This guide will teach you the development process for a new electronic product. It’s written for individuals and small teams building a new electronic product to bring to market.
Although hardware is known for being hard, it’s easier than ever for entrepreneurs, startups, makers, inventors and small businesses to develop amazing new electronic products.
Although I present each step in a linear fashion, product development is never a smooth linear progression and at times you will find yourself taking two steps back for every step forward.
Don’t get too frustrated though when this happens because it’s just part of the process.
First Steps Before Full Development
Before we get into the actual product development steps I feel that it’s important to quickly cover some of the upfront work that needs to be done before full product development begins.
Unfortunately, too many people skip past these critical early steps, since most people want to get right into developing their product.
Skip these initial steps at your own peril.
Market research, patents and product validation
You need to first research the competition and confirm that a market exists for your product.
When most people do competitive research a common misconception is to think that finding any competition is bad.
In fact, many people panic and think it’s the end of their project when they find a competing solution.
In reality though, having some competition is actually good because it proves there is a market for your product idea.
Once you’ve determined that a market exists for your product, then the next step is to validate that people will actually buy your product.
For example, one way to validate your new product idea is to make a sales flyer to share with potential customers or retailers that carry similar products.
Request their feedback on your tech product.
You can also setup an online sales page to test your idea. Crowdfunding is another great form of validation.
The key is you have to share your product idea with lots of unbiased people who will give you honest feedback.
But, what about a patent? Don’t you need one before you can safely tell others about your product?
Being overly secretive is probably the most common mistake made. In reality, I’ve never seen a hardware startup fail because their idea was stolen.
That just does not happen. Instead, they usually fail because they’ve been unsuccessful at marketing their product.
However, I do understand concerns over privacy and why most people want to start with a patent.
But patents are really expensive and take a long time to get.
They are simply not the best use of your limited time or money when you are first starting out.
Instead, I recommend what is called a Provisional Patent Application (PPA) in the United States. Other regions likely have something similar available.
For only a couple hundred dollars, a PPA will give your product protection for one year. And you won’t need to hire an expensive patent attorney at this stage.
Simplify your product
I spent years developing my own consumer product, and have helped others develop their products for much longer.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that you need to simplify your device as much as possible.
You must embrace simplification in order to have a realistic shot at getting your product to market in a timely fashion and without going bankrupt.
Product complexity can be a death trap for new product creators!
Most creators, and even most engineers, don’t understand all the consequences of various product features.
The addition of what seems like a minor feature can often drastically increase your development cost and the time it takes to get to market.
For example, something as simple as the position of a button could waste thousands of dollars, if it creates the need for more expensive injection molds.
Another example comes from an entrepreneur who recently asked me for feedback on his product concept.
He is very technically minded and had spent a lot of time specifying his product in great detail. But he didn’t understand all the future implications of these features.
I quickly explained to him why one feature of his product was going to drastically drive up all of his costs including: development, prototyping, electrical certifications, and mold costs.
I proposed several alternative solutions, and he was off to a much better start.
These changes made his product about 3 times easier to bring to market. Overall, he easily saved at least $50,000 with this one change!
The catch is that unless you understand the entire development and manufacturing process it’s difficult to know the future implications of every product decision.
If you outsource product development be aware that asking your primary developer(s) to help simplify your product may create a conflict of interest.
This is because the more complex your product the more money they get paid.
Instead, work with independent experts to help you simplify your product and better understand the long-term impacts of your early product decisions.
Proof-of-Concept (POC) prototypes
At this point you have proven that there is a market for your product and you’ve simplified the product concept as much as possible.
Now the question you must answer is whether your concept really solves the intended problem as expected.
This is the goal of a Proof-of-Concept (POC) prototype which is an early prototype created using off-the-shelf components.
A POC prototype doesn’t have any custom electronics design, and is typically based on development kits such as an Arduino or Raspberry Pi.
I’ve already stressed the importance of not starting right way with full development, but a POC prototype is different because it’s not usually very expensive to build.
