Many creators prioritize speed to market above all else, whether that comes via the traditional route or crowdfunding, perhaps believing the famous adage from the movie Field of Dreams that “if you build it, they will come.” While getting a product into customers’ hands should certainly be a top priority, making sure that the product lives up to customer or backer expectations is equally important. In order to ensure this, a hardware team should invest early in the design and layout of their electronic components, exploring alternative hardware solutions and possibly even drawing on external expertise, to save time and money down the road.
If you’re lucky enough to have technical development resources available to your team internally, you’ve likely saved a lot of money on the costly, upfront engineering work that makes it so difficult and expensive to get hardware products to market. However, having the resources internally may also mean that you’re allocating too little budget to your design – as even the strongest engineers can get tripped up by wireless charging, Bluetooth, etc. Whether your electrical engineering comes courtesy of a contract company, co-founder, early employee, or even you yourself, there is a high likelihood that you’re considering that person’s compensation – be it in money, equity, or beer – as your only outlay on design until you bring in some real money through your Kickstarter campaign. But regardless of who’s doing your engineering, it’s wise to set aside a portion of your initial budget for an independent design review.
The Common Path from Prototype to Launch
Frequently, creators launch a campaign with a prototype that simply “works” over one that is truly “right” for their intended use case. While this approach may allow creators to build a prototype and film a campaign video, when it comes to large-scale manufacturing that same design may not prove feasible or meet cost expectations.
Many hardware creators end up underestimating their true cost of goods sold (COGS), which will leave them with far tighter margins than they had originally planned, even if their campaign exceeds its goal. Heading into a Kickstarter campaign without a true understanding of COGS or an awareness of what additional design work is required is a potential recipe for disaster: as money raised for mass production will inevitably have to be spent on design and engineering changes. To avoid paying for design work after a campaign, and then not having enough cash to manufacture the products – or worse yet, manufacturing products known to be suboptimal – it’s advisable to have a complete design review prior to launching a campaign.
It’s understandable that launching a campaign with a suboptimal product design may have more to do with resource constraints than conscious decisions by a creator. If this is the case, it’s perfectly okay to launch with a design that “works” as long as you’re upfront about your current product status and use of funds. If the plan is to use campaign funds to pay for a design review, doing some due diligence into the anticipated COGS becomes even more important. If you offer your product for less than it’s going to cost to produce, and plan to use campaign funds for a design review, you’re going to have two very big problems to deal with.
Independent Reviews: Considering Quality, Costs and Availability
Even teams with a thorough understanding of their bill of materials (BOM) can benefit from an independent design review. In the process of these reviews, engineers with technical expertise in such areas as wireless communication, power electronics, and microcontrollers will go line by line vetting your component choices.
Consider a team with a functional prototype for a product that has a battery and microcontroller (MCU), both of which “work”. An independent design review could help this team assess alternative battery or power supply options, know whether the MCU will be in stock for the foreseeable future, and identify what components, if any, are marked end of life (EOL) by the manufacturer.
If you’re not familiar with the term EOL, it means that a new version of a component is coming, and the old one isn’t going to be manufactured (or supported) any longer. A component being EOL may not seem like an issue now, but it could become an issue if you need to find 20,000 of those components and only 5,000 are available. A design review can help identify components that will have longer lead times than normal, or will soon be marked as EOL.
Even if the components you’ve selected are not slated to be marked EOL, how much confidence do you have that you’re using the components that give your product the best possible performance for its features? If you’re using sensors to take readings, are there sensors with higher sampling rates, that could give you higher resolution data, without increasing your BOM cost? There are dozens of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) out there, making thousands of components, and it can be hard to know if you are using the right components for your needs. A good design review will compare your BOM and desired product functionality with all available options, to ensure you have the right components.
A design review is also important to check things like your printed circuit board (PCB) layout, as these early component placement decisions matter a great deal and can cause issues at later stages if not done correctly. For example, products using Bluetooth or wi-fi need to scrutinize the antenna design and placement on the PCB. Where an antenna is located on the PCB can have a significant impact on the performance of components.
Analyzing each line of your BOM in this way can help you avoid making concessions to product features as a result of poor design. Knowing when, and why, to choose wi-fi over Bluetooth – see Notes from the Field below for a short case study – or when and how to avoid components that have longer lead times, will help you be better prepared as you approach mass production.
Notes From the Field
Avnet Field Application Engineer (FAE) Trent Foster worked with a customer who had built their entire business around their product’s ability to stream data in real time via Bluetooth. The customer was experiencing signal integrity issues that threatened the viability of their product. Through several product iterations, the customer saw every aspect of their product improve – except for their signal issues.
“As soon as they described what their product was supposed to do, and stated they were using Bluetooth, I knew there would be a problem even before I learned they were having issues. Something a lot of people don’t know is that Bluetooth was initially intended for wireless cable applications,” says Trent.
While Bluetooth has made great technical progress in recent years, Trent points out that it was not initially designed to provide continuous connections or to stream data for extended periods of time. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) has seen tremendous advances in point-to-point connection applications, but still has some challenges that can befuddle early-stage teams working on their own. Trent has seen dozens of customers face this challenge, where a lack of understanding leads them down an incorrect design path. Trent helps entrepreneurs to troubleshoot this problem in a variety of ways:
“Had this customer engaged with us very early in their design process, knowing what they wanted to accomplish, we would have presented several options, but Bluetooth likely would not have been our recommendation. Wi-fi was a much better option for the customer because wi-fi was developed to not lose connectivity. In other words, if you want to continuously stream data, wi-fi is a much better option than Bluetooth.”
In this case, the customer was so far down their product development path, that it was not financially possible for them to rework their design to replace Bluetooth with wi-fi. It took several months to land on a solution that provided the functionality the customer needed, without requiring a complete redesign.
“In the end, we ended up designing a small gateway device that took sensor readings via wi-fi; then, if certain conditions were picked up by the sensor, an alert would be sent via Bluetooth. This allowed the customer to continuously stream data, but limited the use of Bluetooth to alerts.”
While the gateway workaround saved the customer from the signal issues they faced, and allowed them to start fulfilling orders, it required the customer to produce a secondary device. Although small in size, the gateway devices still required components and manufacturing. The addition of the gateway device also required changes to the company’s packaging and added weight, which increased shipping costs.
For this customer, deciding to forego an independent design review at an early stage of their development process ended up costing tens of thousands of dollars down the road. Spending the money early may feel painful, but it’s far less than the pain of having to halt a production run, disappointing your backers, and investing three to four times the initial cost to fix a problem down the road.
Avnet is a global leader in component distribution, whose exposure to a broad range of technology, has allowed them to help thousands of customers ensure their product designs are primed and ready for their customers.