While the opportunities for upcoming products are enormous, pursuing end-to-end development of hardware systems is an intricate project in itself. Despite the fact that IoT systems comprise hardware, firmware and software components; 80% of the cost and development hassle is owned by the embedded system hardware and firmware.
Therefore, product design and development companies must follow a comprehensive agile approach for actualizing their builds securely and timely.
If your new hardware product idea is on the cards, keep the below guide handy.
Step 1: Feasibility
First things first, write down your product idea. Include all details such as features, configurations, target customer, the market gap you are trying to address, competing products, your existing skillset and the number of resources you need. Assuming you have created your team (technical architect, solution designer, market researcher, budgeter), collaborate to narrow down the core area. The idea of the feasibility activity is to achieve the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) which would further be elaborated in the subsequent phases.
Outline the product priorities clearly and in detail. List down the functionality of the product followed by extended features. A quick hack to fasten the feasibility study is by disassembling reputed products in a similar segment.
Discovery and Feasibility could be the criticalphases of any hardware development project. The more you brainstorm and the more you talk to potential actual users alongside the MVP, the less you suffer in the later stages. Research and write down your use cases in a datasheet. Adding a QA resource at this stage is a good idea to scope the possibility of the test cases.
Step 2: Preliminary Hardware Designing
Preliminary designing is done to address the gaps between the design concept and the actual design. Start with the System – Level Block diagram to specify all the electronic functions and how they interconnect with other functional components. For any hardware product, a microcontroller is the core component that is allied with other components such as displays, sensors, memory chips, etc. In the diagram, label the type and number of all serial ports required for the core component. Based on the Microcontroller, identify all the allied components needed such as the sensors, displays, connectors and microchips. This must be followed by thorough component research with the goal of arriving at the Bill of Materials (BOM) by the end of this phase.
Design the Schematic Circuit Diagram
Use the System Block Diagram as a reference to design the Schematic Circuit Diagram. While the System Block Diagram mostly focuses on the high-level functionality of the product, the Schematic Diagram marks the tiniest of details of microchips, resistors, sensors and other components connected together making a functional circuit.
Be very careful while creating the schematic, any mismatch in the numbering of pins can cause an overall failure of the product. For a more effective output, create a standalone sub-circuit for every block in the System Block Diagram. After you have created all individual circuit components, connect them to form the complete Schematic Circuit Diagram.
For further efficiency, use circuit design software such as DipTrace, Altium and KiCad. These tools have inbuilt libraries which are very useful in case you are using popular components in your design. The System Block Diagram should be able to guide you to the exact specifications of the components required.
Designing of Mechanical & Industrial Components
Mechanical designing is mostly done on CAD tools yet it follows all the conventional principles to achieve a fully compliant output. Depending upon your budget and type of product, select your CAD tool. If you are working on a IoT project then OnShape, Fusion 360 and FreeCAD are reliable options. Like all designing activities, outlining the purpose of the design is the first step here. The objective here is to scope the value, function and the appearance of all components in the overall system.
Next, evaluate the feasibility of the components with each other. Whether or not they operate seamlessly with each other in a unified casing. The following are the key steps in Mechanical & Industrial Design
- Geometric Modelling - This is the mathematical representation of the object using CGI
- Engineering Analysis - No matter how small but all the components are subject to some degree of stress. This step analyzes the compliance of all components with the overall system based on their stress and endurance levels
- The feasibility of the design is reviewed as per metrics such as cost and scale
- The feasibility of the design is checked with production specifications
- You also need to check the feasibility of the electrical hardware with the mechanical casing and parts.
Design the Printed Circuit Board (PCB)
The thumb rule is simple – Smaller the product, tighter the components and thus more complicated to create the PCB layout. If the product consumes greater current and, offers wireless connectivity then the designing process is more complex. On the other hand, miniaturization of the PCB and reducing the overall power consumption of the circuit is equally challenging. Check for the following factors before designing the layout – the power routing, crystal clocks, address or data lines and other high-speed signals which adds to the complexity of the PCB, not to mention the RF section of the wireless circuits.
For designing the physical board of all electronic components, use a verification tool to match the schematic diagram with the ideated PCB process. A few popular names include the PCB Artist, Solidworks PCB, Altium Designer etc. Most of these tools come with diagnostic algorithms such as DRC checks, and simulations to detect any errors. Last but not the least, the physical footprint of the PCB should be compatible with your mechanical parts.
