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So you have a hot new hardware device that you’d like to develop and sell?  The first step is to create a working prototype.  But where should you begin?  There is no doubt that developing hardware is hard, and you can’t expect immediate results.  But if you break it down into manageable steps it is possible to succeed with building the hardware.

Most hardware product prototyping can be split into two sections: 

  1. The electronics, and 
  2. The plastic and/or metal case.  
Let’s look at each separately.

The Electronics

Creating a prototype of the electronics section can be separated into four (4) basic steps. 

You can either do it yourself or hire a design engineer to develop the electronics. At isubTECH, we help match you with the right vendor who specializes in Electronics Design Engineering.

Step 1: Creating the Electronics Blueprint (Schematic Drawing and Schematic Capture)

The first step in electronics development is the creation of a blueprint-like drawing called a schematic. The schematic provides all of the necessary details of your design needed for the electronics to work and function correctly - including how all of the components are connected together.

This is also where all of the electronic components will be specified.  A Bill of Materials (BOM) will be created detailing every electronic component on your board.

Step 2: Creating an Intermediate Prototype

Depending on the project and your budget you may or may not want to create an intermediate prototype of the electronics. 

Some techniques for intermediate prototypes are to use bread-boarding (a method for quickly and crudely connect electronic components) and/or existing development modules like the Arduino and Raspberry Pi.

Step 3: Designing the Printed Circuit Board (PCB) Layout

Eventually, you must make your way to creating a production quality prototype.  To do that requires designing a printed circuit board (PCB) or layout, a way to describe how all components will be placed and physically be connected among themselves on an actual board.

A PCB is a custom designed board that holds and connects all of the electronic components.  Using special software your electronics engineer will turn the abstract schematic drawing (blueprint) into a real world physical PCB layout.  This is a complex step because the PCB layout can have great impact on the performance of the end product.

Step 4 – Electronics Fabrication

The PCB layout design files are now sent to a special electronics prototyping company for production.  The first step is to fabricate the blank (empty) printed circuit boards.

Once the blank PCB is fabricated the next step is to assemble it by soldering on all the various electronic components.  Most modern microchips have very close pin spacing making them very difficult to solder manually so usually very precise automated machines are used.

The Plastic

Just about any electronic product is enclosed in a plastic or metal case of some sort.  In order to create a prototype of a custom shaped case you will need to use 3-D printing.

Step 1: Creating the 3-D Model

The first step is to create a 3-D computer model of your product’s plastic parts.  Unless you’ve done computer modeling or drafting in the past you’ll need a 3-D modeling expert for this step.

Even if you can do the modeling yourself, the 3-D software required is expensive and may cost more than hiring an expert. 

Step 2: 3-D Printing

Once you have the 3-D model completed you can send the design files to a 3-D printer for prototyping.  There are countless prototype shops that offer 3-D printing.

The other option is to purchase your own 3-D printer.  In the past couple of years they have gotten cheap enough for home use.

Be warned however that a completely different technology is used for large scale production of custom plastic pieces. This technology is called high pressure injection molding.  Transitioning a custom plastic design from prototype to full production is a very complex and costly process.

Once you have a functional prototype in hand then you can proceed with getting initial customers, market feedback, a manufacturing partner, and investors.  It’s a long path to success with a hardware product, but it all begins with the prototype.

To build your prototype, you, the entrepreneur and inventor must know about Industrial Design, Mechanical Design, Hardware Design, Software Design, and Cable Design. 

Industrial Design and Mechanical Design are essential for fabrication of the enclosure and casing of the device or gadget. Material selection, minimum quantity runs, manufacturing drawings, 3-D modeling, and vendor selection are all key factors that need to be understood and addressed.

With Hardware Design, the entrepreneur and inventor must pay special attention to Schematic Capture and Design Layout.