Connect the Dots: Designing PCBs for Electronic Hardware Products
We asked an expert what factors designers should consider as they lay out their boards.View Story
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.
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