Differences Between Hardware Design for Hobbyists and Commercial Applications

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: September 7, 2018  |  Updated: December 6, 2023
Differences Between Hardware Design for Hobbyists and Commercial Applications

Hardware design and development is a difficult area to work in, largely because it can seem so opaque for a new designer. Most engineering companies do not open their doors for anyone to show up and start learning about hardware development. It's very hands-on and sometimes there are not enough resources for new designers. Hobbyist level hardware design is much easier to get into, largely thanks to the number of development products and off-the-shelf modules.

So if you're a hobbyist and you want to make the transition to a professional hardware engineer or PCB designer, it pays to learn the differences between these types of products. Hobbyist electronics designers can ultimately become professional by learning how to design and manufacture PCBs as these are the backbone components that make any electronic product work.

With that out of the way, let's look at the differences between hobbyist circuit boards and professional circuit boards.

What Makes a Hobby PCB

I think when most designers get started building boards, they probably look to a dev platform like Arduino or ESP32 for guidance. These are high-quality hardware platforms and their usage is even taught in some universities, so I think they are very easy to start using as learning tools and prototyping platforms. These boards also reveal some of the typical approaches to designing a prototype board or a hobby board.

Here are some of the most common characteristics you will see in hobbyist PCBs:

  • Traces and vias tend to be larger
  • These boards are almost always single-sided or double-sided, but not multi-layer
  • There may be a preference for through-hole parts as they can be hand soldered
  • There may be a preference for leaded SMD parts that can be hand soldered, such as LQFPs
  • The smallest passive component case size is usually 0805 or 0603
  • Rather than doing custom-designed circuits, the designer might prefer external modules
  • Processors or other components might be added as castellated modules
  • All the extra GPIOs will be brought out to a pin header
  • A basic 2-pin header or barrel jack is probably being used for power
  • There may be less consistency in part number selection for passives, resulting in more BOM lines

There are some good reasons for these design choices in hobbyist boards. They tend to reduce cost, allow for easier hand assembly/rework, and the parts tend to be less advanced. In addition, a lot of designers starting as hobbyists are working with the basic parts built into their CAD library, which will usually prioritize the component types listed above (through-hole, large passives, and leaded SMD).

The reason for the pin headers is very simple: it allows connections to external modules via flying leads. If you've kitted out your electronics workspace properly, you probably have a set of flying leads that will tap onto the 100 mil pin headers. This is actually a good way to integrate multiple modules into a single system.

CDN media

Hobby boards can sometimes start to look like Dr. Frankenstein's monster. [Image source: r/diyelectronics on Reddit]

Circuit boards designed for commercial products look quite different both in terms of their CAD data and the final assembled product. Now let's look at a professional circuit board.

What Makes a Professional PCB

Professional PCBs can be quite different for many possible reasons. There there is often a need to collaborate with engineers from other disciplines, which will create many constraints in the custom board design. This means the designer has less freedom in terms of component selection, it requires a different approach to layer stack design and routing, and more advanced fabrication/assembly are needed.

You might see any of these aspects in a professional PCB:

  • Mechanical constraints limit where things can be placed and how large they can be
  • Passive components tend to be in smaller case sizes, sometimes 0201 or 01005
  • ICs may be more advanced, such as in BGA packages that are very difficult to hand solder or rework
  • Etched features in the PCB could be smaller when there is a need for more functionality
  • Unneeded GPIOs may be routed out to test points rather than pin headers
  • Flying leads and wires are almost non-existent, instead there is a preference for cables or wire harnesses
  • Most designs try to integrate things on one board rather than using modules
  • If modules are used, they are directly attached to the board and tend to have lower profile

The other thing to note about professional PCBs is that they look very clean. Components are well-organized, the routes are very direct, the vertical profile is consistent, and the surface layers have been thoroughly cleaned up. These small details really help a professional designer stand out from the crowd.