A Guide to Electronics Prototyping for Hardware Startups
15 years, 5127 prototypes is what it took James Dyson to create the DC01, his first upright vacuum cleaner with the patented cyclone technology. Dyson clearly understood the importance of creating and testing prototypes for the development of his new product.
As an entrepreneur or hardware startup trying to bring an electronics product to market, it will be important for you to understand the hardware prototype development process, the various types of prototypes you need to create and electronics prototyping tools you can use. This article is tailored towards a typical consumer electronics product with a PCB (printed circuit board) and an outer plastic enclosure. Though the development of other types of electronic products would also use a very similar approach.
In this article,
The importance of prototyping
The types of prototypes
Tools to help you build your first electronics prototype
The importance of prototyping:-
A) In lowering risk
Prototyping = Experience
Product development is an iterative process. The more prototypes you create, the more you learn about the challenges to overcome in your next version and ways to improve upon your original idea. As a general rule, the earlier you identify areas of improvement when developing a new product, the lower it costs to make those changes and improvements. For example, making changes to your idea costs nothing but if you identify mistakes after the product has been shipped, that can be the end of your business. Prototyping also gives you a good idea of what your BOM (Bill of materials) would cost, and accordingly an approximation on what the retail price of your product should be.
B) In securing funding
Nothing instills more confidence in potential investors than something tangible that proves the underlying concept of your idea. Considering how accessible rapid prototyping has become, you cannot afford to not have a good prototype of your idea.
Apart from proving the concept, prototypes are a great way to get a feel of the form and finish of your product, test it under different conditions and get feedback from users. Not testing your product enough before shipping out is one of the 11 Reasons Why Hardware Startups Fail.
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Types of prototypes
For this guide, we will be talking about the prototyping of a typical consumer electronic product which has an outer plastic enclosure and the electronics inside it. It could be an IOT device, something for home automation, a pet product or any other “smart” device.
Each prototype has a purpose - whether it’s to demonstrate the product’s functionality, use for marketing, secure funding, test ergonomics, test some assumptions or gather more data about the product. Therefore, different stages of product development demand a different type of prototype best suited for that specific stage.
1) Proof-of-Concept Prototype
The Proof of Concept (POC) prototype is often the first tangible representation of an idea with a goal of proving its real world technical feasibility. For electronic products, it is usually made using off-the-shelf development boards like Arduino or Raspberry Pi. Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform. It’s easy to use and can be used to create some hardcore electronic projects. With a whole lot of sensors, add-on boards called shields and compatible hardware, Arduino can be used to create almost anything you could ask for. There are a wide variety of boards available that make hardware prototyping more accessible and fun. Here is a list of 12 Development Boards you can use for your next prototype.
The only purpose of a POC is to demonstrate the core functionality of your product idea, so things like aesthetics, custom PCBs and design are not a priority at this stage. The electronics may be enclosed in an off the shelf plastic box with holes drilled in for buttons, or in a wooden box. There are also metal enclosures, waterproof enclosures and enclosures for hand-held devices available online if your project demands it. Some manufacturers also offer a service to cut out holes and slots in the enclosure based on your requirements. If you need something more custom made, processes like 3D printing and laser cutting can be used to create a custom enclosure. Though it is recommended to keep things as simple as possible at the POC stage.
2) “Works-Like” or Functional Prototype
While the prototyping boards allow great flexibility with the use of various sensors and shields, they are not economically feasible and efficient when transitioning to mass production. When the functionality of your product is proven, you will need to move to a custom designed PCB for your product. A custom PCB trims down the unnecessary components of a development board and helps reduce the internal space needed in the housing, it also helps you replace electronic components with equivalent or better alternatives that help you streamline the supply chain and reduce costs further. At this stage, you will need to use the services of engineering professionals. Product development companies like ours have engineers and designers who help startups build prototypes of their ideas.
3) 'Looks-Like' Prototype or Appearance Model
A “looks-like” prototype does not have any electronics or functionality, but it has the appearance of the final product. The “looks-like” prototypes are the end result of the industrial design process where the outer look and feel of a product are designed.
Industrial design is especially important for consumer products where the end-user has limited interaction with the underlying electronics, but the outer appearance and usability of the product are the major factors in the buying decision of the customer.
Industrial designers work on the aesthetics, CMF (color, material and finishes) and the user experience of a product. Mockups made of foam or clay play a major role in refining the form of a product and testing the ergonomics. Clay models are used extensively in the automotive industry whereas foam and 3D printed models are more common for designers of consumer products. Working on something tangible helps in identifying the real-life scale and form of the objects, which becomes even more important for products that are meant to be worn or hand-held.
The appearance prototypes can also be used for generating buzz, starting early marketing campaigns and demo purposes. With the advancements in CGI/3D rendering software, marketing campaigns can be started early without making a prototype. With our 3D rendering services for product marketing, it is now possible to test your ideas, raise funding, and start marketing campaigns early. Since we are designers and engineers, we ensure that you are not marketing a concept that is not feasible in the real world. This is a common pitfall where flashy renders are used, knowingly or unknowingly, to sell concepts that are not possible to actually make.
Picture credit: Oxo
4) Alpha Prototype (Looks and Works Like)
Also known as an ‘engineering prototype’ or EP, this is where the 'works-like' and 'looks-like' prototypes are integrated into one single prototype that is functional as well as has the appearance close to the final product. This is the type of prototype that is most commonly used for crowdfunding campaigns like Kickstarter and for demo purposes.
