kits, and they sell others called Nucleo boards. You can purchase those and begin programming and developing the code as soon as you’ve finalized your microcontroller selection.

This will allow you to get a significant head start on the firmware development.

You can also begin, at that time, doing some of the initial work if you require a mobile application for your product. You can start defining your app’s aesthetics, layout, menus and core functionality.

Once you have that working, and if you’ve got the firmware functioning, you can begin doing some of the development work on how the mobile app will communicate with the firmware program.

You’ll be able to do both the firmware and any mobile app development pretty much around the same time that you’re doing the electronics and the enclosure design if you start off with a development kit.

Just make sure that you go with a development kit that uses the same or a very close relative of the same microcontroller you’ll be using in the production unit.

If you’re using a 32-bit STM32 microcontroller for production, then there’s not going to be a lot of benefit to developing your firmware on an Arduino, which uses an 8-bit ATmega controller from Microchip.

It can still be somewhat helpful if an Arduino is the only kit you feel comfortable programming. Some of the basic code and algorithms can be carried over to a different microcontroller, but it requires major rework of the code.

So, just to sum it all up, remember that you can simultaneously develop the electronics, the enclosure and the software. They will have to be staggered a little bit, but there’s also significant overlap.

Developing all of these simultaneously should drastically speed up the time it takes to get your product to market.

Don’t forget, the one downside to this strategy is it will drain any development capital that you have more quickly. So be sure you have a good idea of your development costs for the electronics, enclosure, and software well before you start. Knowing these costs upfront will allow you to optimize the entire development process.

I hope you found this FAQ useful. If you have any further questions on this topic, or any questions you’d like me to answer in a future FAQ, please just leave it in the Comments section below.

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.

Leave a Reply 7 comments

Youssoufa M Reply

Hello John
This article is interesting just as the comments. In my case as a designer I found it very useful to start with an Instruction Set (IS). In this IS I define all the instructions or commands that I want my device to perform. I mostly work on devices that will communicate with either a PC or a phone, so the IS will help me set the basis on which the the firmware, the PC software and the phone App will be programmed. The IS is the main document that the hardware and software engineers use in their developments. Setting up a good IS takes time but as soon as I do that the rest of the work becomes easy and all parts can be developed simultaneously. I have to say my biggest problem is the lack of outlets where I can get components, PCB manufacturing and enclosureenclosure manufacturing. I live in Cameroon in west Africa and simple others from the internet may take months to reach me. Plus those dealers on Aliexpess (and Amazon?), always charge fast mail fee but send through regular mail.

Martin Risso Reply

Hi John,

New product developers need to realize that “make it as small as possible” comes with a price. When “shrinking” a PCB, remember, it costs more to manufacture a PCB with parts on both sides of the board. If you need to put one or two switches or controls on the back of the board, that is not a big deal. But if you put half the parts on the back of the board to shrink the board in half, that adds several more steps to the PCB assembly process. If you need to go even smaller by using a lot of BGAs, the PCB will need more layers with blind vias, again more expensive. Same with cramming the parts closer together, called HDI, more layers, more blind and buried vias, more time to layout the PCB. That increases both development cost and production costs. Be aware that “make it as small as possible” has it’s costs.

    John Teel Reply

    I agree completely. When estimating development costs for a new product I always factor in how important it is for the product to be as absolutely small as possible because it does significantly increase the development time and cost. I wrote a blog article on this very topic a couple years ago.

    As always, thanks Martin for all your great and helpful comments!

    John

Tom Martin Reply

Hi John,

I’m trying to get a patent first. An attorney is working on it now. He seems to think that I might have a shot at the patent especially since my device is slightly different than what’s on the market at present. Also it should be more inexpensive to manufacture.

Tom

    John Teel Reply

    Great, thanks for the comment Tom!

    FYI, from my experience most patent attorneys will tell you that you have a shot at a patent, otherwise they will not make any money. That being said, they are telling you the truth, and a patent isn’t that difficult to get, but many times it will be a very narrow patent (easy for competitors to work around) that will have little value other than saying you have a patent. But even having any patent can be a requirement of some big retailers, so even a narrow patent can be helpful.

    Thanks again!
    John

Roberto Fernandez Rey Reply

In my experience, I begin with the enclosure. Your design has to take in account, the new trends, the position of controls and displays the on/ off switch, for desk or in rack appliance, you have to consider the dimensions you have to install your equipment, this is going to define the dimensions of your electronic components and that influence in the electronic design. After that, you can begin the design of PCB, electronic circuit and software simultaneously,

    John Teel Reply

    Thanks for the comment Roberto. There are of course many ways to stagger these development steps. For efficiency I like to many times focus on the enclosure design and the schematic design at the same time. The enclosure design mostly only impacts the PCB design and not the schematic as much. But of course, if you are in not a big of a rush to get to market, and you want to spread out your costs, then focusing on one at a time may be the easiest option.

    Thanks again for sharing your experience.

    John

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