Advances in Printed Circuit Board Design: Fitbit Takes Fitness from Clunky to Cool

Altium Designer
|  Created: March 15, 2017  |  Updated: December 8, 2020

When Fitbit was first developed neither of its creators had PCB design or manufacturing experience, and they immediately ran into major problems. They ultimately wanted a product that comes in a small package, which meant that proper PCB layout was critical for success. 

For his birthday, my nephew got a Fitbit. To my astonishment, instead of rolling his eyes and muttering a thank you to the floor, he held it above his head and started jumping around. “You got me a Fitbit!” he said to my sister. “Just like I asked for! Now we can see who gets more steps!” He was more excited about his Fitbit than the Star Wars Lego set his brother got him, and way more excited than he was about the awesome P-45 Mustang model kit I got him. Really? When I was his age I would’ve been appalled to get a step counter for my birthday. In fact, I did get one, and I was appalled. What changed?

Step counters didn’t use to be cool or connected. Ten years ago, the step counter was a radically different piece of technology than it is today. While these plastic devices were able to record the distance a person traveled in one day, they were not particularly accurate. Their controls were operated by a number of buttons—remember those?—that you often had to dig your thumbnail into to activate, becoming more difficult to use they became clogged with dirt and debris. The LCD crystal displays remained rudimentary, and in black and white, more akin to a 50 cent calculator than today’s smartwatch. Bulky and obvious, pedometers back then clipped to your clothing, dislodging easily. Step counters typically operated in isolation, making it impossible to track progress week over week or year over year without manual data entry.  Unsurprisingly, pedometers never caught on as either a fitness or fashion trend.

Image credit: lev radin/

Advances in Printed Board Design and Wireless Enable Fitbit

In 2007 James Park and Eric Friedman had an idea, they began to develop the smart fitness tracker that the world came to know as Fitbit. They realized that advances in printed board and wireless technology had reached the point where they could put a battery, a motion detector, and wireless connectivity capability in a small device that can upload information to a tracker on the web. With this, a person could monitor their movement, sleep, and the number of calories burned as long as they were wearing the Fitbit.

This was easier said than done. The preexisting pedometers were the only template available, and these fell far short of the design Park and Friedman had in mind. An entirely different, compact board design was necessary. However, neither Park nor Friedman had board design or manufacturing experience, and they immediately ran into major problems. They ultimately wanted a product that comes in a small package, which meant that a compact PCB layout was critical for success. Expert knowledge at that point was siloed in the byzantine windings of Apple and similar corporations.

Without expert guidance, Park and Friedman blew deadlines and budgets trying to figure out how to make their idea work. The use of professional PCB design software helped them come within millimeters of a saleable device, but the extended radio antenna they needed just would not fit the way they needed it to. With some backyard ingenuity—a tiny piece of foam to separate the radio antenna and display cable—they were finally able to design a working model and put it into production.

The simple design (from the user’s perspective), and the ability to track progress online started pulling in orders and investment capital. Soon they were able to start updating the device’s capabilities.  The next steps they took included: linking the device to an iPhone app, adding an altimeter, creating a motivational messaging system, and designing a stopwatch app. In addition to this, they improved their online portal with proactive fitness challenges and programs. In comparison to the initial design challenges Park and Friedman faced, these updates were easy to implement. Increased miniaturization of the components, refined design software, and the insight of experience helped them continuously pack more abilities into their devices.


Fitbit Changes Its Cultural Niche By Moving From Clip to Watch

These improvements generated more sales and another round of private investments. Within a few years, Fitbit made the leap from a clip-on fitness tracker to a watch. That made a huge difference. While this was certainly a technological advance, more importantly, it was a cultural advance. It changed the way that people interact with their fitness trackers.

Instead of clipping on and clipping off every time they dress for a run, people can wear their fitness trackers all day and all night without any effort. Correspondingly, people are wearing their Fitbits far more frequently. Now a fitness tracker is trendy, something you’d want to own if you wanted to be a part of the lunchroom conversation.

This mass acceptance of a fitness tracker as a part of public life paved the way for Fitbit’s shift from a private company to a publicly traded stock, raising $4.1 billion in capital for its initial public offering in 2015. Fitbit relies on advanced printed circuit board design to integrate data acquisition sensors and the wireless capabilities to transmit it. By altering the way our culture interacted with fitness, Fitbit brought these advances in printed circuit board technology to a wide variety of consumers and generated significant profits in return.

For those of you wanting to design the next Fitbit, you’re in luck! It’s no longer 2007 and the built-in functions in Altium Designer® can help make designing advanced printed boards for your business more efficient. Not only can it help you design more compact PCBs, but add-ons like Altium Vault® can help keep the components in your design organized and up to date. Now that you have no excuse—stop procrastinating and start designing!

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PCB Design Tools for Electronics Design and DFM. Information for EDA Leaders.

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