Last year at Lumos, I had gone through the full hardware development process and when I look back, I had learnt a lot about the product development. I realised that I should share my experiences with fellow hardware entrepreneurs.
Again, this is from my limited one-year experience and few other learnings might yet to happen. Consider this blog for only simple or medium complexity consumer products.
Here, it is assumed that you have the product idea and you have limited knowledge about product development.
My product development process is matching this to a large extent. But, the article looks at it from business perspective while I am putting it from engineering perspective.
Proof of concept is a dirty prototype of the core functionality. Don’t try to accommodate extra features. Generally, proof of concept is making the product using Arduino, raspberry-pi, General purpose PCB (GP), breadboard etc.
Why should you do proof of concept before starting product development?
End outcome of the POC are many. Most important one for product development point of view is specifications of the product. During POC phase (or end of it), you would have interacted with at-least 100 potential customers and know their requirement (Yes, 100 is a random number :P. The number depends on type of market and customer segment). You should able to create a list of customer needs and put them into these 3 buckets.
The lateral needs (features based on it) are very important. These are not asked by any customer but you think it would delight them. The product needs to be well thought and lateral features usually create extremely satisfied customers.
Now after this, you can study competitor products or solutions also to understand what customer needs they are addressing. Lot of time the customers you meet forget to tell one of ‘must haves’. Looking at competitors might help here.
After you draft the needs, start drafting the specifications. Consider both customer needs and complexity involved in implementation. Try to define the “To manufacturing” time (deadline for product development or design closure) along with specification of the product. A good approach is to launch first product with minimum required features and keep adding features on next version of the product. This might help in staying ahead of competition.
My master project guide, Dr. Andre Pittet, used to suggest to go for ‘wish specification’ first and then cut down the features based on time availability and complexity of implementation. Also, your customer development team should get feedback from the customer on each feature.
Your specifications needs to be complete. Everything from operating temperature, humidity level to amount of mechanical load it can take should be specified. Do specify target cost also. This is Lumos charger specification, for example.
My complete solution includes cloud connectivity, storage and visualization too. Should I get it up at POC level ?
No for most of products. If you get the data on serial terminal of the PC is good enough. ( Beware, I am biased here, I don’t appreciate complexity of putting data from serial terminal to cloud, making it secure, giving nice visualization etc.)
How much time do I need to spend of POC ?
Typical time for simple or medium complexity product is 1-3 weeks. Most of this time goes into the component procurement. You might just spend 10 hours for it.
But, if you are developing a device which measure blood pressure just by holding it in palm(complex technology) then it requires good effort. Specifically because it is not proven technology and requires testing on multiple kind of people.
Do I need to talk to customer before writing specification ? Apple never does any user survey and develops amazing product, why can’t I ?
I won’t go into whether Apple does the user survey or not here. They are product genius and know what user need very well and deliver beyond user’s expectation. But, I would recommend doing customer development (which is little different from market survey, read the startup bible ‘the lean startup’ to understand what is it) before start putting heavy money and time. They main reason here is that in most cases the founders don’t represent the customer segment or founders are the only customers who need the solution. Talk to few hundred potential customers before quitting your MNC job.
Instead of customers, can I talk to some retailer of similar products who will be selling my products to customers ? They know the customer segment and their requirement very well.
Yes, do talk to them. But, never assume they know all customers requirement or represent customer segment. i.e. If you are developing home automation system, which you are going to launch with leading builder. You understood all the requirement from the builder but never talked to any home buyers (potential users). This will lead to low market acceptance because the end users are not going to be happy.
Design phase start with detailed specifications and end with a product which you need to exactly replicate. It involves all design for manufacturability, certification consideration. Typical timeline for this is 6 months to 3 year. Best way to quicken the development is to stop changing specifications too often.
For electronic product, there are mostly two design activities, electronics design and mechanical design. You might have few more. i.e. we have the fashion design activity too.
Here, I am assuming that you have the block diagram of your solution. I won’t address much on how to find good solution for the problem you are addressing.
The process chart is self-explanatory. The first 3 steps, part selection, schematics design and PCB design go together so indicated in different color, same way the last two. Very important consideration here is that, you will have at-least two revisions of above process. Some time you need 4 or more revisions because small inaccuracies. Electronic design needs focused mind !!
After specifications, you start with important and critical parts selection. This involves your camera or any other sensor, micro-controller, battery, power regulators, battery charge controller etc. This is most critical part of design phase. I recommend to start putting these parts into the schematics also.
While doing the part selection, with keeping eye on the functionality, Keep eye on following parameters also.
Here are few tips for part selection
After you have selected critical part, schematic design includes passive component selection, doing power calculations, cost optimization, selecting ferrite beads and provide provision for future expansions. I am putting some basic tips and learning.
Steps for PCB design are following.
It is very difficult to give generalized tips on PCB design. Here are few tips.
Manufacturer your designed board !! Generally we prototype 10 boards.
Good prototype manufacturer : PC process Penya, Bangalore or PCB power, Gandhinagar, Gujarat
Lead time : ~ 1 week
PCB assembly :
We don’t make stencil at this stage. But, if you have complex PCB, you might have to do that. We do manual mounting and soldering. for complex PCBs, you might have to go to EMS.
Generally, we follow board bring-up method for PCB assembly. In board bring-up we mount components in stages and check the functionality in stages. i.e. mount first the power components, check if intended voltages are present at the not mounted IC pins, followed by micro-controller and then sensor.
Yes, now your board is up. Start developing the software. Lot of time you would like to start the software development on EVMs or reference boards. No generalized tips here other than be careful while porting software from one board to other board.
One of the most important part of design cycle is testing or design verification(DV). If you are a consumer company, this becomes extra important for you. You should make sure that your product works without any bug.
There are many DV approaches. Take any approach but make sure you have detailed testplan and all test are performed. Some physical test like drop test, over temperature, short circuit at output also need to be included.
Why do you say that there would be at-least two revisions of the PCBs ?
Because product development is complex and you don’t have good simulation tools. Many parts of design are going in parallel and mistakes are likely to happen. If you have done similar product with same parts previously then there is possibility that one revision is enough.
One thumb rule is that when you can’t explain what is problem with your board to your business co-founder and he insist that not to go for any revision now, then you are going for the last revision.
Why is board bring-up method is preferred in prototype manufacturing ?
If you get fully assembled board from your EMS and start testing it, mostly you will see IC heating up or capacitor burning. If not, you will have an issue which will make you nuts debugging. Irrespective of where you do assembly, make sure your functionality is getting up one by one.
Mechanical design/ Industrial design is most important part of your product. Users interact with it more than your underlying electronics. It is very important aspect if you are making a consumer product. Also, manufacturability is much more complex here that an electronic part manufacturing.
If you don’t have any one to design the mechanicals then get a good industrial design firms. Typically, an industrial design firm has an industrial designer who handle studying user requirements and creativity and one mechanical engineer who understand manufacturing processes and materials. Industrial designer, mechanical designer and electronic designer should work in synergy. Here is simple process for mechanical design from an electronic designer point of view.
This is a vast topic and general tips won’t make sense much. Take all data mentioned here with some doubt. Match your product with our product and see all tips given here make sense for you.
This process is much complex than electronic manufacturing. If you are going for injection molding, the major complexity is to do mold manufacturing. Generally, molds are costly. Good manufacturer quote >4 lacs for any size mold. Here are few things are learned.
Electronics manufacturing is reliable if your EMS or PCB assembler follow the standard quality practices. Wait for my blog where I explain all layers of PCB and PCB manufacturing and assembly process. Here are some simple tips.