Compared to the past, nowadays anyone with a great idea has better chances for prototyping and production. A lot of design software is now available for free; 3D printers can be brought home and investors can be found on the internet to fund manufacturing of your products. Nevertheless, the path from a prototype to the production is not always a clear one. Here is a great guide to follow to bring your ideas to reality.
How to start
The first rule is that your product should be practical. You don’t want to put your money and effort and then stop because the product is impossible to maintain for the long term. This is why having a clear cash-flow is important. Engineers are good at numbers but not all are good at money. Having a solid understanding of cash-flow will help your company grow immensely.
When you have a good understanding of how the money goes in and out of your product, it’s time to think about the design itself.
Having decided to proceed with the design, the first step would be to make the block diagram. This is by far the most important part of the design because it specifies how you want to proceed with the work. A good and well-prepared block diagram would pave the way for the next design steps. You should spend time on this part of the design and make sure that all design requirements are considered.
Having finished this part, you have to decide on the core components. Which microcontroller to use? What wireless technology? Which sensors? You should also remember that, while deciding on core components, you should also consider the cost which is always one of the most important parameters. You are often forced to change your design to meet cost requirements. You can read press releases from manufacturers to learn about new products or visit distributor sites like Digikey, Mouser, Farnell, etc. to scout for the best items to use.
When the core components have been decided, it’s time to build the schematic. In this stage, datasheets and application notes are very important. Datasheets contain how the product should be used including example schematic diagrams. If example circuits are not in the datasheets, they are in the application notes.
There are a lot of free software tools to create a professional grade schematic. The ones that are mostly used and recommended are Cadsoft Eagle and Diptrace which has a huge collection of parts and PCB footprints. If you have money to spend, then go buy Altium Designer which includes a neat 3D view of your finished PCB.
Once the schematic is done, make sure you have a clear Bill of Materials (BOM). It is in this document where all the parts are listed including the prices for each. This would give you an idea of the cost of your project. There are great online tools to create BOMs easily. One I would recommend is AAC’s BOM tool.
Creating the PCB would be next which is made easier through auto-routing on Diptrace or Eagle. In my experience, PCBs with components that are closer to each other are longer to create compared to one with components far away from each other. Also, high power and wireless products have more complicated PCBs. Electronic products that use high power need to have PCBs designed to withstand such power. This means the traces should be well optimized to handle the expected currents. Wireless products often have the antennas incorporated on the board. I normally hire someone to create the PCB antenna design for me — it takes experience before you can perfect this skill, which I currently don’t have.
Prototyping and testing
If the PCB is finished, it’s time to have the board manufactured. PCBs have become very cheap nowadays. When the PCB is finished and the product is assembled, the next step is testing and debugging. This is a critical part because you don’t want to mass produce a malfunctioning product. All bugs including both the hardware and the firmware must be accounted for. It would be very hard to correct flaws when the product is already in the hands of the consumer.
OK, so your prototype’s quality is ensured. It’s now time to hit mass production. You’ll need a factory to create your product for you. Most factories have different Minimum Order Quantities (MOQ). Naturally, choosing the correct factory is essential for your business. Factories will give you a quote based on your MOQ; the higher the MOQ, the lesser the cost but the longer the production time. Most would allow you to negotiate with them so make sure you have your convincing powers maxed before proceeding. It is very important to get to know the factory you will be hiring. This is very important, especially if your company is just starting.
If your product is destined to hit retail stores, good packaging is very important. Packaging not only protects your product, it also helps sell it. In fact, designing the package eats a huge part of the total production cost. You need to take packaging really seriously.
Shipping and delivery
Next thing to consider is the shipping cost. You will need to pay to move your product from the factory to somewhere else, no matter what. A typical shipping budget is from $1000 to $5000.
Storage is also another thing that could cost you. If you have a large enough garage, then great, if not, you have the pay a storage company to keep your product.
Other costs to consider are your product’s website (if there is), bookkeeping services, trade shows, etc. These costs are not necessary though and can be avoided if your sales are low.
When your product is already in stores then congratulations! Not all get to see their idea being sold and make money. If your product is still on paper, then ask yourself this: will people need this? If you are really convinced it will then act now!