A Journey into Building Your Own Electronic Hardware – Part I
We work at Hexabitz with lots of founders with no prior electronic hardware experience who want to build their own devices and innovate hardware solutions in their respective industries. This is often the most challenging but most rewarding job of any startup founder. Breakthrough innovations come when you mix different disciplines together and cross-pollinate. In this time and age, it’s hardly conceivable that any breakthrough innovation does not contain complex pieces of electronic technology. Electronics are deeply embedded in everything around us. That’s why we call them Embedded Systems!
People with no prior experience building hardware, though, come from quite different backgrounds, and many times they find it difficult to comprehend the cost, time and complexity involved in building physical stuff. Software folks, for example, are used to fast (and almost free) product iterations. They get shocked when they find out about the time and cost it takes to do another hardware revision. People with backgrounds in construction and engineering are used to large budgets and long schedules. However, to them once you can see and touch the actual thing then it must be finished. They cannot comprehend easily that this soulless device still needs a lot of care and firmware / software development to perform its tasks. People with business backgrounds understand complex supply chains and resource management but are not used to tasks taking weeks or even months, which is the actual time you need to perform complex and innovative engineering and design work.
My job at Hexabitz is to learn and educate. I learn from our esteemed customers about their industries and the clever solutions they came up with to solve the challenges they face. Then, I educate them about current technology trends and what works best for their particular scenario and what does not. I also educate them about the process and efforts involved in creating new hardware and suggest the best path forward. Many times, the discussions we have are so insightful and educating for myself and for the customer that I wish we can share them with others to benefit (which we don’t do of course due to disclosure agreements and respecting each other privacy.) This led me, however, to the idea of starting this series of articles sharing our experience building electronic hardware from A to Z. These articles are not meant for professionals in the hardware business but rather for outsiders who want to understand the overall process and embrace it.
Why is it so important for you as a founder to understand the process of creating hardware rather than just outsource the entire thing to somebody else? Well, you’re going to outsource the thing anyway. But whether you hire your own engineers or find yourself a solution partner or an engineering firm inshore or offshore, you still need to understand the entire process so that:
- You don’t hire the wrong people or wrong firms
- You don’t over-promise your investors and make fancy business plans that are not conceivable
- You don’t throw yourself under the bus severely under-planning your budget and resources
- At the same time, you learn all your options to maneuver and arrive at your goal with minimum risk.
I will try not to delve deeply into technologies and technical terms fearing the risk of getting you bored or distracted but sometimes this is inevitable for the sake of delivering a comprehensive picture.
These series of articles are meant to take you into a journey of the daily work we do at Hexabitz and at many of our partner organizations. At the end of the day, it takes a village (and sometimes the entire world!) to build a product we all enjoy.
Your journey building a new electronic device goes through multiple critical steps and involves several individuals and organizations along the way. Sometimes, you are lucky enough and you can deal with a single organization to run it all. But in most cases, you must deal with at least a few partners and collaborators along the way (including your own team if you have one). The entire process might take anywhere between a few weeks to a year or more. Some people can endure it, but others might find out eventually it’s not worth it. This is an acceptable outcome. Building new stuff might not always be the answer. However, when pieces click together and your hardware innovation really works and changes the world for the better, there’s nothing else that gives you that same sense of pride and satisfaction!
We will go quickly through all major steps required to build and produce your electronic hardware device from scratch in this two-series article and then explain them, in detail, in future articles. I’ll try to keep it short minding your time fellow founders!
1. Research / Concept Development
Time estimation: Few days to 2+ weeks
You start with the problem. Sometimes, you need to do some market research and interview potential customers. Most startups go through a market research phase before talking with an engineering firm and arrive with a comprehensive picture of their market and their customer problem. We can then offer them an array of suitable technologies to solve the problem at hand. Some founders have their own solutions or IP already, but they need to build a device (or a platform) to realize it. This is common with scientists and software engineers who develop innovations in biotech and software, but they must devise new hardware to implement them.
- Don’t pick up the solution first and then look for a problem to solve. This is a common mistake made by many founders including myself. Although it works sometimes, but it makes your life much harder. Start the other way around.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of good research. The more time you spend here, the more time and pain you save later.
2. Mechanical / Industrial Design
Time estimation: 2 to 8+ weeks (can run in parallel with next task)
Every electronic device lives within an enclosure that provides physical and environmental protection. Usually you start with Mechanical (ME) / Industrial (ID) design first and then move to electronic boards for consumer-facing products because the look and feel of the product itself are as critical as its functionality. But for industrial and other non-user-facing equipment, you start the other way around by designing your electronic boards and then finding them an appropriate enclosure.
Wearables are a special case of complex electronic systems that require tighter integration between the electronic boards, components, and the enclosure. That’s why we start working concurrently on both ME/ID and electronic boards for all our wearables because there’s a lot of back-and-forth between the two teams until the design is settled.
There is a wide array of manufacturing technologies involved in building the perfect enclosure and they are usually dependent on your timeline, budget, and target quantity. This includes 3D printing for both plastic and metal, laser cutting / routing / etching (metal, plastic, wood, etc.), machining, injection / vacuum molding, among other technologies. We will review and compare them in a separate article.
3. PCB Design
Time estimation: 2 to 6 weeks
Once device functionality is established and key technologies are defined, we can move on to designing the electronic boards. This is usually done in two phases. First, we perform required calculations / simulations and design the theoretical connection diagram called Schematics. This is a critical step, because in this phase, we choose all electronic components and precisely define their specifications and manufacturer. This task is interconnected with Step 4: Supply Chain Management since a lot of back and forth is performed to ensure chosen components are available for the product life time.
We then move to placing components on the actual board (called Printed Circuit Board or PCB) and interconnecting the traces in a step called PCB Layout Design. The board takes physical shape in this phase and a 3D model of the PCB with its components is carefully reviewed with ME team to ensure fit and functionality. Certain electronic systems such as wearables and medical devices require complex flexible and rigid PCB structures. High power devices require high-current-carrying traces (called heavy copper) and special isolation for high voltages. High speed systems dealing with vary fast signals and state-of-the-art microprocessors require PCBs with many internal layers and fine-pitch components called High Density Interconnects (HDI). They also require matching impedance of certain traces and layers so that they transfer the signal properly. Once all of this is taken care of, output or manufacturing files are then generated so that you can share them with suppliers and manufacturers (you don’t usually share actual design files).
4. Supply Chain Management
Time estimation: Few days to 2+ weeks (can run in parallel with previous task)
Modern-day devices are comprised of hundreds of electronic components that need to be sourced from different manufacturers. Complex electronic and mechatronic systems such as cars, smartphones and robots are even comprised of many smaller assemblies produced by myriads of other manufacturers. Keeping a tap on all the suppliers you need for your device can be a daunting task. Electronic components might reach end-of-life and become harder to find, or their prices and availability become volatile due to fluctuating supply and demand. There are countless restrictions on import, export and usage imposed by different governments. And, of course, you have pandemics causing components shortages like the one we are experiencing right now. We help you navigate this and other supply chain issues through our extensive network of OEMS, contract manufacturers, online and offline distributors. Key element of success here is planning ahead and building true partnerships with all these organizations. At tough times, these partnerships are the only way to propel your project forward.
We are now ready for the next step where our product will take physical shape for the first time. We will continue in Part II with the remaining steps to successfully build and launch your new electronic hardware.