Unfortunately, a POC prototype is rarely something that can be brought to market. The production cost will be too much, the physical size too large, and the appearance far from ideal.
Before you continue, I highly suggest that you download this free guide on how to develop your electronic product.
Product Development Strategies
There are essentially five options for individuals and small teams to develop a new hardware product.
However, many times the best overall strategy is a combination of these five development strategies.
If you don’t have the technical knowledge to properly manage product development and to judge the quality of work being done, then having a technical advisor is a must regardless of which of these development strategies you follow.
This technical advisor can help you make key technical decisions and provide oversight of your primary developers.
Even if you are an experienced engineer it’s highly beneficial to have an advisor who understands the entire process from idea to market.
Develop the product yourself
This is rarely a viable strategy completely by itself. Very few people have all of the skills needed to develop a market-ready electronic product completely on their own.
Even if you happen to be an engineer, are you an expert in electronics design, programming, 3D modeling, injection molding, and manufacturing?
Also most of these specialties are made up of numerous sub-specialties.
That being said, if you have the necessary skills, the farther you take the development of your product yourself the more money you will save.
For example, years ago I brought my own hardware product to market.
The product was more complex mechanically than it was electrically. I’m an electronics engineer by training and not a mechanical engineer, so I initially hired a couple freelance mechanical engineers.
However, I quickly became frustrated with how slow things progressed.
After all, I was thinking about my product almost every waking hour. I was obsessed with getting my product developed and on the market as fast as possible. Sound familiar?
But the engineers I hired were juggling it with lots of other projects and not giving my project the attention I felt it deserved.
So I decided to learn everything needed to do the mechanical design myself. No one was more motivated than myself to get my product developed and on the market.
Ultimately, I was able to complete the mechanical design much faster (and for much less money).
The moral of the story is to do as much of the development as your skills allow, but also don’t take that too far. If your sub-expert skills cause you to develop a less than optimal product then that is a big mistake.
Also, any new skills you must learn will take time and that may ultimately lengthen the time to market.
Always bring in experts to fill in any gaps in your expertise, but be sure to remain involved in all key decisions.
Bring on technical co-founder
If you are a non-technical founder then you would definitely be wise to bring on a technical co-founder.
One of the founders on your startup team needs to at the very least understand enough about product development to manage the process.
If you plan to eventually seek outside funding from professional investors then you definitely need a team of founders. Professional startup investors know that a team of founders is much more likely to succeed than a solo founder.
The ideal co-founder team for most hardware startups is a hardware engineer, a programmer, and a marketer.
Bringing on co-founders may sound like the perfect solution to your problems, but there are some serious downsides as well.
First of all, finding co-founders is difficult and will likely take a tremendous amount of time. That is valuable time that isn’t being spent developing your product.
Finding co-founders is not something you should rush and you need to take time to find the right match.
Not only do they need to compliment your skills, but you also really need to like them personally. You are essentially going to be married to them for at least a few years so be sure you get along well.
The major downside of bringing on co-founders is they reduce your equity in the company. All founders of a company should really have equal equity in the company.
So if you are going solo right now, be prepared to give any co-founder half of your company.
Outsource to freelance engineers
One of the best ways to fill in any gaps in your teams technical ability is by outsourcing to freelance engineers.
Just keep in mind that most products will require multiple engineers of different specialties so you will need to manage the various engineers yourself.
Ultimately, someone on the founding team will need to serve as the project manager.
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 engineers lack any 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.
Outsource to a design firm
The best known product design firms such as Frog, IDEO, Fuse Project, etc. can generate fantastic product designs, but they’re insanely expensive.
Startups should avoid big design firms at all costs. Top design firms can charge $500k+ to fully develop your new product.
Even if you can afford to hire an expensive product development firm, don’t do it!
However, there are many smaller, less known design firms that I’ve worked with that can develop your product at a much more reasonable price.
The cost for these smaller firms usually falls closer to the cost of hiring freelancers yet with more oversight and better quality procedures in place.
