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!
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 (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. For more on this topic be sure to read my article on 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
Developing a new electronic product usually requires multiple product designers.
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 DevelopmentCritical 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).
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.
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.
Have any questions? If so, feel free to contact us. We love helping entrepreneurs and always reply to questions.
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.
I usually use Sunstone Circuits for the blank boards and I always get great results. I’ve also had really good results with San Francisco Circuits.
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.
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. 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.
Most new electronic products require programming to function (called firmware).
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.