Generate the Final Bill of Materials (BOM)
The Bill of Materials (BoM) is the list of all line items of mechanical and electronic components to be purchased. No matter how low cost or small a component is, list down all of them followed by their quantity and specifications. Most Schematic Design Software tools automatically populate a BoM. You should still verify the document manually before approaching the vendor.
By the end of these activities, approach a reliable sourcing partner for help. Sourcing is mostly ignored yet a critical phase in any hardware project. In fact, finding a hardware partner is a project in itself and may consume more time than you think. However, you may want to explore Ioterra, a digital marketplace for all project owners to collaborate with fellow sourcing, manufacturing and other partners. The platform not only features the best in class IoT services and products but also enables project owners to filter their requirements.
Step 3: Prototyping
Prototyping is the bridge between your hardware product on paper and the actual build which someday will go on the market shelf. Go slow and focus on creating a simple engineering prototype at first. The objective of this phase is to evaluate the feasibility of the features ideated so far. It is preferred to outsource the PCB manufacturing and component assembly to a reliable PCB manufacturer that offers small volume production. Besides saving time and effort, this would ensure faultless PCB prototyping. You can do PCB assembly inhouse if you have skilled technicians, and only if the design is simple.
Use Rapid Prototyping for the mechanical parts, also known as 3D printing is gaining acceptance quickly and many small-medium hardware projects use it. Although it is still a costly affair yet most businesses prefer it for the accurate physical build it generates for better analysis. Approach a reliable 3D modeling partner to help you with the process. This is usually done by converting the 3D model (from a CAD tool) to an STL file and then slicing it into digital layers. Using custom machine software the STL file is transferred to the printer. Ultimately, the printer with the appropriate parameters is set and the consumables are loaded.
Evaluate the fully integrated build for looks-like, works-like prototyping, technical feasibility, operational accuracy, design readiness and market receptiveness.
Prototyping will be exhaustive and should be performed under the complete supervision of industrial designers, mechanical & embedded engineers and application programmers for cross-functional program plans.
Step 4: Design for Manufacturing & Assembly (DFMA)
DFMA is an essential step before proceeding with high volume manufacturing. It simplifies the production complexity and thereby reduces any overhead costing. This helps in optimizing the overall cost of the production components. DFA reduced the product’s assembly time by minimizing the number of assembly steps. In the modern-day manufacturing setup, both the phases are unified into DFDA. The key considerations to perform DFDA are the following -
- Consulting production experts provide inputs on lowering the manufacturing costs by analyzing every component.
- Identifying manufacturing compliant materials that control the cost without affecting the quality of the build.
- Following all legally compliant manufacturing processes
- Using all standardized parts to avoid any inventory complexities.
Step 5: Manufacturing
Before proceeding with mass production, finding a reliable manufacturing partner should be on top of the list. This is an important consideration that most project owners overlook and repent later. As a marketplace for all IoT resourcing needs, Ioterra can be a great fit here.
you may need to coach the manufacturer about building the product in its exact form as the prototype. At this point, you may also identify and resolve any remaining issues in the design for the part being manufacturing. This phase is known as Design Verification (DV) and is your chance to make any end time assembly fixtures, evaluate the manufacturing setupand calibrate the software tools to be used at every interval. You need to produce 50 to 100 units in this step and you might see random product failures during design verification which needs to be addressed before moving to production.
Gate Review for Process Verification (PV)
After the completion of DV, proceed for Gate Review. At this point, the engineering design, manufacturing test systems and processes are evaluated for readiness to go for the next phase of mass production. The Process Verification (PV) is sometimes called production verification wherein you produce 100 to 200 units . At the PV process, you need to perform multiple build tests to evaluate whether the manufacturing process is ready for mass production. You might still get few failures in the product functionally which are corner cases. Use this phase to identify and fix all the issues in the design and manufacturing process that could cause unforeseen product failure.
Next, test the finished products at a high sampling rate and find more issues. This is a comprehensive stage and could go up to 6 months. At this time, the engineers, designers and production consultants evaluate the durability of the product over a given period of usage. Such durability test fixtures provide valuable reliability insights followed by an overarching view on the product quality.
Once your teams have officially approved the quality, prepare for larger volumes over the production line to meet the ‘time-to-market’ deadlines, while you apply to the regulatory authorities for getting your product certified for specific geographies.