Connect the Dots: Designing PCBs for Electronic Hardware Products

Every day we field questions from PCB designers about how to improve functionality of their boards or make them more manufacturable. Hardware entrepreneurs and designers for organizations developing new electronic products are an important subset of our customer base. Uncertainty surrounding the cost of product development is a big challenge as they compete with large corporations on the innovation front.

To help them make design choices that won’t cause cost overruns down the line, we often turn to our trusted partner John Teel of Predictable Designs for counsel. Teel has dedicated himself to helping entrepreneurs create new electronic products, guiding them through the electronic product engineering process from initial cost estimates to schematic design and on through programming and testing.

We sat down with Teel recently to discuss what PCB designers need to be thinking about in terms of the bigger product development picture. This article surfaces several important takeaways from that discussion.

1. Simplify your product, but don’t compromise on key features.

The process of product development is complex and difficult enough even with a relatively simple product. If you are building something more complex, it will take longer and cost more to develop and manufacture. By wagering more in terms of time and money, product developers magnify their risk.

Before attempting to develop a product that is perhaps needlessly complex, look at your product from the customer perspective. Determine what product features are crucial to delivering value and then develop the absolute simplest product possible that meets the need.

“Non-fixed cost is a real risk for entrepreneurs, because projects often go over budget in the design phase,” Teel said.

If an electronic device is less complex, the board designs probably will be too—making this early phase a critical one for staying on budget. Less onerous PCB designs take less time to complete, require less collaboration with manufacturers on the front end, and are less costly during PCB prototyping.

They also help get products to market faster and with fewer unpleasant surprises.

2. Embrace iterative product prototyping.

As with PCB prototyping, electronic product prototyping is all about learning. There are multiple phases of prototyping during product development, beginning with a proof-of-concept (POC) prototype. This early-stage version rarely functions or looks like the final product, because it has only one goal: prove the fundamental concept of the product at the lowest possible cost.

The next phase of prototyping should separate appearance from functionality. The “looks-like” prototype, usually created using a 3D printer, exists to demonstrate the look, feel, form, and aesthetics of the new product. Following the looks-like, the “works-like” prototype will have functional internal electronics and require development of a custom PCB to house and connect the product’s discrete electronic components.

PCB design and prototyping often represent the most expensive phase of product development. It is critical for the hardware entrepreneur to foster relationships with reliable partners for PCB manufacturing and assembly. Without them, successfully building both engineering (works-like, looks-like) and pre-production prototypes can become a slow and costly process.

“I don’t ever have to tell them what to do,” said Teel. “I send the design files, and they make it happen.”

3. Seek expert guidance throughout the development process.

To have a better chance of bringing new product ideas to life, the development process should be as predictable as possible. Seek guidance from experts who have learned from experience what works and what does not.

Even experienced product developers can benefit from a fresh set of eyes when facing obstacles. On a recent collaboration between Sunstone and Teel’s Predictable Designs, we encountered a surprisingly complex challenge related to vias: tunnels that connect different layers of a PCB. The PCB design for a high-powered, pocket-sized personal device used blind and buried vias—connections not visible through one or either of the PCB’s outer layers.

“Sunstone helped me understand that what I had come up with just wouldn’t function as needed and had the potential to increase the cost of the project two- or three-fold,” said Teel.

Sunstone and Predictable Designs engineered an alternative, ensuring the product retained its small size and power capability. Design input like this from your PCB manufacturer can prevent production cost overruns and costly rework of board designs.

Collaboration is vital to success for entrepreneurs and smaller organizations competing with bigger companies in the product innovation space. The big companies can throw more money and resources at a product idea, so it behooves the independent product developer to seek guidance from trusted experts beginning with concept creation all the way through product launch.

We believe this offers innovators the best method to reduce overall cost of development, speed the product to market, and realize their full potential.

This column originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Design007 Magazine.

Back

2021

Connect the Dots: Designing PCBs for Electronic Hardware Products

09-23-2021

We asked an expert what factors designers should consider as they lay out their boards.

View Story

Connect the Dots: The Split Planes Challenge

08-11-2021

Losing track of voltage in your PCB design can lead to explosive problems. Your CAM tool will not manage split planes for you.

View Story

Connect the Dots: The Board Thickness Challenge

07-21-2021

Size constraints, functional requirements, and environmental factors can make selecting PCB thickness difficult. Here we will examine best practices for choosing board thickness that results in quality, highly functional PCBs.

View Story

Connect the Dots: There is No ‘Final’ Frontier for PCB Design

06-10-2021

Our ongoing mission: To explore more manufacturable designs, to seek out higher-quality boards and enhanced functionality, to boldly design PCBs that no one has designed before.

