5 Technologies to Prototype Your New Electronic Hardware Product

Do you have an idea for a new electronic hardware product and are wondering how to get started with producing it? The best way to get a product started is to create a prototype, sometimes more than one. There are various methods of creating a prototype. The first two technologies in this article work for the electronics part of your product and the other three technologies are methods for producing a prototype for the casing of your product.

Electronic Development Kits

One of the simplest ways to prototype your new electronic hardware product is to use electronic development kits (EDK). Electronic development kits are boards that you can use to create a program or application or to evaluate how your product will perform1. EDKs can range in price from under $50 to $150 or more, depending on the features of the kit’s board2.

Development kits can be used in many areas. Applications include automotive, imaging, communications, and audio. Other applications include wireless, RFID, and motor controls. On the lower price end, function may be limited. At the higher price range, however, features could include USB ports, video or ethernet connections and higher pin counts. Others on the pricier end, like the Adafruit Flora, can be used to add LEDs to clothing, such as shirts, hats, and jackets, or can be controlled by smartphone apps and Bluetooth2. With EDKs you can create your own proof-of-concept prototype to get an idea of how your product will perform and gather interest from potential investors.

Adafruit Flora Board
Adafruit Flora Board

Printed Circuit Boards (PCB)

Another way to prototype your new electronic hardware product is to use breadboards, perfboards, and/or printed circuit boards or PCBs. Breadboards can be used to quickly try out your electronic hardware idea and make sure it works. Perfboards are rigid sheets with holes to which you add components, such as resistors or integrated circuits, by soldering3.  PCBs take longer and require a bit more effort, but are more permanent and look better. You can use breadboards and perfboards to test your design and determine if any improvements are necessary. Depending on the design and function of your product, the more permanent PCB can be used as your final product in some cases4.

Breadboard, Perfboard, PCB
Breadboard, Perfboard, PCB

 

Stereolithography (SLA)

A third method of prototyping your new electronic hardware product is a type of 3D printing known as stereolithography. A stereolithography apparatus (SLA) is a machine that uses light to harden a liquid plastic into detailed, professional looking prototypes or products. The photopolymerization process produces strong, durable prototypes because of the chemical bonds created between the plastic layers5. SLA is a quick and relatively inexpensive method to create accurately shaped pieces, even when the pieces have an odd shape or intricate designs.

SLA machines are more expensive than the desktop type 3D printers and can cost in the thousands of dollars5. If you don’t have the budget to purchase an SLA you can hire one of several online companies to produce the prototype for you.

Stereolithography
Stereolithography

CNC Machining

A fourth approach to prototyping your product is CNC machining.  3D printing or SLA production are additive processes while CNC machining is a subtractive process. CNC machines start with a block of metal or plastic and then use tools controlled by a computer to precisely remove material to form the product6. Creating a prototype with this method can be done faster, cheaper and with more precision.

The advantages of CNC machining are a stronger product since the part is cut from a solid piece of material and the part can be created from metal or plastic. CNC prototypes can also be created from the same material used in the injection-molding process, allowing movement into high volume production without the need to produce another prototype6.

CNC Lathe-NASA
CNC Lathe-NASA

Injection Molding

A final method of prototyping your new electronic hardware product is injection molding. Injection molding consists of creating a mold of your product and injecting, at a high pressure, liquid plastic into the mold. The intricate detail of the part is created by the high pressure used to inject the plastic. Injection molding is the best method to produce a high quality, detailed, prototype that will be identical to the finished product7.

Starting with lower cost metal molds, like aluminum will save money on your prototype. Once your production volume rises, move to stronger steels to create your molds.

Injection molding
Injection molding

Learning about the above technologies can allow you to find the best method to create your prototypes. Creating good prototypes helps you to refine your product design, determine the best production methods, and find the right investors if needed. The 5 technologies for prototyping your new electronic hardware product listed here can help you do all those things and ensure you bring a well-crafted product to market.

