Monday, January 19, 2015

Eagles, Shields and Sparks: The New World of Electronic Hardware Prototyping

Now that the new year has started, I'd like to share a couple product development trends we've been using at DPE over the last year or two.

At some point in the development of any product, a prototype is built. In electronic products over the last 40 years, I've seen this process morph from classic bread boarding on perforated fiberglass boards, through wire wrap, to PC based CAD and inexpensive, small quantity PCB's ordered over the internet.

Likewise, forty years ago, electronic systems used hardware to compute and make decisions. Today, we use software to do that.

Physical products that still have to interface with the real world are becoming platforms. These are dedicated devices with the hardware necessary to sense and/or manipulate the real world and enough processing power to carry out the tasks. However, what the platform actually does may change over time through reprogramming.

At the same time, the cost of producing an electronic hardware prototype has fallen dramatically. Microcomputer modules such as Arduino, Nucleo and Spark run $20 or less, have the computer power of a $1000 computer board of the mid 1990's, can be as small as a postage stamp and have built in capabilities like Wi-Fi that were unheard of then. In the past, many products required substantial development of a display or other human-machine interface (HMI). Today, most of us are literally carrying around our own personal HMI; our smartphones and tablets. With a microcomputer module as the brain, a smartphone or tablet as the HMI and the hardware necessary to interface with the real world built onto a "shield" (or equivalent), the prototype platform can be ready for software development in as little as two or three weeks.

The result of this evolution is to dramatically shift the entry fee of new products, services and whole industries from capital to labor. The advantage accrues to those teams who have the necessary skills. Think of the process as employing corporate "sweat equity". The more the team skills match those required, the less "sweat equity" is expended and the faster the improvement, product or service hits the market.

If "Shield" prototyping isn't a strong-point for your organization, Digital Power Engineering can help. Depending on the circuit complexity, "shield" prototype turn around can be as little as two or three weeks.

Drop us an email at to start the conversation.