Creating electronic hardware is a difficult and often exhausting task. Most hardware startups fail due to unanticipated obstacles and product complexity. According to Forbes, as many as 97% of seed crowdfunded hardware startups fail.
Fortunately, newer technologies, design systems, and processes have reduced the risk of failure in electronic product development leading to the creation of more successful products.
That said, you can’t only rely on modern tech. You also need an electronic product development process to help you make well-informed decisions that produce effective, high-value hardware for the end-users.
In this detailed guide, we’ll define electronic product development and discuss the stages of the electronic product development process.
What is Electronic Product Development?
Electronic product development is the process of designing, developing, and manufacturing electronic hardware. Manufacturing electronic products is complex because these types of products involve printed circuit boards (PCBs) and semiconductors. These components can take a long time to develop.
Electronic product development typically isn’t a smooth linear process and may require multiple iterations depending upon the complexity of the product/hardware as well as the teams’ technical ability.
Regardless of how complex your product is and what capabilities your team holds, you’ll need a proper process to keep the project on track and to stay productive.
7 Stages of the Electronic Product Development Process
Before diving into the product development process, it’s important to mention that there are multiple product development strategies you can take to manufacture an electrical product.
If you are experienced in electrical engineering and mechanical design, and want to avoid the upfront development costs, you can create your hardware product at a relatively low cost.
If you’re not a mechanical engineer, it’s entirely possible to outsource product development to specialized companies.
Before starting development, it is crucial to identify your direct competitors and gather ideas for your new product. This involves doing competitive research and finding competing products in order to analyze what other companies are doing.
It’s also essential to explore the market further and discover the needs of potential customers. If users are facing a problem that’s yet to be solved, you can fulfill that market gap by offering a feature that targets that specific need.
Doing market research will enable you to allocate a realistic budget, set business goals, and set proper guidelines for your product.
- Product Definition
The product definition stage involves planning the features and functionality of the product. This can take a few weeks to several months to complete. This phase might include the following steps:
- Brainstorming ideas
- Conducting site visits
- Creating a product concept
- Drafting a preliminary project
- Planning and prioritizing tasks
Preliminary Product Design
The preliminary product design is necessary to properly manage the development project. This phase focuses on the product’s electronic components, requirements, specifications, costs, profit margins, and an analysis of its features and feasibility. A preliminary product design will help assess the potential of your offering and determine its potential profitability.
System Block Diagram
The system-level block diagram helps in creating the preliminary product design by visualizing how each component connects. Most products use microprocessors such as sensors or memories that connect to various types of serial ports. By defining the system block diagram you lay out all the types of serial ports required which helps you in accurately sourcing the right microprocessors for developing your product.
Next, you’ll find manufacturers that can supply you with the components needed to create your new product. Some popular manufacturers in the U.S. are Newark, Future Electronics, Digikey, and Arrow.
By this stage, you should also have made a list of all the various base components you require to create a Bill of Materials (or BOM). A bill of materials includes the total costs of the various components used for your electronic hardware product. The BOM will then help estimate the cost of manufacturing for the entire electronic product development process.
Apart from the cost of components, you also need to estimate the costs of production or costs of goods sold which includes the spends for:
- Assembly of Printed Circuit Boards
- Assembly of the final product
- Product testing and prototypes
- Scrap rate
- Tax & Duties
The architecture stage focuses on creating a Proof of Concept (PoC) for product validation.
Proof of Concept
A Proof of Concept is a basic prototype of the product concept. It doesn’t accurately reflect the look and design of the final product but shares some similar features and functionality to gather feedback.
It’s important to not stress too much about making the perfect prototype here. A proof of concept usually doesn’t involve any technical design and rather focuses on developing the core functionality of the product.
The main idea behind developing the PoC is to validate your idea to check its viability in the market before you spend a lot of time and money on the product development cycle.
The design of the electronic hardware product is done via a specialized CAD design software such as DipTrace or Altium Designer. Another popular free option is the open-source software KiCAD.
Once you have your software ready you’ll be designing a:
- Schematic Circuit Diagram
- Printed Circuit Board (PCB)
Schematic Circuit Diagram
A schematic circuit diagram is a more detailed version of the system block design the project team made in the initial steps of the process. This means that you’ll be adding sub-circuits within your system-level blocks to form a schematic circuit diagram. Remember that this isn’t a basic design rather it should be comprehensive and include all the components of the final electronic product. A misplaced component or number can drastically change the performance of the final product and negatively impact its functionality.