 

Sources

  1. Future Electronics- http://www.futureelectronics.com/en/development-tools/dev-tool-hardware.aspx
  2. Hackaday- https://hackaday.com/2011/02/01/what-development-board-to-use/
  3. Quora– https://www.quora.com/Whats-the-difference-between-PCBs-and-breadboards
  4. Medium- https://medium.com/@rxseger/notes-on-prototyping-circuit-boards-c5906e637123
  5. LiveScience- https://www.livescience.com/38190-stereolithography.html
  6. Product Development Solutions- http://www.1pds.com/implementing-rapid-prototyping-using-cnc-machining/
  7. Revpart- https://revpart.com/services/molding-services/silicone-rubber-molding/

Hardware Prototype Construction Manual

Technologies and tools you can use to launch your hardware startup

One of the first and most difficult challenges for a hardware startup is the construction of the prototype. As iteration and prototype improvement are critical with every startups. It’s not easy or cheap as launching a software startup. For a long time, it was so expensive that only very feel people can afford a hardware startup.

Thankfully all this is developing fast. It’s more than theory or prediction: a number of new hardware companies have shown it, such as Narrative, Myo and Misfit.

To create your hardware prototype, what are some new technologies and tools you can use? Here is the top 5 of mine (in no particular order).

1. 3D printing – economic and rapid prototyping

Comparing with injection molding, using 3D printing, you can quickly manufacture a prototype at a low cost. You would need to use CAD(Computer Aided Design) software to draw a digital model, basing on which the model would be printed layer by layer.

These days, it’s easily to buy a desktop 3D printer for a fair price. If you own one, you can make prototypes even in your home. It’s not necessarily to buy one though.

Stereolithography 3D printer
Stereolithography 3D printer

As the estimation, there are approximately 100,000 3D printers worldwide. It is very likely that someone in your city actually has one. Try to check this on 3D hubs.

3D Hubs is one of the world's largest networks of 3D printers with more than 1,900 print locations in 300 cities.
3D Hubs, one of the largest 3D printers networks with more than 1,900 locations in 300 cities.

Today’s desktop 3D printer mainly uses plastic and resin. If you have other need of materials, You can try looking for help from online 3D Printing Service who can offer industrial printers.

2. Use affordable easy-programming microcontrollers

Last Christmas, my friend brought me the Arduino Starter Kit. Arduino is an open source prototype platform for creating interactive electronic objects.

Getting started with my Arduino
My Arduino

Many hardware ventures today have built their prototypes with Arduino. It’s easy to learn even if you do not have an electrical background or basic programming skills. In fact, kids can do it too, and many people can do it.

What kind of prototype can I make with Arduino? Below is an example, a DIY cell-phone:

DYI Mobile-phone on Instructables.com
DIY Cell-phone

The work is rough, yet it’s amazing that you can create something like that by yourself.

Besides Arduino, there are many great platforms such as Raspberry Pie, TinyDuino, etc. Over the past few years, when you’ve been looking at the Kickstarter hardware project, you’ll notice that many new microcontrollers will be released. This provides many tools to make your prototype easily and at low cost.

3. Sensors!

You may going to connect sensors to the microcontroller. Online shops like SparkFun and Adafruit make it easy to purchase all sorts of smartphone sensors, such as accelerometers, gyroscopes, lights and touch sensors.

SparkFun has brought open-source electronics to a whole new level. We announce new batches every week in our product showcase. Like a fashion show of the latest electronics.

SparkFun's Friday Product Show
SparkFun’s Friday Product Show

4. Custom circuit on paper

Basicly, the fastest way to build a prototype circuit is the breadboard:

Typical breadboard. Much easier than soldering, but it can be improved.
A Breadboard.

People who use breadboards will find it a bit of a laugh. Fortunately, new tools are being developed.

If you want to make your circuit very fast, you can draw it on paper with Circuit Scribe. Amazingly, you can sit around the table with the team and create circuit and test ideas.

Circuit Scribe is a roller ballpoint pen with conductive silver ink. It creates an easy circuit like graffiti.
Circuit Scribe

If you want to make a more robust circuit or embed it in different kinds of materials, you can order the EX circuit printer in advance. As you can see in the example below, you can do amazing things like fabric printed circuit.

With EX, you can print easily and quickly, just as you would a photo, so you can print with the materials you want.
EX circuit printer

5. Configure the appropriate team before creating the prototype.

As you may notice, building hardware prototypes requires a comprehensive team with knowledge in areas such as design, programming, and electrical engineering. Even if you have experience in several filed, it is difficult to do everything just by yourself. You may need to configure your team to expand your start.

Finding the right people for hardware startup may be more difficult than starting the software. Fortunately, there are more than enough online communities that are already dependent.

Considering creating prototypes? Share your thoughts with us.