If you’re an engineer or product designer, you’ve probably had a great idea for a new electronic product that you sketched out on the back of a napkin in a crowded restaurant. How can you take this idea and make it a reality? Your first task is to create a proof of concept for your new design that contains the minimum functionality required to prove its feasibility.
Your proof of concept process flow will proceed through several iterations of designing, building, and testing your device. Once you reach the point where your proof of concept accurately captures your intended functionality and provides a minimum level of performance, you can move on to creating a prototype for your device and start testing it in the field.
Breadboarding will likely be your first dive into creating a proof of concept.
Creating Your Electronics Proof of Concept
When it comes to simple electronic devices, the first proof of concept that is used to illustrate the most basic functionality of a device will probably appear on a breadboard or an evaluation board, or a combination of the two. Evaluation boards are PCBs that are designed to interface with external components while still offering access to the functionality of specific components. Many companies release evaluation boards to help you get started developing a proof of concept that involves their components.
While breadboarding will work fine for the first iteration of simple electronic devices, more advanced electronics will ultimately require an evaluation board. Most likely, a device that includes a high-speed MCU or FPGA, wireless module, and some sensors will not function properly when built on a breadboard. Creating a successful proof of concept that provides your desired functionality will require a number of additional steps.
Evaluation boards are useful for creating a proof of concept with modern components, but you will be limited in terms of the additional components you can include in your board. If you are designing a device that integrates functionality from multiple devices, you may have to work with multiple evaluation boards, which quickly becomes messy. At best, an evaluation board will allow you to design and test individual functional blocks in your device. Eventually, you will need to create a proof of concept that integrates your desired functionality into a single board.
Proof of Concept Process Flow: Design, Build, and Test
When working with modern electronics, an optimized proof of concept process flow follows these general steps:
Designing Your Device
You’ll need to take a rough drawing of your device and build a functional diagram of your board. As you’ll most likely be working with evaluation boards, it is a good idea to design each functional block around each evaluation board. You’ll then want to take your functional diagram and build an electronics schematic of your device that shows how different components, power, and ground will be connected. This will become valuable once it’s time to create a prototype PCB for your device. Be sure to keep in mind that evaluation boards can be costly and may offer less flexibility than basic breadboarding.
Building Your Proof of Concept
The build phase is critical for modern electronics. Breadboarding will most likely not be appropriate for your proposed device, meaning you’ll work with evaluation boards and additional commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components to design your proof of concept. At times, it can be difficult to ensure timely supply of some components, such as capacitors, so pay attention to ordering in time to avoid component supply bottlenecks. Make sure to study and follow the manufacturer’s recommendation for working with evaluation boards as these points are critical to ensuring your components will function properly.
The testing phase is perhaps the most important portion in that you want to determine whether your proof of concept will perform to minimum standards. In the case your board does not meet minimum performance requirements, you should try to determine why this happens to inform redesigns.
Evaluate and Repeat
Once you have the results from your initial tests, it’s time to determine an appropriate strategy for fine-tuning or completely redesigning your board. The extent of any required redesigns will depend on the results from your tests. In the best case, you may simply need to add, exchange, or rearrange components. In the worst case, you may find that your device is infeasible, and you will have to go back to the drawing board. Once you have determined the appropriate redesigns, it’s time to repeat the process and assess whether your redesigns are effective.
A proof of concept on an SBC evaluation board
Proof of Concept and Prototyping with Additive Manufacturing
As you continue to add and refine functionality in your proof of concept, and you progress through several iterations of designing, building, and testing, your design will start to resemble a minimum viable product (MVP). You’ll need to take your proof of concept and create a real PCB prototype that customers can use for beta testing. If you used an evaluation board as part of your proof of concept, you will need to replicate this functionality in your PCB design to ensure that your device will have the required performance.
If you have access to an additive manufacturing system that is designed specifically for rapid prototyping of electronics, you can complement and expedite the traditional proof of concept process flow from weeks to days. You’ll have the ability to incorporate new antenna, sensor, and routing architectures during new product introduction (NPI) that are simply not accessible with COTS components and traditional manufacturing processes.
Prototyping with an electronics additive manufacturing system also helps reduce the costs associated with creating complex PCBs for functional proofs of concept and prototypes. The layer-by-layer printing process decreases the time and number of assembly steps required to create a functional board. Your design won’t be limited in terms of form factor or geometry, no matter how complex. You’ll also be able to quickly test your finished board, determine any necessary redesigns, and build a new prototype. This expedites the overall R&D process for new electronics.
As your designs become more complex, and if you want to design a device with unique sensor or antenna architectures, using traditional manufacturing processes as part of the proof of concept process flow and prototyping will quickly become impractical and costly. Companies that specialize in rapid PCB prototyping can provide shorter lead times than most PCB manufacturers, but lead times on prototypes can still reach up to a week and are very expensive. Having an in-house additive manufacturing solution is often the best way to innovate and test multiple ideas quickly and efficiently.
If you work in new product development, and you are designing devices with unique architecture and functionality, you can expedite the NPI process and optimize your proof of concept process flow when you work with an additive manufacturing system that is designed for 3D-printed electronics. The award-winning DragonFly Pro additive manufacturing system is built specifically for rapid prototyping. Read a case study or contact us today to learn more about DragonFly Pro.