One final comment on working with product design firms. You must discard the false belief that you can just have someone else handle all of the development while you just wait on the sidelines.
Those that attempt that path almost always get burned and lose a lot of money and time.
You absolutely need to be involved in development and understand at least the basics of the development process as well as the various design tradeoffs being made.
Partner with a manufacturer
One avenue to pursue is partnering with an overseas manufacturer that already makes products that are similar to your product.
Large manufacturers will have their own engineering and development departments to work on their own products.
If you can find a manufacturer already making something similar to your own product, they may be able to do everything for you – development, engineering, prototyping, mold production and manufacturing.
This strategy can lower your upfront development costs.
Manufacturers will, however, amortize these costs, which means adding an additional cost per product for the first production runs. This essentially works like an interest free loan, allowing you to slowly pay back your development costs to the manufacturer.
Sounds great and easy, so what’s the catch? The main risk to consider with this strategy is you are putting everything related to your product into a single company.
They will surely want an exclusive manufacturing agreement, at least until their costs have been recovered. This means you can’t migrate to a cheaper manufacturing option when your production volume increases.
Also be warned that many manufacturers may want part, or all, of the intellectual rights to your product.
How to Develop and Prototype the Electronics
Development of the electronics for your product can be broken down into seven steps: preliminary production design, schematic diagram, PCB layout, final BOM, prototype, test and program, and finally certification.
Below are the steps for developing a new electronic product:
Step #1 – Create a preliminary production design
When developing a new electronic hardware product you should first start with a preliminary production design. This is not to be confused with a Proof-of-Concept (POC) prototype.
A POC prototype is usually built using a development kit like an Arduino. They can sometimes be useful to prove that your product concept solves the desired problem.
But a POC prototype is far from being a production design. Rarely can you go to market with an Arduino embedded in your product.
A preliminary production design focuses on your product’s production components, cost, profit margin, performance, features, development feasibility and manufacturability.
You can use a preliminary production design to produce estimates for every cost your product will need. It is important to accurately know the costs to develop, prototype, program, certify, scale, and manufacture the product.
A preliminary production design will answer the following pertinent questions.
Is my product feasible to develop?
Can I afford to develop this product?
How long will it take me to develop my product?
Can I mass manufacture the product?
Can I sell it at a profit?
Many people make the mistake of skipping the preliminary production design step, and instead jump right into designing the schematic circuit diagram.
By doing so, you may eventually discover you’ve spent all this effort and hard-earned money on a product that can’t be affordably developed, manufactured, or most importantly, sold at a profit.
System block diagram
When creating the preliminary production design you should start by defining the system-level block diagram.
This diagram specifies each electronic function and how all of the functional components interconnect.
Most products require a microcontroller or a microprocessor 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.
Select the production components
Next, you must select the various production components: microchips, sensors, displays, and connectors based upon the desired functions and target retail price of your product.
This will allow you to then create a preliminary Bill of Materials (BOM).
In the U.S., Newark, 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).
Once you reach higher production volumes you will save money by purchasing some components directly from the manufacturer.
Step #2 – Estimate the production cost
You should now estimate the production cost (or Cost of Goods Sold – COGS) for your product. It’s critical to know as soon as possible how much it will cost to manufacture your product.
You need to know your product’s manufacturing unit cost in order to determine the best sales price, the cost of inventory, and most importantly your profit.
The production components that you’ve selected will of course have a big impact on the manufacturing cost.
But to get an accurate manufacturing cost estimate you also must include the cost of the PCB assembly, final product assembly, product testing, retail packaging, scrap rate, returns, logistics, duties, and warehousing.
For more help estimating your manufacturing cost be sure to read this article.
Step #3 – Design the schematic diagram
Now it’s time to design the schematic circuit diagram based upon the system block diagram you created in step 1.
The schematic diagram shows how every component, from microchips to resistors, connects together.
Whereas a system block diagram is mostly focused on the higher level product functionality, a schematic diagram is all about the little details.
