Hyperloop Shows How Crowdsourcing Integrates Community into PCB Design & Prototyping
In January 2017, 27 student design teams gathered in a southern California desert for Hyperloop’s design competition. Each tested their functioning prototype Hyperloop vehicle on one mile of live track. Although they were competing for prizes, each team was excited at the privilege alone of being involved. Hyperloop differs from comparable projects in its methodology; the efforts of those teams is the project. Known as crowdsourcing, this new strategy is changing the world of design and engineering. It is benefiting projects by opening them to the perspectives, skills, and experience of designers across the globe.
Crowdsourcing Brings More Design Talent to your Project
There are several key advantages to crowdsourcing your PCB design. For one, your project or task is exposed to a wide audience of designers from different backgrounds. Outside individuals will have a completely different viewpoint to your design problem and can bring new insight to your project. Secondly, any design project or task that existing staff aren’t equipped for can be “farmed out” with relative ease. Don’t have an expert on high density, multi-layer boards? Somebody online will. Altogether, crowdsourcing makes your PCB project visible to a market of talent and lets you take advantage of it.
Crowdsourced Production: A New Way to Kill Overhead Costs
Design work isn’t the only arena that crowdsourcing is transforming. The production side of things is benefitting too, especially for startups and smaller organizations. Even for simple PCBs made of conventional materials, the cost of moving a design into production is very high. This is especially true for low volume or specialty boards, where cost-effective economy of scale isn’t present. Like with design projects, crowdsourcing has again brought a solution. Platforms like OSH Park have brought a new concept called “community production.”
“Community production” lets users merge their PCB designs onto one production board. Manufacturing multiple designs at once reduces the overhead and fixed costs per designer. Through this method, startups and even student projects can potentially get their PCB designs manufactured. Watch out, if this picks up then you might start seeing more “hipster” PCB designs on the market.
Crowdsourcing Redefines Workflows, but is there a limit?
With people becoming more and more connected, Hyperloop will not be the only big name benefiting from crowdsourcing. Major manufacturers like Peterbilt are already relying on crowdsourcing to develop new products. Using the same competition format, Peterbilt started their “RIG2” design race to create the next generation of semi trucks. However, crowdsourcing at this scale calls for some critical thinking. Is it ethical to use crowdsourcing as a surrogate production team?
Or, is crowdsourcing still a genuine way to introduce new perspectives at any level? Keep in mind that most design competitions require participants to cede full ownership and copyright. Is it worth the effort of participating if both your resume and wallet don’t benefit from it?
As crowdsourcing continues to spread, firm answers to these questions should emerge. Panels are being held to discuss the legal and ethical risks of crowdsourcing. A possible solution is to co-allocate design ownership between the creators and the companies holding the competition. Despite those issues, crowdsourcing is still worth exploring. That said, PCB designers and project leads will need to think about the pros and cons of the limitations they put on contributors.
Is it right to develop things this big using crowdsourcing?
Your Turn: How to Crowdsource a PCB Design
So how does crowdsourcing work in practice? Let’s take a look at this, using a PCB design effort as the example. Most successful crowdsourcing websites take a “freelance,” social media style approach.
These websites provide a platform where you can input the parameters and goals of your design project. Once you submit this information, the design competition is posted with a complete description of the spec and performance constraints. The best designer receives a prize for their effort. It’s often a cash payout of a specific value, but it could be a job offer, a scholarship, or even a design software subscription. Most freelancing sites simplify it to a three-step process:
Post what you need - It could be a board design, a thermal solution, a specific trace layout, or even a full design & manufacturing specification. Provide the performance goals and the design constraints (for example, only use an FR-4 resin substrate). You can also limit the post to designers with a particular background, experience, or certification. You’ll also get to specify the submission format (a presentation, a GCS file, a long-form report).
Review your submissions - This is the hard part. Go through all of the submissions and inspect them for quality and insight. In a PCB design competition, you’ll need to check the submitted performance data and any design models.
Pick your winner - Choose your winning submission and send out the prize.
What’s great about this process is that there are few barriers to entry, for both posters and submitters. Enterprise organizations, startups, and even garage projects can benefit from this system. Likewise, participating designers could be fresh academic talent or well-established designers with years of experience. What was previously an internal, laborious, and expensive process is getting remixed into a community-oriented and competitive platform.
If you’re interested in diving into the world of design crowdsourcing, it pays to have the right tools. When you need to access an easy-to-use PCB layout tool that includes everything needed to build high-quality manufacturable circuit boards, look no further than CircuitMaker. All CircuitMaker users also have access to a personal workspace on the Altium 365 platform. You can upload and store your design data in the cloud, and you can easily view your projects via your web browser in a secure platform.