The Value of Rapid Prototyping Hardware

Created: September 13, 2019
Updated: April 5, 2021

Open hardware boards provide a fast path forward during the prototyping phase. But then what?     

One of the most important aspects of prototyping is exploratory learning. Each stage explores the balance of tradeoffs between performance, power, cost, ease of manufacturing, and many other variables. The initial idea begins to morph, becoming better than it originally was. 

The downside of this incremental improvement is that each stage of prototyping takes time. And the longer this process takes, the longer it takes to get to a final product—which means the longer it takes to get to market. 

More succinctly, the faster designers can iterate through prototypes, the faster the product can improve.

Traditionally, hardware prototyping has been an involved process. Components needed to be selected and boards laid out. Designing a board from scratch could mean months to first hardware, and even a simple change to a board could require a time-consuming redesign. 

The Path to Faster Products

Today, the widespread availability of off-the-shelf boards like Raspberry Pi and Arduino have completely changed how products are designed and manufactured. Designers can select an appropriate board and begin prototyping immediately. 

The Raspberry Pi and Arduino ecosystems continue to expand, giving designers access to an incredible range of modules that add complex capabilities with little to no hardware design effort. These modules typically come with preconfigured drivers and sample code, which further accelerates the design process. 

Now, instead of each prototype iteration taking months, designers can quickly adjust their designs by introducing a new module. 

But while off-the-shelf boards are excellent for prototyping, they are often not reliable enough to use in final products. This is because the final prototype may be a mashup of multiple boards with wires running all over the place. 

Design tools like Upverter (previously known as Geppetto) are the logical next step for designers looking to take off-the-shelf “maker” boards from prototype to production—even if those designers aren’t well-versed in board layout and manufacturing. Upverter’s intuitive drag-and-drop GUI interface walks you through the process of designing a custom SBC or carrier board that integrates all of the features your application requires.

As you can see from the screenshots below, in a matter of minutes I created a custom PCB based on a popular Arduino-compatible microcontroller for a connected weather station PoC. It includes:

  • ATSAMW25 M0+Wi-Fi SoC
  • Ambient Temperature Sensor
  • Humidity Sensor
  • Barometer
  • Speaker
  • 5V Power Supply

Along the way, Upverter reminded me that my design needed an I2C switch, and also added voltage and low dropout regulators. The tool also provides a cost estimate to manufacture the board at certain volumes.


Do the Math

Having a good idea is merely the first step in a long chain of design processes. Ideas must be taken through proof of concept, optimized, and then redesigned for manufacturability. Each of these stages typically requires several evolving prototypes that implement the idea in an increasingly more efficient way.

When an iterative cycle takes months, you can only get a handful of iterations in a year. When an iterative cycle is hours or days, you can iterate effectively without limitation. For some designers, they will be able to completely implement an idea in the time it would normally take to go through a single prototype iteration. Other designers will embrace the speed of rapid prototyping to test out many different implementations and narrow in on the best product possible. With rapid prototyping, designers can bring a superior product to market faster.

To try out Upverter for yourself, start prototyping and use tool, you can quickly create in a browser-based design interface. Take a look at some Gumstix customer success stories or contact us today to learn more about our products, design tools, and services.

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