Something as simple as a mis-numbered pin on a component in a schematic can cause a complete lack of functionality.
In most cases you’ll need a separate sub-circuit for each block of your system block diagram. These various sub-circuits will then be connected together to form the full schematic circuit diagram.
Special electronics design software is used to create the schematic diagram and to help ensure it is free of mistakes.
I recommend using a package called DipTrace which is affordable, powerful, and easy to use.
Other popular PCB software packages include Altium Designer and Eagle. But be warned these are quite expensive and are best for those designing multiple products.
For a free, open-source PCB design tool also be sure to check out KiCad.
Step #4 – Design the printed circuit board (PCB)
Once the schematic is done you will now design the Printed Circuit Board (PCB). The PCB is the physical board that holds and connects all of the electronic components.
Development of the system block diagram and schematic circuit have been mostly conceptual in nature. A PCB design though is very real world.
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.
In general, the smaller the product, and the tighter the components are 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, high-speed signals (crystal clocks, address/data lines, etc.) and any wireless circuits.
Step #5 – Generate the final bill of materials (BOM)
Although you should have already created a preliminary BOM as part of your preliminary production design, it’s now time for the full production BOM.
The main difference between the two is the numerous low-cost components like resistors and capacitors. These components usually only cost a penny or two, so I don’t list them out separately in the preliminary BOM.
But to actually manufacture the PCB you need a complete BOM with every component listed.
This BOM is usually created automatically by the schematic design software. The BOM lists the part numbers, quantities, and all component specifications.
Step #6 – Order the 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. The same files can also 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.
Your cheapest option will be to produce your PCB prototypes in China.
Although it’s usually best if you can do your prototyping closer to home so as to reduce shipping delays, for many it’s more important to minimize costs.
For producing your prototype boards in China I highly recommend PCBWay, Bittele Electronics, Seeed Studio, or Gold Phoenix PCB. They all offer fantastic pricing on quantities from 5 up to 8,000 boards.
In the U.S. I recommend Sunstone Circuits, Screaming Circuits, and San Francisco Circuits which I’ve used extensively to prototype my own designs.
It usually takes 1-2 weeks to get assembled boards, unless you pay for rush service which I rarely recommend.
Step #7 – Evaluate, program, 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 you find are of course unexpected, so it takes time to figure out the source of the bug and how best to fix it.
Evaluation and testing are usually done in parallel with programming the microcontroller. Before you begin programming though you’ll want to at least do some basic testing to ensure the board doesn’t have major issues.
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 a simplified microprocessor.
The microcontroller needs to be programmed to perform the desired functionality. Microcontrollers are almost always programmed in the commonly used computer language called ‘C’.
The program, called firmware, is stored in permanent but reprogrammable memory usually internal to the microcontroller chip.
How to Develop and Prototype the Enclosure
Now we’ll cover the development and prototyping of any custom plastic pieces. For most products this includes at least the enclosure 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 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.
Step #1 – Design the 3D model
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 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.
The biggest risk when it comes to developing the 3D model for your enclosure is that you end up with a design that can be prototyped but not manufactured in volume.
Ultimately, your enclosure will be produced by a method called high-pressure injection molding (see step 4 below for more details).
Developing a part for production using injection molding can be quite complex with many rules to follow. On the other hand, just about anything can be prototyped via 3D printing.
So be sure to only hire someone that fully understands all of the complexities and design requirements for injection molding.
Step #2 – Prototype the enclosure
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 block 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. This is important for some products, however for most products this isn’t essential.
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.
I mentioned this already, but it deserves to be highlighted again. Be warned that prototyping processes (additive and subtractive) are completely different than the technology used for production (injection molding).
You must avoid creating prototypes (especially with additive prototyping) that are impossible to manufacture.
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 so your design can be more easily transitioned to injection molding.
Numerous companies can take your 3D model and turn it into a physical prototype. Proto Labs is the company I personally recommend. They offer both additive and subtractive prototyping, as well as low-volume injection molding.
