How not to fail at electronic products

Time and time again we read about a hot new Kickstarter tech product. How could we live our lives without this latest gadget? Hundreds of backers and millions of dollars are raised, progress begins and enthusiastic posts come along. “Functional demonstrator ready!” “First prototype revealed!” “Developing into prodcution model!”…. then quite often the mood takes a cooler tone. Stories of component delays, design overspend, manufacturing partners letting them down all start to emerge.

Then there’s the compliance testing.

Slowly the cool mood turns to pleading, “Please bear with us!”

“We underestimated the technical difficulty” is one of the most common reasons that teams report running into trouble.

Even big companies fail at products sometimes. This isn’t about a product being a flop though – sometimes things go wrong even if a market is waiting for something. I decided to write this article because I believe the barriers to entry have fallen a long way, and developing custom electronics is no longer the preserve of those with hundreds of thousands of dollars behind them.

Developing electronics is the easiest it’s ever been

Thing is, on the surface, designing electronic products these days looks easy. So much is available from low-cost dev boards, free toolchains, modules, shields etc – that almost anything can be dreampt up and prototyped using cheap and widely available modules. This is an amazing way of seeing what works. Within a couple of weeks you can go from nothing to a collection of dev boards, some code – even a custom PCB design can be laid out in completely free tools like Circuitmaker from Altium or KiCAD by watching a few tutorials and knowing a little bit about board design. Then you can send it off to your favourite Chinese board spinner and have some professionally-produced boards in your hands for the best part of $50. Code can be spun up using tools like STM32CubeMX or the amazing mBed from ARM and before long, with a bit of care, you’ve got your very own bit of tech!

From this point, the team then has two options:

  1. Embark on the detailed design process with your team
  2. Hire a design agency

Option 1 is great if you have some in-house talent, or are experienced in bringing products to market. The teams that can turn a winning formula often do again and again – every time is a learning experience and it only serves to make things more efficient for next time. Hiring the right kind of engineers for a fast-moving startup can be a nightmare if you don’t even know how to judge an average engineer for a good one – and even great engineers might not work well in that sort of environment.

Option 2 buys you time with a pre-built team that has the right kind of experience and knowledge, which saves a lot of headaches, but it can be dauntingly expensive – and sometimes leads to being trapped with dwindling funds and an incomplete product. Maybe requirements are misunderstood? Perhaps the design team at the agency have their own take on how it should work, which is not really what you want? Maybe there’s a language barrier – especially acute if you’re trying to combine design and manufacture in the far East. Sometimes, however, they know things you don’t – for example, sometimes you just can’t get access to the same kind of hardware that the Chinese Tat Wizards use – so that gadget based on the photo frame keyring that you can get off Aliexpress for $3 is a nonstarter because nobody will sell the parts to you for that sort of cost. Or they might even seem reluctant to use a particular part because it wouldn’t scale into production – the dev board that you based all your code on can’t be made into a production part because it uses an obsolete microcontroller, for example.

The last little bit takes as much time as the rest of the project

Most clients I’ve worked with who don’t have prior product engineering knowledge are always hugely surprised at the cost and time spent on the stage between having something that seems to work OK, to having something that is ready for market – even if that market is only extended field testing. There’s a lot that goes on under the hood in terms of subtle changes that can have a great effect on a product’s cost to manufacture, reliability or just it’s performance. Even solving things like supplier issues and component availibility can be really draining on a project’s resources just as you’re trying to get to market.

Then there’s complience testing – this can be an expensive journey for the unprepared, especially if you’ve got radios on board – and what modern gadget is complete without a bluetooth connection or cellular module?

So what’s the answer?

There’s no one-size-fits all answer, and you could be frustrated by all the options that seem to get you 90% there. But if I had to pick some pointers, they’d be:

Do what you are best at.

You’re developing a product because you have an idea, you’ve researched the market and you’re getting interest. You’ve attracted attention because you did an awesome campaign. You are fantastic at marketing and have good business sense. Stay doing that. Don’t get bogged down in technical details, or at least, not more than you need to get the picture. Don’t become an engineer. If you are an engineer already, great, but if you’re running the campaign too try and keep that business head above the weeds!

Trust the experts.

Not everyone is trustworthy, and everyone is tired of experts these days, but if you can find a guru (industry term), then hold their advice as golden. You’ll know who they are. They’ll have seen the mistakes and pitfalls, and may have made many themselves. Maybe they’re a bit cynical, perhaps they’ve seen loads of similar things fail – so what? Harness that. What do they think a success would look like?

Iterate fast, fail fast and often.

If something isn’t going to work out it’s better to have spent 3 weeks on it rather than 18 months. Running iterative development cycles used to be the preserve of the best funded tech companies – those that could afford multiple engineering teams working in parralel to thrash out prototypes that explore all the possible avenues of design. Modern, collaborative tools allow this kind of work across teams that are multi-disciplined and multi-location. You can work on designs live, and keep sending making tweaks to software, mechanical, and more importantly, hardware within a couple of weeks. A problem is identified, a solution is tested, a design is updated, CAD is regenerated and send off. $50 and 4 days later new boards come in. components were ordered for 2 or 3 to be built. Boards populated and reflowed that afternoon. Day 5 and we are running code on a completely new design.

So what do we do next?

For a design owner reading this, what can you do next? My solution is to keep moving – stand on the shoulders of giants. Learn the tools. Watch the youtube videos from the gurus. Read the forum posts – but, more importantly – get the stuff built and start failing!

Torbett Design can also help you. With years and years of experience of everything from rough prototypes, proof-of-concept, technology feasibility studies through to the handle-turning of that fast iterative design we are more cost effective than hiring a full time engineer, or can work alongside your existing team to resolve capacity issues, reduce bottlenecks and apply experience to get things moving.

Drop me a line at james@torbett.co.uk or call +44 7968 030306