How Modular Design Helps Hardware Startups Launch and Grow

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: September 27, 2019  |  Updated: April 5, 2021

Pebble smartwatches. You can find these products on Kickstarter.

Hardware is hard... those three words best describe how difficult it can be to break into the hardware market and launch a new hardware-based product. This may be difficult to accept, but between PCB and enclosure design, planning for production, prototyping and testing, and redesigns, launching a new hardware product can be a major ordeal.

Pebble, one of the most anticipated success stories in the hardware community, has proven this to be correct. Back in 2012, the smartwatch startup wowed the internet after it raised more than $10 million on Kickstarter, an amount never raised before on the crowdfunding site. The crowdfunding success resulted in Pebble receiving millions of dollars in investment from several VCs. It is an incredible roller-coaster story, but it didn’t last long. Pebble eventually shut down and was acquired by Fitbit.

Building a Hardware focused product requires a certain level of expertise, something which some entrepreneurs may lack. You will most likely need an electronics engineer, a firmware developer, a 3D designer, an embedded software developer, and other staff to augment your team. With the right design tools, you can cut down on the number of developers required to bring a new product to market, regardless of your expertise or experience level.

Vision and Passion: The Key to Great Hardware Startups

It’s exciting to see how technology has reshaped our daily lives. Exciting new technologies are coming online that span industries from education to agriculture. Fields like artificial intelligence, AI on the Edge, the Internet of Things (IoT), and 5G-capable devices are growing daily. Drones and robotics are also beginning to see mainstream applications outside the military and manufacturing. So if you have a great idea for a new piece of hardware, how can you get it off of paper and onto the production line?

Ideas are great on paper, but you’ll need to turn your idea into a real design before it can come to life

In your quest to build and launch your hardware product, there are some important steps all hardware startups should take before moving on to production. Although you may be an engineer, you can develop production-grade hardware with the right design and development tools without getting swamped in many of the more esoteric aspects of PCB design. To get started, you should focus heavily on the functionality of your product, rather than on the nuts and bolts of how it is built.

Develop a Proof of Concept and Prototype

Building a proof of concept is the best way to quickly evaluate whether your idea is feasible and determine what will be needed to transform an idea into a real product. There are two important points any engineer should follow to build a proof of concept:

Focus on Function

When designing a proof-of-concept, one can be easily tempted to build something that looks like a finished product, which causes you to overlook critical aspects of functionality. You want to add as many features as possible to the prototype while still ensuring that the product provides the functionality your users' desire.

Doing this correctly and designing the user experience requires focusing on the hardware modules and code that will produce the desired functionality. Your goal is to get the proof of concept to produce the functions you want, not to worry about the more complex aspects of PCB design; you can worry about those points later. If you can get your proof of concept to produce the minimum level of desired functionality, then you have a good starting point for improving your device further.

A proof of concept can be built quickly using popular development boards like Arduino, Raspberry Pi, LEGOs, BeagleBone, and others. Arduino is often a popular choice for building a proof of concept as it is easy for any engineer to get started, as long as they have decent coding skills. There are plenty of open-source projects for Arduino that someone can use as a baseline for their proof of concept.

A proof of concept built on an Arduino Mega development board

Develop a System Block Diagram

As part of developing a proof of concept, you should build a system-wide diagram that shows how things will be connected and what each electronic function does. Since it is a block diagram, it doesn’t have to detail all the technical details one would find in an electronics schematic. Depending on your application, it shows things like sensors, the microcontroller/microprocessor, output devices, connectivity options, power supply, accessories, display, and any other features required to use the device.

The idea is to reproduce how your proof of concept works on paper, but you’ll want to focus on the connections between each element when creating a block diagram. The block diagram will also help in deciding which type of module or microcontroller to use, and what type of specifications you should consider when creating a functional prototype. For example, if you intend to include accessories that will require multiple USARTs/UARTs, then you’ll need a processing unit that supports more than one USART/UART port.

Building Your Custom Device with Upverter

Working with the likes of Arduino or even Raspberry Pi is a great way to build a proof of concept or even a functional prototype, but it’s not the best option for products that will be sold to the public en masse. Normally, hardware engineers will start breaking out their mechanical design tools and PCB design software to start building a production-grade product. However, working with modular design tools allows you to create a production ready solution, regardless of your experience as an electronics engineer.

The modular design tools in Upverter (previously known as Geppetto) allow you to bypass the time-consuming aspects of PCB design and quickly create a new product by linking together different modules into a unique production-grade board. The simple drag-and-drop interface allows you to quickly replicate your proof of concept as a production-grade design. This involves connecting multiple modules together to produce the functionality you desire. You won’t have to worry about designing the board-level electrical designs to connect modules together; these aspects of hardware design are fully automated, allowing you to focus on functionality and form.

From layout to 3D model and finished board, all in Upverter

When you are ready to move to production, Upverter’s automated validation stage quickly identifies possible errors and offers suggestions before finalizing the design for ordering.  Once you’ve placed your order Gumstix takes care of production and assembly, and ships fully assembled and tested boards to you.. The fully automated nature of Upverter’s interface allows hardware startups and engineers with any level of technical skill to start quickly designing new products.

Although we’ve touched some basic aspects of hardware design, they are fundamental to making sure your finished product reflects your original ideas. When building a product that will target the mass market, you still need to look at things like certifications, scalability, price, and portability.

Thanks to a platform like Upverter, hardware startups can streamline the design and production process with an array of modular design tools. You can access a large number of standard COMs and modules, allowing you to quickly create cutting-edge, fully functional modular hardware systems in a browser-based design interface. Your designs will be production-ready and adaptable for nearly any application.

Take a look at some Gumstix customer success stories or contact us today to learn more about our products, design tools, and services.


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 2000+ 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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