Prototype Hardware Design and Manufacturing

This blog is an interview with John O’Connell of CW Applied Technology on the prototype hardware design and manufacturing process. His company support hardware startups in making prototypes and in beginning to scale. People have described them as a PCH for slow starters! They specialise in automotive, telecommunications and agri-tech sectors, with a core focus on hardware design.

They manufacture from one-off prototype volume orders up to 5,000 boards per week for some customers. Their strengths lie in B2B – they typically work with customers on products for industrial application, but would be open to working on consumer products. Their processes include high-speed machines (they can place 25,000 components an hour), low speed machines for prototype build and hand-assembly for through-put components.

In Todays’ Iot Environment, What Skills Are Needed To Design A Product?

You need to be able to work on gateways, sensors and the back-end data. You need to be able to access the commercial skills to bring that product to market. Designers also need social skills because they are required to interact with customers throughout the process. We help customers who come to us with a concept to tease it out through our ideation process. Projects require sales, materials management, manufacturing and design – all four interacting with each other through the process.

What Typical Errors Would You See in PCB Designs?

They vary but one typical error for example we see are via holes being places under ICs with big ground planes. A lot of it comes from standard design modules; from a manufacturing point of view they can be a bit of a nightmare. There is a growing gap at times between developers and manufacturers. The problems seen in manufacturing quite often have their origins in design or poor layout of components. These designs can be manufactured but the cost is higher than it should be because you end up manually placing components or you can have problems with reflow because of shadowing of components.

We had a recent issue where a prototype had been built on a bench; there was a socket connector placed on the board, a USB connection, but the socket was in the middle of the board. From a manufacturing point of view, it’s not a big issue but when you put it into the housing, it’s inaccessible. However, as it was on a bench, nobody saw that it wasn’t going to suit the housing because at that point it was being tested for functionality.

We always do a New Product Report that details where we see issues – the issues can also be based on mistakes we have made in the past so the inventor is getting the benefit of our experience.

(Read our previous blog on common errors in PCB design)

Would You Feel That Developers Are Realistic About The Time & Cost of Prototyping?

Typically, no. I can see why that wouldn’t be – you have your bill of materials and you can look at the Farnell website and figure out what the cost is. However, the developer forgets that it’s not just the cost of material; they ignore the cost of labour and the setup costs of the manufacturer. Developers quite often don’t value their own time in the prototype process.

However, if the manufacturer is using an engineer it is a cost that has to be recouped. We are very open about our costs. When I set up a line to run 10 pieces, it doesn’t cost me a whole lot less to do that than to set up a line to run 10,000 pieces. Set-up time and programming the machine take time. It depends on the number of components, but some prototypes have more components than volume manufacturing. The developer will recoup this cost because when it comes time to do the next version, a lot of that cost will not be recurring.

How Do You Feel That Easy To Programme Controllers Such as Arduino Have Changed The Design Landscape?

I think it’s made a huge change. It’s opened up the hardware design world to a new generation. Previously you had to be a highly skilled engineer; now you don’t need to be. You have access to a whole range of tools via Arduino, Galileo or Raspberry Pi – you can do a huge amount without a degree in engineering. Although, there is still quite a jump from these products to a commercially viable product.

The IoT is going to be made up of a huge amount of vertical markets so its no longer one electronic platform that will do all of those tasks for you. There’s going to be lots different electronic hardware required to achieve what’s needed in each of those verticals. So people that are coming up with those ideas have a far better chance, thanks to Arduino, etc, to do a lot of the development work themselves, and they are not as knowledge-less as they would have been 15-20 years ago when they go to talk to someone about their idea.

How Different is Prototype Build To Full Manufacture?

With prototype build, the engineering side is much more time-consuming than it is on the volume side because you’ve got to do lots of tweaking of machines, programming machines, getting reflow profiles right, etc, and you’re only building maybe 10 boards. But when you get all of that right, volume production becomes much easier.

Tell us about your experiences with prototype hardware design and manufacture! Post a comment below or tweet us at @MintTekCircuits