You may also consider purchasing your own 3D printer, especially if you think you will need several iterations to get your product right.
3D printers can be purchased now for only a few hundred dollars allowing you to create as many prototype versions as desired.
The real advantage of having your own 3D printer is it allows you to iterate your prototype almost immediately, thus reducing your time to market.
For more details on prototyping your product be sure to see this article: How to Build a Prototype for a New Product
Step #3 – Evaluate the enclosure prototypes
Now it’s time to evaluate the enclosure prototypes and change the 3D model as necessary. It will almost always take several prototype iterations to get the enclosure design just right.
Although 3D computer models allow you to visualize the enclosure, 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 complications and costs arise when you transition from the prototype stage to full production.
Step #4 – 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.
Setting up production of your plastic parts using injection molding is extremely expensive.
Most plastic products sold today are made using a really old manufacturing technique called injection molding. It’s very important for you to have an understanding of this process.
You start with a steel mold, which is two pieces of steel held together using high pressure.
The mold has a carved 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.
Current injection molding technology uses a giant screw to force plastic into a mold at high pressure, a process invented in 1946. Compared to 3D printing, injection molding is ancient!
Injection molds are extremely efficient at making lots of the same thing at a really low cost per unit. 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 required, the harder the metal required, 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 modifications to your initial molds. It is wise to run at least several thousand units before upgrading to multiple cavity molds.
To learn more about injection molding see this blog article.
How to Certify an Electrical Product
All electrical 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.
Although these are all electrical certifications, in most cases they will need to be completed on the finished product including the enclosure, and not just on the bare electronics.
You need to design your product from day one with certifications in mind, but generally the actual certifications will be done as late as possible while setting up manufacturing.
If you certify too early, then any design changes will likely require you to recertify it, so better to wait until the product is finalized with no more changes expected.
Certifications are a complex topic so I suggest that you consult with an expert in certifications before you go too deep into developing your product.
There are many tricks and tips that can drastically reduce your certification costs if they are implemented at the start.
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.
The FCC classifies products with wireless communication functionality 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.
Consider initially using electronic modules for any of your product’s wireless functions. This allows you to get by with only non-intentional radiator certification, which will save you at least $10k.
UL / CSA certification
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 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 (Conformité Européene) 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.
Rechargeable lithium-ion/polymer batteries have some serious safety concerns. If short-circuited or overcharged they can even burst into flames.
Do you remember the double recall on the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 because of this issue? Or the stories about various hoverboards bursting into flames?
Because of these safety concerns rechargeable lithium batteries must be certified. These certifications include UL1642 or the newer IEC62133 certification, along with UN38.3 for shipping lithium batteries.
For most products I recommend initially using off-the-shelf batteries that already have these certifications. However, this will limit your choices and most lithium batteries have not been certified.
This is primarily due to the fact that most hardware companies choose to have a battery custom designed to take advantage of all of the space available in a product.
For this reason most battery manufacturers don’t bother with getting their off-the-shelf batteries certified.
This article has given you a basic overview of the process of developing a new electronic hardware product, regardless of your technical level.
This process includes selecting the best development strategy, and developing the electronics and enclosure for your product.
But there is much for you to learn in order to develop a new electronic product and successfully bring it to market, and we’re here to help you learn it all.
Check out our library of in-depth articles on both product development and hardware entrepreneurship.
If you prefer video, then check out my YouTube channel where I teach both hardware entrepreneurship and product development. Also see my podcast and courses.
Finally, if you want my personal help with your project, along with help from lots of other experts, then the way to get it is inside my Hardware Academy platform.
Other content you may like:
- 5 Steps of Product Development for a New Electronic Hardware Product
- Lesson 4: The Strategic Way to Develop and Sell Your New Electronic Hardware Product
- Product Development Timeline: How Long It Takes to Develop a New Hardware Product
- Idea to Prototype: Understanding Product Development Costs
- How long does it take to develop a new product and get it to market?
