Oct 10, 2019

Agile Hardware Development of  Electronics with Additive Manufacturing

additive manufacturing Electronics development—and hardware development in general—is a time-consuming process. Compared to software development, electronics development tends to carry greater up-front investment and financial risk, and the financial risk is likely to increase during the project lifecycle. The costs of making changes to a new product can be extensive, and these costs often increase as you move through the development process. The industry’s goal has always been to get a new design to work perfectly on the first prototyping run.

To address these risks in hardware development, more design teams are adopting agile hardware development workflows for the development of new electronic products. These agile product development processes are normally implemented during the design phase, as they encourage a design team to become more adaptable to changes in product or customer requirements. As prototyping, testing, and redesigning based on test results are essential parts of hardware design, it becomes important to understand the role of prototyping within the design phase.

Software vs. agile hardware development

Agile hardware development adapts agile software practices to reduce costs and development times.

Prototyping is important for testing the validity of different design choices and informing any redesigns, and more complex products will require a battery of simulations and experimental tests to qualify functionality. Informing product changes with simulations and tests, and implementing redesigns repeatedly throughout the design process, represents the iterative system at the heart of agile hardware development. Working with an additive manufacturing system for PCB prototyping makes your hardware development process truly iterative while reducing or eliminating many of the financial risks.

How Additive Manufacturing Aids Agile Hardware Development

It Helps Address Risk in Hardware Development

Due to the investment and financial risks involved in electronics development, electronics designers tend to be risk averse, which can hamper innovation and cause engineers and product designers to be very conservative with their design choices. With more complex products, they tend to rely heavily on simulation and analysis applications to design new products, while tests are only performed after a small number of prototyping runs. Due to the costs and time involved in prototyping runs and the costs of any redesigns, a design team can’t afford to make an error and take the time to fix it.

As a result, designers become unwilling to build something more complex and more innovative. They are locked into traditional linear development designed to accommodate traditional PCB manufacturing. Traditional PCB production processes place huge constraints on design freedom and limit the number of tests and redesigns a design team can implement without exceeding their budgets. This stifles innovation to the point where many designers do little more than use upgraded components in new products.

It Lets You Adapt to Change

More complex products require repeated iterations of designing, building, and testing throughout the development phase. These design, build, and test iterations are central to agile software and hardware development. Each iteration allows a product development team to identify and adapt to important design changes early in the design process. Any PCB designer knows that identifying these required changes early reduces the extent of product redesigns, which reduces overall development time and costs.

A product design team must be adaptable to change throughout the development process. The design, test, and build iterations in agile hardware development workflows allow changes to be identified and implemented before a product design is finalized. Required design changes often surface before a prototype is ever built due to changing customer requirements, component shortages, or simulation results. Similarly, some required design changes only become apparent after testing a finished prototype.

Using an additive manufacturing system for prototyping allows you to test prototype functionality in several iterations with a fixed cost structure and lead time. When your design team has access to an additive manufacturing system for PCBs, you can build a single prototype of a complex PCB with fixed fabrication time at multiple points in the design process. This allows a design team to examine functionality frequently during the design phase—at a lower cost. Overall, this speeds R&D cycles while giving designers the freedom to design PCBs with unique interconnect architecture, component embedding, and substrate geometry.

Design, Build, and Test in Agile Hardware Development

When you can make a single prototype with a fixed cost structure and lead time, you reduce many of the risks associated with producing a batch of prototypes with a traditional process. One benefit is the ability to test prototypes quickly. This informs your product development team of design changes needed to improve functionality and better conform to customer requirements. As the fabrication time with additive manufacturing is independent of device complexity, you can repeatedly produce and test prototypes during agile design sprints.

PCB prototypes produced in agile hardware development

You can print these boards and much more complex products in a matter of hours with an additive manufacturing system as part of agile hardware development.

In each development sprint, an agile hardware development team can determine the appropriate time to produce and test a prototype to evaluate design functionality. Additive manufacturing lets you fabricate complex devices, such as multilayer PCBs, in hours rather than days. Proposed design changes can be quickly evaluated through tests. This approach informs the validity of simulations and analysis results, and can help embedded systems designers identify and fix software bugs.

The design, build, and test iterations in agile hardware development with additive manufacturing are not limited to printing circuits on a PCB. The functionality of unique device architectures, like printed antennas, embedded components, non-orthogonal interconnects, and non-planar substrates, can be examined multiple times and iteratively improved throughout the design phase. This type of workflow in agile hardware development provides design teams with a cost-effective way to innovate and improve product quality simultaneously.

Optimize Agile Prototyping with Additive Technology 

If you’re considering producing your new products at full-scale with an additive manufacturing system, it also makes sense to produce prototypes during the design phase using an additive manufacturing system. Your prototypes will more closely resemble finished products, giving you a much better view of how your design choices affect the functionality of your PCB. Similarly, you can ensure your design will be manufacturable at full-scale, ultimately increasing yield.

Prototyping is an integral part of agile hardware development. Using an additive manufacturing system allows you to produce prototypes with fixed cost structure, predictable lead time, and closer resemblance to finished products.

The DragonFly LDM additive manufacturing system from Nano Dimension is ideal for in-house PCB prototyping or full-scale fabrication of complex electronics with a planar or non-planar architecture. Read a case study or contact us today if you’re interested in learning more about the DragonFly LDM system.

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