PCBs Are Just One Part of Product Design

Lawrence Romine
|  Created: August 16, 2023  |  Updated: March 12, 2024
PCBs Are Just One Part of Product Design

Electronic devices all need to contain integrated circuits and PCBs, but there is always much more that’s required to turn a PCB into a real product. Integrated circuits provide the main functionality on most PCBs, but they are not what creates a complete product that you can sell on store shelves. Real products require much more, and ultimately it requires reaching across engineering disciplines.

When you reach across engineering disciplines, you have to build a team to help you get through the product development process, which will ultimately get you to a point where you can scale and take the product to market. To see where the intersection between PCBs and products lies, we have to look beyond the PCB and into the areas I’ll outline below.

Beyond the PCB

Enclosures and Mechanical Parts

When most people buy an electronic device, they’re never buying just a circuit board, they’re buying something that comes with an enclosure, packaging, cords/cables, and probably a power plug or charger.

Product developers also have to develop enclosures, not just the PCB. The most common form of cross-disciplinary collaboration is electrical and mechanical, where ECAD and MCAD domains come together to ensure form and fit of the PCB within the ideal product packaging.

Individual designers who are building passion projects or development products have the luxury of selecting their own board sizes and form factors. Product development teams that build products very often constrain the electrical design based on mechanical form factor goals, not the other way around.

ECAD MCAD collaboration
This power converter module and its fan must fit within a certain 3D profile (right side) defined in MCAD software.

To implement this portion of product development, users must pass design data back and forth, something which formerly required file exchanges. Today, integration between ECAD and MCAD applications is making this process much faster and it is helping products get to market much quicker.

Firmware and Software

Many products today are designed to interface with a mobile app, a cloud application, or a desktop application on your computer. Even if this is not the case for your product, it might have some embedded application running on a host processor as firmware. Software running on a product or running external to a product has become a progressively more important part of product capabilities and user experience.

Wiring, Cabling, and Harnesses

A lot of consumer products come packaged with cables, such as the ubiquitous USB cables we all accumulate in junk drawers, or wall wart power adapters with a barrel connector. But when you look beyond the consumer domain, most products will not be using these highly standardized cables.

Instead, many products will need an off-the-shelf modular wiring and harness solution, or a totally custom cable assembly, in order to make connections between portions of their systems. For example, you might see some of these options available to a designer:

  • Wire-to-board connectors
  • Flex ribbon cables
  • Modular harnesses with crimp contacts

Any of these can be brought into an MCAD program when STEP models are available. For modular options, such as those available from Molex and Samtec, connector vendors have spent significant effort to make 3D models of their components freely available to mechanical designers.

Wiring harness
Wire harnesses like this car audio harness can be incorporated into the mechanical portion of the design, as well as in the product assembly design.

Mechanical Design for Assembly

MCAD doesn’t just drive the size, shape, and part placement on the PCB. If you’re designing a product with a custom enclosure, then that enclosure and the internal PCB will eventually need to be assembled. Mechanical engineers need to design enclosures with the product assembly process in mind. Simple things like placement of connectors, shape and span of cabling/harnesses, screw sizes, and mounting hole location could make a product impossible to assemble in a factory environment.

ECAD MCAD collaboration
This image shows a simple assembly order for a PCBA and its enclosure. Some enclosure assemblies can get very complex, involving multiple mounts, fasteners, etc.

Just like DFA matters when designing a PCB to be assembled at volume, the same ideas apply when designing an entire product that lives in an enclosure. It is the mechanical designer’s job to build the entire enclosure such that the product can be assembled in a highly efficient assembly process with minimal defects and rework.

Whenever you need to design enclosures, wire harnesses, flex cabling, multi-board assemblies, or any other component in your electronic product, make sure you use the complete set of PCB design features 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

EDA industry thought-leader and veteran expert at Altium, Lawrence is a firm believer that unified solutions are not just nice, but essential.

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