Where do i see a hardware product designer/developer to hire or outsource to?
I am a practitioner in the PCBA processing industry. I like your content very much, and I also think it is very helpful to me.
I am in the process of developing a new prototype, and I think this article has saved me a lot of hustle. Thanks!
Always fantastic to hear!
Wow I wished I had read this article before starting on creating prototype. I have literally faced most of the challenges mentioned in this article.
wow, this is a very thoughtful article. I have gathered a lot of knowledge. thank you for providing us so high-quality content.
Very insightful and comprehensive overview. Liked the way it was articulated with all the necessary details to be aware of in the initial understanding. Very well written article. Such an extensive effort is highly plausible…
Thank you so much Rohit and I’m glad you found it insightful!
Thank you for your work! This website is exactly what I’m looking for.
Great articles, and it rhymes with my current initiative.
Well done, John.
Thank you, glad it was helpful!
“Lithium Battery Certifications (UL1642, IEC61233, and UN38.3)”The correct is IEC62133, not the IEC number on that title.
Oops, thanks for finding that typo, and I will fix it now.
Thank you for this nice article. Question, in case that you have already electronic boards and you need to make it one, is that possible? The board all together are 5 and not bigger than 2x5cm.
I forget to tell you that all electronic boards are already existing in the market.
Thanks for the write up.
Is it ok. to use Arduino IDE for product development not prototype.
Yes, definitely you can use Arduino IDE for development.
Very productive article and guide, love to follow more articles like these
Thank you for the comments and happy to hear my content is proving helpful. If you need further help be sure to check out the Hardware Academy where you can get not only my direct help but also help from lots of other experts.
Thanks for the article I am an Electrical Engineer who works in the design of PCB’s and RF systems for a living. I plan on doing everything myself and the task seems daunting. I cant fathom not being an engineer with training in these areas and trying to learn all the various software, programming, and electrical engineering needed just to get a prototype that will most likely need more iterations! Not to mention the electronics equipment needed just to troubleshoot and test your hardware!
Thanks for the comment. There is definitely much to learn. Many entrepreneurs without the skills to do the development themselves have to either outsource it, find an engineer to be a co-founder, or partner with a manufacturer.
Also don’t forget that product development is just a small piece of the entire puzzle to get a product to market. The biggest mistake engineers tend to make is they over focus on the product development while neglecting even more critical steps like customer development and marketing. You must speak with customers first and you need to begin your marketing efforts as you develop the product. You’ll find a lot of articles where I discuss all of this here on this blog.
Well… around all internet this page is the best.
Where do you recommend an entrepreneur starts when it comes to schematic design.
A full of amazing details! Thanks John
Is there any tool for schematic circuit design?
Hey im really new to hardware kinds of stuff, I decided to take my website to hardware type idk it’s possible or not like see I already created website, yes my future users can use the website but I want to take that into hardware so they can plug into T.V and they can surf through it without knowing that its website based type hardware, see I don’t know much about hardware so if I did mistake so sorry for that
Wish i had seen this site earlier. Wonderful article. What software do you mostly use for the system block diagram? I am new and so far developed two(2) simple products.I use KiCAD. Because of the complexities of enclosure designs, i design the PCB based on an existing enclosure. I know this approach is not feasible always though but the manufacturers are most often prepared to customize for a small top up.
Thank you very much for the great article!
But I’m wondering, how would you go about connecting your product to the internet and say a smartphone app?
Thank you very much!
Thank you Berend! Most likely via WiFi for the internet, or Bluetooth LE for a smartphone app.
This article is really helpful to understand the overall procedure for an electronica product development! Much appreciate for your spirit of knowledge&experience sharing!
Just wanted to drop a quick thank you for your content.
It’s a good read every time, and refreshingly honest.
For a startup, it’s a great sanity check to see how things usually progress and to be able to compare where we are with respect to it.
It’s also good to see where we may need help, and how.
