The Ultimate Guide — How to Develop a New Electronic Hardware Product
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 a maker, hacker, inventor, entrepreneur, or startup this article 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.
In this article I’ll first discuss the product development strategies for both technical creators (makers and engineers) 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 PCB prototype.
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.
NOTE: This article is a shortened version of a lengthy, in-depth guide I’ve created on how to develop a new electronic hardware product. Download a free PDF version of the full guide for easy reading.
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. 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.
Developing a new hardware product and bringing it to market is by no means a cheap process. For a summary of all the various costs see my Hackster.io blog article Summary of the Costs to Develop, Scale, and Manufacture a New Electronic Hardware Product.
Selecting the critical components
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Enclosure 3D Design
Development of a custom enclosure is necessary for most new products.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 that are impossible to manufacture in volume. When designing the prototypes make sure your designer understands all of the restrictions for injection molding.
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.
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.
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. This high cost is mostly because the plastic is injected at such high pressure, which is extremely tough on a mold.
This article is a shortened version of a lengthy, in-depth guide I’ve created on how to develop a new electronic hardware product. Download a free PDF version of the full guide for easy reading.