View Story

Connect the Dots: A Closer Look at Surface Finish

05-17-2021

The final surface finish of a PCB is an important consideration. This coating between your components and the bare board is applied to ensure solderability and protect any exposed copper circuitry. Selecting the right type of surface finish can be daunting, and for good reasons.

View Story

Connect the Dots: The Power Behind the (PCB) Throne—Power Supply Design Tips

04-13-2021

Delivering the required power to each component on a PCB can be a complex challenge. Designers have to manage converting AC to DC while also delivering the correct voltage and current to each component. A well-designed PCB results when the designer takes power supply seriously—paying close attention to the effects that power delivery can have on surrounding components, such as through heat management or signal interference.

View Story

Connect the Dots: IoT is Changing How We Design PCBs

03-11-2021

Demand growth is fueled by business as well as consumers, with pandemic-accelerated healthcare and industrial machinery applications leading the way. IoT devices of every stripe will continue to improve and add functionality while also becoming smaller, lighter, and faster.

View Story

Connect the Dots: The Case for Expansive Parts Libraries

02-10-2021

PCBs are the foundation of every electronic device, the home for the components that make up your assembly. Those integrated circuits, connectors, headers and passives are what makes it function. How it needs to function determines whether standard components alone can make it work.

View Story

Connect the Dots: Design Tips to Avoid Part Fit Problems

01-19-2021

“Will my parts fit on the board?” That seems like it should be a rhetorical question that needs no answer but reality tells us, as you transition from the design stage to manufacturing, issues with parts fit are one of the most frequent causes of delays and cost overruns. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson share six tips for ensuring parts will fit on your board.

View Story
Back

2020

This Month in Design007 Magazine: Connect the Dots—Is 2020 Really Coming to an End?

12-09-2020

As we approach the end of 2020, we are able to look back on one of the most challenging years that I have ever experienced. Throughout these trying times, Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson were consistent in their desire to share knowledge with everyone. Matt shares a synopsis of the topics they shared from the perspective of a PCB manufacturer.

View Story

Connect the Dots: The New Recipe for Customer Service Success

11-11-2020

How are you holding up these days during the pandemic? Each of us is dealing with life struggles and changes differently. With this in mind, Matt Stevenson asks Al Secchi, global customer support and sales manager, what he has learned professionally from the pandemic and how to serve customers.

View Story

Connect the Dots: Unraveling the Mysterious BGA Routing Mess

10-19-2020

A ball-grid-array (BGA) device can be a daunting component to route, especially in fine-pitch arrays featuring solder ball counts in the hundreds and pitch values as tight as 0.5 millimeters. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson describe how you can take the mystery out of BGA routing and create a PCB design that can handle all those pesky narrow spaces.

View Story

Connect the Dots: How to Know If a CAD Tool Is Right for You

09-21-2020

The tool that defines PCB designers is our CAD software, and many discover quickly that not all CAD tools are created equally. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson answer the question, "How can designers find the right CAD tools to fit their particular methodology and needs?"

View Story

Connect the Dots: The Nuts and Bolts of Electrical Testing

08-12-2020

In this column, Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson explore the world of electrical testing. They examine a variety of testing methods, what options to look for in a PCB manufacturer, and how to ensure that you're getting the best value out of the electrical test options available to you.

View Story

Connect the Dots: Reassessing the Risk of Offshore PCB Manufacturing

07-15-2020

Offshore board production has long been considered an effective way to reduce the cost of producing electronic devices here at home, but those savings often demand a higher tolerance for delivery issues and come with lowered expectations for quality. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson explain.

View Story

Connect the Dots: The Power of Forward Thinking

06-06-2020

Innovation comes in many forms and from more places these days. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson discuss how innovative electronic devices all contain PCBs, and share pro design tips for bringing new products to the market.

View Story

Connect the Dots: Picking a Prototyping Strategy

05-29-2020

No matter how simple or complicated your electronic project, PCB prototyping is part of its journey from concept to reality. This process of turning the design into something physical can teach you a lot about what needs to be tweaked and improved before your PCB is ready for full production. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson explain how before you can prototype, you have to design.

View Story

Connect the Dots: Increased Focus on Health and Wellness Transforms the PCB Industry

04-04-2020

Our increased focus on health and wellness drives technology advancement for personal devices and those used in the delivery of healthcare. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson explain how this trend also drives both PCB production innovation and a long-overdue update of the employer/employee relationship.

View Story

Connect the Dots: The Seven-year Etch

03-16-2020

PCB etching seems like a simple task on the surface, but quite a few things can go wrong during this process. Adhering to best practice and continuous improvement is a must to help avoid issues with your finished board. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson share their design tips for a better etching process.