Your honesty makes me want to reach out to you, hands down, when/if I may need your expertise: I know that you’ll tell it to me as it is, just the way I’d like it.
Thank you Talar! I’m here to help you whenever you need it.
I love reading your writings. Your predictable hardware report, XLS spreadsheet, is incredible! Well worth many times the low price you charged. I am not sure if you have a sample hardware report listed for viewing by potential customers. If not, you should. It has way more information than I thought it would have! It is virtually a full road map from our concept to manufacturing with every spec and cost estimate included. (We are very pleased!)
Wow, thank you so much for that Emerson! I’m really pleased that you are finding the Predictable Hardware Report I developed for your product to be so helpful!
And thanks for sharing the praise as a public comment too:)
Let me know if you have any questions, and I’m here to help.
Amazing article! Interesting insights to the new product development cycle. I wrote an article on the design thinking for new product development. Do take a look if you find the time.
Well… around all internet this page is the best.
Its the only one that have a really useful information about how to create a a new design.
“I initially hired a couple freelance mechanical engineers. However, I quickly became frustrated with how slow things progressed. After all, I was thinking about my product almost every waking hour!”
Sounds like you sorta handed over the project to some engineers, and then waited to hear back from them. You could have had deadlines, at least.
I hired an engineer, and we’re making incredible progress– much faster than what i could do alone. Here’s how:
– I pay them by the hour, to meet with me for 2 to 3 hours. This is a solid block of time. We work on the engineering together. I pitch my ideas and questions, they critique and offer solutions. They’re all all mine for those 2-3 hours. No distractions. We do this by phone and remote-desktop sharing. Worth every penny.
Thanks for the comment John! I most definitely did not “sorta hand over the project”. Just the opposite and I was so active I was doing most of the debug and coming up with all of fixes and all they did was make the changes to the 3D model. What strategy is best really depends on your existing skills, your ability to quickly learn new skills, and how much money you have to spend.
That is really interesting that the prototype printed circuit board will allow you to output the layout. Something that I am thinking about getting into is the circuit board production. That kind of stuff interests me and I would love to research more of how the layout works.
This is very informative article. Covering issues pertaining to the entire development life-cycle.
This post is very informative, thank you.
I wonder if the product needs to apply for a patent, which stage of design process do you recommend to do it?
Thank you for the comment.
I recommend delaying the full patent as long as possible. Instead start with a low-cost provisional patent which will give you one year of protection. After that one year then you can decide if it is worth getting a patent. 99% of patents never see the market, so focus more on the market than the patent. This is a topic I write about frequently so maybe scroll through some of my older posts. I have one post just about this topic titled “Should I keep my product a secret?”.
Thanks for the reply ! I will check the old post.
This is Vitthal from India , you have explained about the complete product development in short and covered all the related things. It encourages to the youngsters like us and motivates towards the hardware design. We have started following you. we expect more and more notes from you. Thanks
Great article, super helpful.
Where do you recommend an entrepreneur starts when it comes to schematic design.
I have a general idea of what my PCB needs to have (MCU, wireless/Bluetooth, motion sensors, power regulation for Lithium batteries, etc. etc.) and I have found some chips on DigiKey etc. that seem like they fit my use case but even then I have no idea where I need resistors/capacitors or how to use SPI or I2C to have sensors interact with MCU’s. The datasheets for all the components I have found fly right over my head.
What are your recommendations?
Thanks again for putting out this amazing work for free!!!!! The whole internet owes you big time!!!!
Thanks for your question and for your positive feedback!
You have two options. Either you will need to learn a bunch more about electronics design or you will need to get some outside help. It will be impossible to design a commercially viable product without a solid understanding of all the details specified in the datasheets. There are a ton of websites out there for learning electronics, but it will take considerable time for a beginner to learn everything needed to design a viable product. Keep in mind in takes engineers years of education and experience to get good at circuit design so don’t expect yourself to do it quickly.
If you want to discuss this further feel free to email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Very well explained. Thanks for all the helpful content.