The custom designed PCB is integrated into a custom designed plastic housing. The housing goes back and forth between the industrial designer who fine tunes the aesthetics & form, and the mechanical engineer who integrates the electronics into the plastic shell while ensuring that the product meets the engineering requirements. The 3D files and documentation for prototyping using more advanced techniques like CNC machining and 3D Printing are also prepared. The prototype however, is still not ready for mass production as it needs to be optimized for higher volume manufacturing processes like injection molding.
This is where many Kickstarter projects fail because the entrepreneurs underestimate the time and money required to go beyond this stage and do the DFM optimizations (Design for Manufacturing), get the molds ready, setup manufacturing and get everything together. A well designed product considers DFM from the start itself so that transition to mass production is smooth.
3D CAD Model of an electric toothbrush
5) Beta Prototype
Beta prototype is very similar to the Alpha prototype in terms of appearance and functionality but the major difference is that the overall design has undergone DFM optimizations and the prototypes are made of manufacturing processes that closely resemble the processes at high volumes. Silicone molding is a commonly used process that closely resembles injection molded parts and is used to make 20-50 units.
The enclosure design is optimized for the injection molding process and the plastic parts undergo mold flow simulations to ensure that the plastic flow doesn’t cause issues in the mold later. Engineering analysis including tolerance analysis, thermal simulations & structural optimizations are considered at this stage.
The beta prototype units are sent for obtaining various certifications for electronics like FCC, UL, CE, RoHS, Bluetooth SIG and others depending on the product and region to be sold. The prototypes also undergo testing and validation to ensure that the product works reliably and is able to endure the environments and use cases it is designed for.
Engineering Validation Testing (EVT)
This is to ensure that the product meets all the functional requirements defined in the specifications or PRD(Product Requirements Document) The PCB undergoes testing under thermal, power and EMI stresses. If it still meets all the functional requirements, it passes the EVT stage.
Design Validation Testing (DVT)
The prototypes undergo a battery of tests that put them under serious stresses. Depending on the environments the product has to endure, the prototypes are tested for submersion under water, dropping from a certain height, burning, abrasion and others. The prototypes should still perform reliably after enduring these tests and should not be damaged or worn out beyond acceptable standards.
Product Validation Testing (PVT)
This type of testing is done on the first pilot run off the production line using the actual production tooling. These are the units that can be sold if they pass the PVT stage. The goal here is to ensure that there are no problems on the production line, the workers understand the assembly process and any inefficiencies in the production process are removed.
6) Pre-Production Prototype
This is the closest you can get to replicating the end-product that you are going to manufacture at scale. At this stage, the steel molds for injection molding process are cut and no major changes can be made to the product. It is therefore important that the design is “frozen” before this stage. The parts made at this stage are used for setting the quality control and acceptance standards before starting mass production. The final “Golden Sample” acts as a reference for the ideal product quality. Around 5-10% units of the total manufacturing volume are used for PVT before ramping up to full scale production. Around the Beta prototype stage and pre-production stage, when the product is not expected to undergo any more changes, you also need to begin working on the product packaging and marketing materials in parallel.
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Tools to help you build your first electronics prototype
In the recent years, prototyping has become very accessible. With the prototyping tools listed below, you can get your idea off the ground and as a first step, develop a simple proof-of-concept prototype.
Arduino is an open-source electronics platform based on easy-to-use hardware and software. It consists of both a physical programmable circuit board and a piece of software, or IDE (Integrated Development Environment) that runs on your computer, used to write and upload computer code to the physical board. The Arduino platform has a variety of boards for different uses and form factors. with the Arduino Uno being a very popular option. The Arduino platform can be used for a wide variety of projects from something as simple as blinking an LED to building complex robots and anything in between!
2) Raspberry Pi
The Raspberry Pi is a low cost, credit-card sized computer that plugs into a computer monitor or TV, and uses a standard keyboard and mouse. It is a capable little device that enables people of all skill levels to explore computing. It’s capable of doing everything you’d expect a desktop computer to do, from browsing the internet and playing high-definition video, to making spreadsheets, word-processing, and playing games. Raspberry Pi has the ability to interact with the outside world, and can be used in a wide array of projects, ranging from music machines and parent detectors to weather stations and tweeting birdhouses with infra-red cameras.
3) Off the shelf enclosures
To enclose your electronics, you need a housing. There is a wide variety of enclosures available, in different form factors, materials and for specific uses like iOT, Handheld enclosures, waterproof enclosures, enclosures with touchpads and more. Some manufacturers provide additional services to customize the enclosure with drilling cut-outs at specified locations, providing different finish and color options, printing your logo and more.
4) 3D CAD software for custom plastic parts
In some circumstances you may need custom plastic parts or a custom enclosure design, though it is recommended to hire a professional in these cases, but if you have the time, you could learn a 3D CAD modeling software to design your own parts. Professional 3D CAD software costs thousands of dollars but there are some free options out there like FreeCAD. A more powerful yet affordable option is Fusion 360 is at par with other professional 3D CAD softwares and should be sufficient for the needs of most startups. Avoid 3D software like Blender 3D which don’t have the precision required for manufacturing industry and are more suited for artistic & CGI purposes.
5) 3D Printers for plastic prototyping
FFF/FDM 3D printers which use a plastic filament start as low as $200 and there is a huge variety of them. Choose a 3D printer depending on your budget and requirements like available print volume, the material you want to print in, support etc. If you are creating parts that are going to be very small, for example for a wearable device, then it may be better to opt for a more precise SLA printer. There are also 3D printing services available in most cities so it may be worth checking them out instead of buying and setting up your own 3D printer.