View Story
Back

2019

Connect the Dots: A Penny for Your Thoughts on Copper

11-19-2019

You're probably thinking: “Bob can’t possibly write an entire article dedicated to the use of copper in PCBs.” To that, Bob says, “Hold my beer.”

View Story

Connect the Dots: Build Quality Into Your Boards and Processes

11-06-2019

To the procurement clerk, a PCB may seem like it is just a line item on a bill of materials (BOM) or parts list during the production of an electronic device. At Sunstone, we know differently. The PCB is the building block for all of the components and parts in your electrical project.

View Story

Connect the Dots: A Proactive Approach to Controlled Impedance

10-09-2019

You can save time, money, and effort if you are aware of the impedance math when you sit down to design your board. Gain this awareness by using a good impedance calculator, and you can build the right tolerances into your design. Impedance testing becomes a double-check of your work instead of the tool you rely on to tell you if your documentation is correct. Documenting impedance requirements properly is more onerous than most people realize. Though it seems simple, PCB documentation is a details game that often leaves knowledge gaps for your manufacturer.

View Story

Connect the Dots: Managing Global Supply Chain Uncertainty

09-03-2019

We are well into the second year of tariff-centric trade policy, and one thing appears certain—uncertainty is here to stay. Though most of the media focus has been on cars and steel or consumer prices and corporate profits, the enduring challenge for both the electronics and PCB industries has been maintaining reliable global supply chains.

View Story

Connect the Dots: Five Best Practices to Ensure Manufacturability

08-01-2019

When you send your design for manufacturing, your partner does not know what type of device the board will be part of nor the conditions in which it will have to perform. It’s common for harsh environments or exposure to mess up a board’s performance. If you call out materials that will not tolerate the end-product’s operating environment, bad things can happen—such as a smoking board, for example. Be sure your board can tolerate thermal stress or solder joints risk breaking and damaging components.

View Story

Connect the Dots: The Future of PCB Manufacturing Doesn't Belong to Robots, but to the Users

07-09-2019

Is the world ready for the consequences of rapid automation? Will the use of robots displace entire categories of workers? Can artificial intelligence really “think”? How will manufacturing, including PCB manufacturing, be affected by all of these smart robots? These questions actually come from a pamphlet published in 1955: "The Age of Automation: Its Effects on Human Welfare."

View Story

Connect the Dots: Accurate Gerber Files Are Mission-Critical for Smooth PCB Manufacturing

05-30-2019

Gerber files can reveal design issues ahead of the quote process and ensure your manufacturer has everything needed to produce your boards correctly. After consulting with Engineering Support Specialist Eric Haugen, we explored some best practices for making sure that Gerber files are accurate.

View Story

Connect the Dots: Preparing for Tomorrow’s Technology Today

05-16-2019

At a recent Sunstone Circuits planning summit, Matt Stevenson, VP of sales and marketing, and Bob Tise had a wide-ranging discussion about emerging technologies and how they will impact PCB manufacturing. The following is an abridged transcript of this conversation.

View Story

Connect the Dots: MakeHarvard 2019: Bigger and Better!

04-09-2019

Sunstone Circuits was eager to return to MakeHarvard as a sponsor and creator of a competition category this year, also serving as both mentors and competition judges. If you were there, you saw us—we were hard to miss in our bright orange vests. As mentors, we were out and about helping students and answering questions.

View Story

Connect the Dots: Exploding PCBs: Don’t Lose Track of Voltage in Your Design

04-01-2019

Managing split planes? Your CAM tool will not do it for you. We see this almost every day—not exploding PCBs, which pretty rare—but rather problems created by having more than one voltage on a power plane layer. From where we sit, this is one of the more insidious and costly challenges facing PCB designers.

View Story
Back

2018

Connect the Dots: Six Tips to Ensure Parts Fit on Your Board

12-12-2018

One of the most frustrating mismatches with alternative through-hole parts occurs when the land pattern matches, but the pin size is off. If hole sizes are too tight, pins may not fit through the holes, or if they do go into the holes, they may not solder well. Solder will need to flow through the gap between the pin and the hole barrel. If there is not enough space to allow enough solder mass to flow through the hole, the circuit board will absorb heat from the molten solder and cause the solder to solidify partway up the hole. This is called a cold solder joint and can result in a premature failure of your circuit.

View Story

Connect the Dots: New Landing Design to Reduce Thermal Pad Failure

11-16-2018

You’ve finally finished your design. All the traces are correct and the IC landings are to the manufacturer’s specifications. A short run of test boards performs perfectly. For best results, you select a reputable domestic board house for production and a quality assembly shop to do the soldering. When the finished boards arrive, everything looks great. You’re in high spirits and congratulate yourself on a job well done. Then the reports start coming in.

View Story
Copyright © 2021 I-Connect007. All rights reserved.