Avoid the First Pass Engineering Perils in Prototyping Runs for Your Electronics

Created: June 19, 2018
Updated: September 25, 2020

PCB manufacturing on an SMT line

Anything worth doing is difficult, and hardware is no different. My first PCB for a hardware product crashed and burned several times before I got it to work as designed. Even after all of this work, we never moved beyond building functional prototypes.

After your design and initial testing phases are completed, it is time to order your first manufacturing run. Improper testing and design means your first manufacturing run will be fraught with hazards. Once you are confident you are ready to scale, it is time to build a relationship with your manufacturer, learn their capabilities, and finalize your designs.

What Does First Pass Manufacturing Mean for Your Design?

Too many hardware startups try to apply the software startup roadmap to their hardware company. Hardware startups have the tendency to take the manufacturing step for granted and are eager to move directly from functional prototype to full scale manufacturing. Even in more industrial atmosphere, with enough excitement behind them, manufacturing new products can be easy to jump into without the proper safety and protocol behind it.

Before you jump into first pass prototyping, you’re going to want to understand what it is your intentions for your prototype manufacturing are going to be. For example:

Low Volume Manufacturing: With specific PCB models being produced in batches of a couple hundred per year, each new run of manufacturing due to poor decision making can impact the profitability by an immense amount. Furthermore, if you are producing PCBs in low volume you have to take into account the added cost for low volume manufacturing, and the added cost for the stencil.

Additive Manufacturing: In-house additive prototype manufacturing can accomplish wonders for your prototyping. Obviously, not every industry or hardware manufacturing space will have access to in-house 3D printing; however, with the availability of 3D printing for your prototyping needs, you can produce prototypes in 24-hour turn-around times and at a fraction of the cost that you would need otherwise.

Founders without hardware experience might underestimate the challenges involved in mass manufacturing hardware. Your investors may be pressuring you to move immediately to 100,000 units on your first pass. But whether you’re invested in reaching low volume manufacturing, or trying to turn around rapid prototyping for a new design, you’ll have to be considerate of the demands you place upon the manufacturing workflow.

Moving from functional prototype to a beta test model that will be used by your early adopters constitutes your first manufacturing pass. In addition to making sure your product works correctly and your customers like it, you want to make sure that your manufacturer can scale without mistakes once you are ready to move to full scale. If you have done everything perfect up to now, only minor redesigns will be required before you move to full scale manufacturing.

Design for Manufacturing Practices for First Pass Runs

You need to be thinking about how to design your product so that it is easy to manufacture very early in the design and development stage. This is called design for manufacturing (DFM). Incorporating DFM practices into your design reduces the time and money required for your first manufacturing run. DFM practices also make scaling to high volume manufacturing much easier., your printed circuit board will be able to hit production within reasonable costs.

When you receive your first large order back from your manufacturer, you may find that there are problems with your devices. It is your job to determine if these defects are design mistakes or if they are manufacturing mistakes. DFM practices are the best way to avoid manufacturing mistakes and reduce manufacturing costs. This allows you to focus on testing your first run and redesigning as necessary.

Automated PCB manufacturing

Design your PCB for manufacturing

Nonconforming parts should never make it through the assembly process. One method to reduce manufacturing defects in DFM is use a technique called mistake proofing. The goal is make any defects impossible or immediately detectable if they should occur. One example of mistake proofing is to design unique connections between mechanical and electrical components. This prevents laborers who are assembling thousands of parts per day from making incorrect connections.

Design for Assembly in Product Development

Design for assembly (DFA) involves designing an assembly process that has maximum efficiency and has little to no possibility of mistakes. Finding the right balance between minimum manufacturing time and minimum assembly defects is difficult. DFA helps you achieve both goals simultaneously and therefore maintaining an immense amount of safety within your final product and prototyping needs.

When it comes to the assembly process, less is more. Keeping individual components as simple as possible is always a good idea and helps prevent mistakes during assembly. If you have never designed a product around its assembly process, it may be worth it to hire a consultant to help with the design process. This up-front investment will cost much less than the money that can be wasted on a manufacturing run full of defective products.

The plastic enclosure is the least technically complex part of an electronic product, yet it can be the most complicated part to scale to mass manufacturing. Different technologies are used for making plastic prototypes in the lab compared to mass-produced units. Your plastic pieces should be designed using DFM and DFA principles in mind. Mass-produced plastic products are formed by injection molding, and designing your parts around this process helps prevent defects and delays during manufacturing.

Electric circuit board and mesh network

Use your components to source your components

Manufacturers and Manufacturing Services

When it comes to manufacturing electronics, your PCB will form the heart and soul of your device. Your manufacturer will require a complete and thorough bill of materials, Gerber files, sourcing information, and any suitable substitute parts that can be used in your PCB.

When you begin approaching potential manufacturers for your first pass manufacturing run, remember that not every manufacturer will be dying to take on your project. Manufacturers would rather have stable orders from large companies rather than risk taking a single order from a startup company. It’s a matter of costs and how much a product will be able to earn in terms of its production capacities and manufacturing needs.

If you can develop a good relationship with a manufacturer during the design phase, they will most likely want more of your business and will be happy to work with you as your company grows. Some manufacturers are interested in growing their portfolios and they capabilities, and your success will hinge on finding the right company that can meet your product’s requirements.

A good relationship with your manufacturer will help you avoid major problems that can arise from your first manufacturing run. You should practice DFM and DFA based on your manufacturer’s capabilities, and you shouldn’t expect your manufacturer to bend over backwards to accommodate an extremely complicated design and manufacturing process.

Make sure that your product Design and redesign is easy with PCB design software like Altium Designer. The ActiveBOM tool makes it easy to generate your bill of materials, source your components, and move seamlessly through each manufacturing run.

To learn more about Altium Designer and Altium’s startup program, talk to an expert at Altium today.

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