Thanks for the revised and expanded version of the article. In fact the previous version of this article was the one after reading which I started following your blog and other articles. Good one. Informative.
Thank you Sinoj, I appreciate that! Thanks for following.
Hello John, One additional option you might want to mention regarding enclosures is using an off the shelf enclosure and having it tooled. One such company I’ve used is Bopla Enclosures (there may be others as well). They make a wide range of enclosures that can be tooled by them per your design. The end result is an custom made enclosure without the cost of molds or tooling. If sales volume warrants it, a custom enclosure can then be made. Thank You for the helpful information. Chris
Thanks for sharing Chris! I’ll be sure to look at this option further.
Your article is very very good for me, i will share it to my friends, good job.
Thank you Felix!
Great Work! I learnt a lot from your work, I have an idea to develop low cost routers and access points for rural schools, based on Open source OS and cheap microcontrollers, how do I go about this, is there need to program the OS, how do I select the right MCU for compatability with the OS?
How do i get started with PCB design?
How to choose value of components (Example: How many resistors will requires and of what value?) How to evaluate such calculative thing?
Does any software perform simulation for that purpose?
Thanks for the question/comment. However, that’s too big of a question to answer in a comment. Software exists to simulate circuits, but not to help you make the basic design decisions like how many resistors are needed. You have to review the datasheet for each component.
For doing this you need some basic electronic engineering skills (no B.Tech Degree required), like have digital electronics, network analyses and synthesis, and most important mathematics.
Hi John, I am working on our first electronic product and your blog is really a great help. Thank you very much for sharing the knowledge. Initially we are just planning to make only 200 pieces, so Injection molding doesn’t look economical for enclosures. We tried with 3D printing but the quality is not very good. Is there anyway we can get enclosures developed in such low quantity?
You may want to still consider injection molding for 200 pieces. That is the only way you will ever get truly production-quality enclosures. You can purchase aluminum molds for about $1,500 each. You could also look at rubber molds, but I don’t have any experience with them.
Thanks John! I will do a search about the rubber molds if they can suit to our needs.
you can alternatively try to use a SLA resin printer you will get the quality of a injection mold at low cost check the new Elegoo Saturn resin printer
If you need CE Marking Certification for Your Product you can feel free to contact us
I was wondering how long the CE mark process normally takes for hardware?
Please correct two errors in your article:
1.) UL certification is not required for any product. It’s a very good idea, but not required. Google it.
2.) It is not even necessary to use UL. They are the most-recognized Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL), but they are far from the only game in town. There are cheaper options that are almost as well recognized by the public and whom can perform the same function as UL, often cheaper. Companies such as MET and NSF have marks that people recognize and I have heard they are about half the cost.
I decided to skip NRTL testing on the first few orders of my product, and save up enough through orders to pay for it later. It is perfectly legal to do so, but I risk greater damages if there is a lawsuit, and certain large buyers (such as schools) would pass me up because they demand NRTL certification when buying. I took a lot of precautions in the design and I’m not targeting large buyers initially, so it is a risk I am willing to take. I think my increased focus on safety would be taken into account in a lawsuit anyway. The power adapter I chose is an off the shelf product and is UL certified, and since that is the point most likely to cause a fire I am comfortable with my choices. But you can bet that NRTL certification will happen quickly. I’ll probably go with MET. Don’t want a lawsuit squishing my new business.
Thanks for your helpful comment. You are correct there is no government law that requires UL testing for any product. That being said because of liability risk I’ve always considered it as something that you must have if your product connects into an AC outlet. So saying it is required is technically not correct, although highly, highly recommended. I’ll definitely look further into the MET and NSF options as a lower cost alternative to UL.
This is a treasure of a information that i needed. Much appreciated.
Excellent information. Great Job!
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
Go to biomedical engineering journal and submit it
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
Thanks for the comment Evie!
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.
You can contact me at info@nullPredictableDesigns.com.
I provided my e-mail and I can still not read the rest of the article?
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.