Printed Circuit Board (PCB)
After completing the schematic, you’ll design a printed circuit board. A printed circuit board (or PCB) is a physical board that includes and connects all electronic components.
Electronics design software has many built-in validation tools to help cross-check the PCB layout. It’s important to ensure your PCB complies with the set design standards and quality checks to make sure your design functions as intended.
The time it takes to create the PCB layout depends on the complexity, size, and design of the PCB. When creating the PCB extra caution has to be taken when developing the power routing, crystal clocks, high-speed signals, and wireless circuits.
Ordering the PCBs
After completing the design of the PCB you’ll export it as a Gerber file. This file can then be sent to manufacturers to manufacture the product. In the U.S. some great manufacturers that offer to create custom PCBs include Screaming Circuits, Sunstone Circuits, and San Francisco Circuits.
For cheaper options, many people may work with Chinese manufacturers due to the low cost of production. In China, you can order your custom PCBs from PCBWay, Seeed Studio, and Bittele.
- Evaluation and Debugging
Once you order your first PCBs, it’s not guaranteed that they’ll work on their first try. Before launching a finished prototype (also known as a pilot) it is important to test your PCBs and identify any bugs or errors you may come across.
At this stage, there are usually bugs that need to be fixed within the microcontroller. The Microcontroller Unit or MCU is the brain of the electronic product. It is responsible for controlling devices like sensors, motions, displays, and switches.
If you find any bugs in the microcontroller you need to reprogram it. Most developers commonly use the programming language “C” which is used to code the internal memory of the microcontroller.
You may need to reiterate this process of debugging, testing, and evaluating the changes a few times before you end up with the desired functionality.
You’ve developed and tested the PCB prototype, but it’s also important to connect all the pieces to get a good idea of how the final product will look and operate.
The steps to creating a prototype include:
- Creating a 3D Design Model
- Creating the Prototype
- Evaluating the Prototype
Creating a 3D Design Model
Before creating the actual prototype, it’s important to have a visual representation of what the product will look like. This may require hiring a 3D modeler or industrial designer that specializes in creating 3D computer models on industry-standard software like Solidworks or PTC Creo. If you plan on doing it yourself you can use software like Fusion 360 by AutoDesk which is free for students and startups.
After you have the 3D model in hand, you can use it to test market your product to customers and give them a realistic representation of what it looks like. You can also skip this step and just start developing the physical copy of your product.
Creating the Prototype
Creating a prototype of the finalized product commonly uses an additive 3D printing process where layers of plastic are stacked on top of each other until a final product emerges. However keep in mind that the resin, a kind of liquid that hardens to turn into plastic, used in 3D printers is different from the production plastic used in injection molding.
So, you should refrain from creating prototypes that may be impossible to mass produce because it can lead to false customer expectations and lower-than-intended quality.
If you want to outsource the production of your prototype, you can work with a company that can turn your 3D models into physical objects. One such company is Proto Labs which offers additive 3D printing as well as low-volume injection molding.
Evaluating the Prototype
Once you have the actual prototype in your hand, it’s common to find areas that require further work. Make sure that before you test the prototype you have several versions of it available to ensure an accurate evaluation by testers.
This stage may involve multiple iterations of the prototype to ensure it has the right look, feel, and functionality for your market-ready electronic product.
You’ve developed the prototype, but before you fully launch your product and start selling it, you must start with creating pilots.
Pilots are the initial pieces of hardware that are manufactured through the complete product development process. A team may create these pilots after evaluating the changes made required in the prototyping phase.
Pilots are created to gather end-user feedback to further improve the product and assess all potential challenges and risks before moving the design into mass production.
At this stage, manufacturers begin full-scale production of the electronic hardware, for delivery to customers. Managers and supervisors maintain quality control and conduct assurance tests to optimize the production process.
Having a smart and effective product development process can lead to the creation of high-value, profitable electronic hardware products that give your company a competitive edge in the market.
Electronic product development isn’t a linear process and it may cause frustration because of the need for multiple iterations. But it is necessary to trust the process. The process mentioned above should also not be followed blindly as production may vary depending on the complexity of the product and you may have to tailor the process according to your budget, needs, and business goals.