Differences Between Hardware Design for Hobbyists and Commercial Applications
Even though I’ve been a Taekwondo practitioner for 20 years, I still get slightly nervous each time I step into a competition ring. No matter how many practice rounds I’ve sparred, the actual fight is an adrenaline-filled experience that cannot be replicated elsewhere. Imagine two people stepping into a ring and each stepper immediately trying to ascertain where the other’s weaknesses are. Similar to me when I’m prototyping a new board!
The same holds true in hardware design for hobbyists and professionals rushing their design for mass production. While both hobbyist and professional circuit hardware may exhibit the same basic functions, the latter is designed with deeper consideration of volatile parameters encountered in the real-world environment.
While anyone, truly, can jump into circuit and board design, you should have some considerations before just developing your next devices. Considering your circuits, you should be thinking about safety and interaction with the environment they’ll be set up in. If you’re a passionate hobbyist electronics designer working on your first commercial project, here are some points to consider:
When you’re designing hardware that only you will be using, there’s a predefined pattern of interaction that doesn’t put the ruggedness of the hardware to test. Circuits have a wide-ranging applicability, and one of the first rules of electronics is that someone will always find a way to use an electronic that wasn’t imagined. In a commercial design, you’ll need to consider various scenarios to better understand how different individuals may interact with the hardware.
Interaction, in this case, could mean how one presses the keypad or touchscreen or simply plugs in the communication cables. It’s foolish to presume that every user will interact in the manner that you predicted. Unfortunately, you can’t simply supply a kit that tells your users how to interact with electronics.
You’ll need to prioritize the robustness of key components that are exposed to user behaviors. Besides the reliability of key components, you’ll also need to worry about electrostatic discharges that some components are continuously exposed to.
In a hobbyist project, the priority is to ensure that the prototype circuit works as intended. For example, a drone that is able to take off and land successfully is considered a success. However, things are not so ideal for real-life applications of circuits.
When a circuit or a piece of hardware is operated continuously in harsh environments, the possibility of a bug or unexpected failure of certain components is much higher, compared to operating in a controlled environment.
You need to incorporate circuitry to monitor the health of the hardware. For example, a voltage sensing circuit placed on the real-time clock battery provides early warning in the event of dropping voltage.
One of the most common issues that affect electronics hardware is insufficient heat dissipation features in the design. When you’re creating a prototype for fun and probably turning it off after a couple hours of usage, it’s understandable that thermal management strategies are absent in the design.
Commercially designed hardware may be deployed in harsh environments where the surrounding temperature can go beyond 50°C. Sometimes, this is compounded by the lack of airflow when the PCB is placed in an enclosure.
It can get pretty hot in commercial designs.
Ensure that you learn about heatsinks, thermal vias and keeping heat dissipating components away from other critical circuitry. After all, your circuit is only as secure as you can accurately design for. An electronic won’t simply stay safe when it’s using power and its circuits are not routed properly, for example. Taking these steps could mean the difference between a long-lasting circuit or frequent calls from angry clients.
Unlike a hobbyist project, commercial hardware may need to operate for years without any signs of failure. Some hardware used in critical applications like medical or military, for instance, cannot afford to be unstable and are subject to strict standards and regulations. But if you were designing a circuit for a sensor for in-home use to connect your doghouse to have wifi, then perhaps you can afford to be a bit less rigid with your electronics safety.
While a hobbyist is all about getting a piece of hardware to work, a hardware designer’s challenge is ensuring the hardware is designed with every possibility of failure considered. This may seem like a pessimistic approach but foresight is what separates great designers from average ones. When I first started out, an engineer I admired would tell me that if I gave any circuits the opportunity to short, they would, undoubtedly, in the future.
When working on a commercial design, ensure the power delivery network is stabilized with decoupling capacitors. Practice the right design technique to minimize the electromagnetic interference susceptibility of your PCB. These little things will add up to a solid and stable design.
The hallmark of a great hardware designer.
Size and Manufacturing Outputs
In commercial applications, smaller is almost always better. In certain projects, however, you may not have the luxury of a sizeable PCB. Cramping components together in a limited space may incur other challenges like onboard interference and heat and sometimes compromise manufacturability.
This is when a hobbyist-turned-professional hardware designer needs to step up their game, as various concerns may affect the ultimate outcome of the design. Professional PCB design software like Altium Designer becomes handy, as the Design Rule Check feature allows you to ensure that your design is within specified constraints before being manufactured.
But more than that, Altium Designer has a built in Bill of Materials tool which enables you to keep track of supplier information, maintain parts lists, and manage integrity from schematic to layout to ensure that a design never gets left behind. Without the support of a professional team behind you, keeping track of parts will become paramount to ensure you don’t overspend on your designs.
Turning your hobbyist passion into a professional career in hardware design? Talk to an expert at Altium for more practical tips.