Developing the electronics for a new tech product may seem overwhelming. There is no doubt it can be a complex process that requires considerable engineering expertise. However, by breaking it down into discrete steps the process becomes more manageable and less overwhelming. In fact, I’ll be breaking the electronics development process down into only six steps.
Step #1 – Pre-Design / Topology / Key Component SelectionMany electronics designers begin the development process by immediately creating the schematic circuit diagram, but this is a mistake. Before digging down into all of the numerous details needed to create a schematic diagram, you should first analyze your product’s development from a higher level. The primary goals of the electronics pre-design step are to create a block diagram, select all of the critical components, identify the key risks, and estimate the manufacturing cost.
Step #2 – Schematic Circuit DiagramNow it’s time to design the schematic circuit diagram. A schematic diagram is similar to a blueprint for a new house. It’s an abstract diagram that provides every detail on exactly how all of the various electronic components are connected. Creating the schematic circuit diagram is one of the two core steps necessary in the development of custom electronics. Once the schematic is completed the next step is to turn the abstract diagram into a real-world Printed Circuit Board (PCB) layout design.
Step #3 – Printed Circuit Board (PCB) Design and LayoutThe same software that was used to design the schematic diagram is now used to design the PCB layout. One of the primary functions of this software is to verify that the PCB layout precisely matches the schematic diagram. The PCB design software has the ability to automatically route all of the connectivity traces, but most designs will need to be manually routed in order to optimize performance. The PCB layout can be especially tricky to design for radio-frequency circuits (WiFi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, cellular, GPS, etc.), high power circuits, and high-speed digital circuits such as microprocessors. In addition to confirming the PCB layout precisely matches the requirements specified in the schematic diagram, the design software also verifies trace spacings, trace widths, hole diameters, etc. This verification process confirms that your layout is compatible with your PCB fabrication process. You need to have all the required specifications from the PCB manufacturer before you begin the PCB design. Every PCB manufacturer will have different process specifications. The design rules for the specific PCB fabrication process will need to be entered into your design software for correct verification.
Step #4 – Ordering Your Printed Circuit BoardsOnce your PCB layout is verified to match the schematic and to meet all of the PCB fabrication design rules, then it’s time to send the design data to the PCB manufacturer for fabrication. The production of a custom PCB consists of first producing the empty printed circuit boards, and then soldering on all of the necessary components. Automatic placement machines are used to accurately place and solder on all of the various electronic components. Seeed’s Fusion service includes both of these steps providing you with high-quality, fully assembled circuit boards.
Step #5 – Microcontroller ProgrammingMicrocontrollers serve as the “brains” for most products, and nearly every electronic product will contain them. Some advanced products may instead require a microprocessor which is basically just a much faster version of a microcontroller. Microcontrollers are most often programmed in the computer language “C” and the resulting software is called firmware. You may have to bring in someone who specializes in firmware programming, although some circuit designers also do the firmware programming. Many products may also require the development of a corresponding mobile app. In most cases, a different programmer will be required to develop the mobile app.
Step #6 – Evaluating, Debugging and Revising the DesignSorry, but no product design is ever perfect the very first time. When you receive your first prototype you need to evaluate it for any problems. You’ll then need to debug any problems discovered, and design any necessary fixes. It can be challenging to estimate how long this step will take to complete. This is because any problems found are obviously unexpected. So, the time it takes to fix them remains an unknown until you understand the problem. You will likely need to repeat steps 4-6 multiple times, until your prototype is finalized. About the author John Teel is founder of Predictable Designs, a company which helps entrepreneurs, startups, makers, inventors, and small companies develop and launch new electronic products. John was formerly a senior design engineer for Texas Instruments where he created circuit designs now used in millions of popular electronic products (including some from Apple). He also developed his own hardware product which was sold in over 500 retail locations.