How Modular Design Helps Hardware Startups Launch and Grow

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: September 27, 2019  |  Updated: April 5, 2021
How Modular Design Helps Hardware Startups Launch and Grow

Hardware is hard... those three words best describe how difficult it can be to break into the hardware market and launch a new electronic product. This may be difficult to accept, but between PCB and enclosure design, planning for production, prototyping and testing, redesigns, and challenges sourcing semiconductors, 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, and the rest is history.

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 at the edge, 5G/6G, and advanced automotive systems are growing at breakneck speed. 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. If you have a great idea for a new product, there are different paths you can take to transform your proof of concept into a completed design that's ready to scale into volume production.

The Path to Product

Focus on Function With Modular Dev Boards

A common path forward that helps designers focus on their application and core functionality is to use development boards and modules to create a proof of concept and initial prototype. Starting with development boards gives you the ability to focus on building the functions and experience your target market wants. If you can get your proof of concept to produce the minimum level of desired functionality and user experience, 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, BeagleBone, Nucleo, and others. Arduino and Raspberry Pi are probably the two most popular choices for building a proofs of concept as they greatly reduce the hardware risk and they allow you to focus on perfecting an embedded application. There are many open-source projects for these platforms that can also be used as a baseline for a proof of concept.

A proof of concept built on an Arduino Mega development board

If your product requires more compute than what you'll get from an off-the-shelf Arduino board, then you can use an evaluation board with your target host processor. This is one avenue I see often with products built on FPGAs; custom boards developed around these chipsets carry a lot of development, but starting with a dev board lets you focus on the application and functionality before you spend a lot of time (and capital) developing a custom PCB.

The other benefit of going this route is it allows you to get very familiar with your target chipset, including its thermal and performance characteristics. By the time you're done working with a dev board, you can likely have your application created and tested against realistic use cases. Many dev boards also include released schematics, which are used both to build a production board and to build an embedded application.

Zynq dev board Digilent
This Zynq dev board from Digilent is an important tool for prototyping embedded software and testing it against real use cases.

Off-the-Shelf or Custom Board?

Working with the likes of Arduino, Raspberry Pi, or a development board is a great way to build a proof of concept or even a functional prototype, but it’s not always the best option for products that will be sold to the public en masse. Typically, once you get the core functionality debugged, you'll have an important decision to make: should you use an off-the-shelf board for your product, or should you design a custom PCB?

Off-the-shelf hardware is one kind of modular approach that helps you get to market quickly. It's also possible to combine multiple modules together into a production-grade product. If you don't care so much about form factors, and you don't mind stacking boards together to make connections, then you can usually get to a Gen1 product and start testing the market.

You can also take a modular approach; one option is to use a custom compute module with an off-the-shelf baseboard, or vice versa. After the Raspberry Pi CM4 was released, I started to see people building products with custom baseboards that interface with the off-the-shelf Pi module. This is a great way to reduce your design risk and only focus on pouring effort into one custom board instead of two. This also allows you to take advantage of modular certification (such as if wireless is present), especially if you need to get to market quickly with a Gen1 product.

Baseboard modular PCB
This off-the-shelf board can be used with a custom PCB module, you just need to find the pinout and the board-to-board connector part number from the baseboard schematics.

If you plan to design a totally custom board, or you want to build a custom baseboard/module and use it in a modular product, you will have to go through several steps to ensure compliance and high-quality production:

  • UL/EMC testing for safety and emissions compliance
  • Quality control for the custom board during manufacturing
  • Potential for additional prototyping runs and respins
  • Managing supply chain and procurement for your BOM in today's challenging sourcing environment
  • Qualification of contract manufacturers, packagers, and assemblers

Whenever you need to place special mechanical features into a PCB layout, you can create industry-standard documentation for your PCB with the OutJob File feature and the world-class CAD tools in Altium Designer®. To implement collaboration in today’s cross-disciplinary environment, innovative companies are using the Altium 365 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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