Unlike it’s software counterparts, hardware prototypes are difficult and expensive to build. Working prototype is the first milestone of any hardware creation. The prototype will depend on your product complexity and other variables (like target customers, the interior and exterior design, etc) that you had defined during Ideation/Market Research stage.
Early Stage Prototype
Electronic development boards
For a rough early stage prototype you can use development platforms like Hexiwear, Intel® Edison, Arduino, MediaTek LinkIt™, Raspberry Pi, and many others. These platforms provide an open-source hardware and software development environment for smart connected devices. They come with ready-to-use modules, sensors and other functions, making it easy to develop a prototype even without a lot of prior EE knowledge.
Rapid prototyping with 3D printing is a fast and cheap method to create a prototype. You can prepare your 3D design file and check out any local 3D Hub for the printing services. Check out Shapeways and Fictiv, to see more how 3D printing works. Depending on a service provider, you can use different types of materials – metals, plastics, porcelain, and others. To choose the material right for you, check out 3D printing Materials Guide and Choosing Your 3D Printing Material.
NOTE: this first rough prototype is good for testing functions, initial market testing, launching crowdfunding campaign or seeking venture capital. However, it is by far not ready for mass manufacturing. Even for small batch manufacturing (up to 50-100 pcs) you can find cheaper and easier solution with a contract manufacturer.
Building Prototype form Scratch
To build a prototype that goes beyond early-maker stage, you will need a team of engineers. The prototype making requires electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, industrial design, software and software programming skills. Following is the breakdown of the prototyping path.
Bill of Material (BoM) preparation
BoM file is what manufacturers rely on when building a product. However, even for a prototype you need this file to keep track of the all the parts for building the prototype. It usually includes part names, part numbers, part revisions and the quantities – all technical ingredients for your final product. You can do it in an Excel file (for future, more complex product development you can also use Arena PLM). You can also use Dragon Standard BOM GoogleSheets plug-in.
Electrical engineering (EE)
EE creates the “brains” of how your device will work. Without electronics, you basically have just a bunch of metal and plastic in your hands. Basic things in electric design development are PCB schematics and layout and components sourcing.
PCB design and Gerber file
There are a number of software options for designing PCB schematics and layout. For more basic designs, you can use free ExpressPCB software. Other options: Quadcept, Upverter, Sparkfun EAGLE, Solidworks, Cadence Allegro and others. Once you finalize the PCB design, you need to generate CAD files and send them to the PCB manufacturer.
As we are doing this for prototyping stage, you will need very few PCBs. There are a number of manufacturers who do small volumes. HWTrek has partnered with some of the most predominant names in the industry to provide special offers for hardware creators. You can see these programs at the bottom of the page or following these links: HQPCB Program Flash, Kingbrother Program Rapid PCB service, NexPCB Program Pathfinder. These manufacturers accept orders as small as for 1 pcs and provide a number of additional services. Check out the bottom of the page for all currently available programs.
Some startups spend huge amounts of time optimizing the cost of every single electronic component during the design phase. Bolt blog
Depending on your device’s functionality, you will need to find different components to assemble a PCB (make a PCBA). Main components of any smart device are: CPU, sensors and wireless modules. Additional components can be: SD card, microphone, camera, screen, LED lights, buttons, etc.
At the current prototyping stage you can still try finding the components yourself. Once you have contract manufacturer and you’re finalizing BoM, they usually are much better at sourcing the components. You can also use another special program from CECport. Their Program Faraday offers free component sourcing consulting for hardware creators.
Mechanical engineering (ME)
Mechanical design refers to the “inside” design of your device. The design has to hold the electronics components inside and be compatible with the outside Industrial Design.
You can use Autodesk Fusion 360, and Solidworks software to create a 3D model for ME.
Industrial Design (ID)
Industrial Design is the “feel” and “looks” of your product. This is what your customers will see and use. This is where UX (user experience) comes into play.
You can use Autodesk Fusion 360, and Solidworks software to create a 3D model for ID.
This is chip-level programming, making sure that all the electronics inside the device is working properly.
This is user-level programming, that allows them to use the device though the user interface (apps, desktop programs, screen, etc.).
This is the most basic testing form that answers the question – does your device work. Should be done at the very beginning of your prototyping stage.
You will need to test your software functionality as well. If your device is connected, you can use the 6 month free cloud service for IoT creators offer from MCS Program Rainbow.
You don’t need to have a fully formed product or MVP (minimum viable product) to start testing with users. In fact, it’s better if you don’t! Remember, you want to gather user feedback as early as possible, while you are still flexible enough to make the form, the features and design experience the way users need it to be. Fictiv blog
This answers the question how well does your device work and if it does meet the specs. Parameter examples: response speed, data transfer rate, bandwidth, throughput, efficiency, reliability, etc. For example, if it is a a phone – how well does it connect to the network in a low connectivity zone, or if it is a fitness tracker, does the battery hold as long as it should.
Remember that your device will be used in real world and will be exposed to a number of different circumstances. Reliability testing shows if your device can work at low and high temperatures, can it endure drop testing and how does it perform after long use. So for example it would show if you could still use your phone in the North Pole or if the plastic button will pop back up intact after it is hit 1k, 10k or 100k times.
Beta Market Testing
Initial market testing should be done at very early stage (functional 3D printed prototype) with a group of users (~30 people). You should gather information like what functions they like, what they do not need, what they think about the design, etc. Do your prototype iterations accordingly.
NOTE: the price of the prototype will be much higher (~10x) than your final product. When you enter mass manufacturing stage, you can ride the economies of scale benefits and reduce the final cost significantly.
- Prototype your IoT device and go to market faster with Intel Edison
- 4 Fundamental Objectives of Prototyping Hardware
- A guide to building a hardware prototype by London Tech Startups
- Hardware by Numbers Part 1: Team + Prototyping
- Bill of Materials (BOM) Examples & Samples
- Your prototyping toolbox
- 5 Essential tips for User testing your Hardware Project