Entrepreneur’s Guide to Modular Product Design

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: June 20, 2023  |  Updated: March 12, 2024
Entrepreneur’s Guide to Modular Product Design

One of the most common questions I get from my hardware startup clients is this: how can I de-risk my prototype?

Entrepreneurs that are just getting started converting their proof-of-concept into a real device that they can test in the field want to make sure their time, effort, and money are put to good use. A lot of entrepreneurs are putting their hard-earned savings into these ventures, and it's desirable to ensure any potential causes of device failure are addressed early.

There is one path that helps bridge the gap between proofs-of-concept and prototypes, and it can even help a designer speed up their path to designing a fully custom PCB around their targeted components. This involves taking a modular approach to building a product by combining off-the-shelf development products, compute modules, 3rd party development products, and microcontroller/ASIC modules into a very basic version of a prototype. There is a lot of value to this approach, and it could help you speed up your time to market with lower risk if you select the right set of modules, evaluation products, and reference designs.

What is a Modular Product Design Approach?

Modular products are built using a set of modules, which might be purchased off the shelf from semiconductor vendors, purchased as 3rd party product, designed as custom boards, or a combination of all of these. The approach requires mixing and matching a set of modules that interconnect with each other, usually with cables, wires, and board-to-board connectors. These modules can be purchased from vendors like Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Opal Kelly, etc., and these are combined together to give a custom product. In fact, the idea you have for a hardware product could be built in module format, which would allow other companies to integrate it onto their PCBs.

Modular PCB design
Simple example of a modular product; individual boards are combined together to create a unique system, which is then placed into a custom enclosure.

Where can these modules be located and purchased, and what types of modules can be used to build modular products? Some ideas are found in the following table.

Development boards

Typically refers to microcontroller boards (e.g., Arduino) or smaller FPGA boards. May be supplied by semiconductor vendors, distributors, or 3rd parties.

Small ASIC modules

There is a huge range of these boards, and they normally connect to a host board over a simple pin header or cable. Typically supplied by 3rd parties or open-source.

Single-board computers (SBCs)

Includes products like Raspberry Pi, which could technically run as standalone products.

Computer-on-module (COM) or system-on-module (SOM)

These small modules can be used with a custom or off-the-shelf base board. They can provide general-purpose compute or application-specific compute.

FPGA development boards

These contain larger FPGAs needed to evaluate a particular part number family. May be supplied by semiconductor vendors, distributors, or 3rd parties.

Evaluation kits

Typically refers to a complete board for evaluating a more advanced ASIC or system-in-package. They are intended to mimic actual end products and demonstrate specific applications.


A common approach is to use any of the modules in the above list to build a first prototype without the risk of spending capital on a custom PCB. The costs required to purchase a group of modules from the above list, including for more advanced modules, is typically much less than the cost to contract out design work, component sourcing, fabrication, assembly, and logistics. For a first prototype, this is a reasonable way to prove your design concept before spending time and money on custom PCBAs.

If you can demonstrate something of value with your modular prototype, or you can prove that you can use off-the-shelf + custom modules to create a real product, then you have something that might entice investors. After all, the end goal is (or should be) to transition your good ideas into something that can be produced at scale and sold to customers. At some point, you will have to weigh how to scale your modular design, and this might involve integrating all or part of your modular system into a custom PCB.

When to Go Custom For a Modular Product

Custom boards are risky when the core functionality of a product has not been proven, mostly due to the cost of development and prototype manufacturing, which might result in a product that does not work as you envisioned. The ideal time to rebuild your product on a custom PCB is once you have completed the following tasks: 

  1. Finalized components based on prototyping with modules
  2. Verified any embedded application can produce the required functions with the components in #1
  3. Verified the modular prototype works in something resembling your intended deployment environment
  4. Found a designer that understands the process for transferring the modular device into a custom PCB

If you started with evaluation boards and/or reference designs where design files were already available, you'll already have some verified design data you can use to start building your custom board. This greatly de-risks your custom product, and you might even get help from application engineers at semiconductor vendors who may be willing to help review your design before you produce prototypes.

Another option is to make your product a module that integrates with other modules! This is the approach taken by Luxonis, an innovative company building computer vision products with module form factors. These systems can be used to add AI-driven vision capablities to other off-the-shelf hardware modules, enabling a totally new class of modular products. Learn more about Luxonis in our recent Altium story.


Whether you want to take a modular approach or you're ready to transition your design to a custom PCB, make sure your company relies on the complete set of PCB design features and world-class CAD tools in Altium Designer®. To implement collaboration in today’s cross-disciplinary environment, innovative companies are using the Altium 365 platform to easily share design data and put projects into manufacturing.

We have only scratched the surface of what’s possible with Altium Designer on Altium 365. Start your free trial of Altium Designer + Altium 365 today.

About Author

About Author

Zachariah Peterson has an extensive technical background in academia and industry. He currently provides research, design, and marketing services to companies in the electronics industry. Prior to working in the PCB industry, he taught at Portland State University and conducted research on random laser theory, materials, and stability. His background in scientific research spans topics in nanoparticle lasers, electronic and optoelectronic semiconductor devices, environmental sensors, and stochastics. His work has been published in over a dozen peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings, and he has written 2500+ technical articles on PCB design for a number of companies. He is a member of IEEE Photonics Society, IEEE Electronics Packaging Society, American Physical Society, and the Printed Circuit Engineering Association (PCEA). He previously served as a voting member on the INCITS Quantum Computing Technical Advisory Committee working on technical standards for quantum electronics, and he currently serves on the IEEE P3186 Working Group focused on Port Interface Representing Photonic Signals Using SPICE-class Circuit Simulators.

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