Last week, we went over the steps to drawing a detailed block diagram of your product. You’ve hopefully gained a clearer idea of how the hardware should be architected and understand the fundamental organization of how your major functional components interrelate with one another.
So what’s next? How do you take this visual map of your system and translate it to a physical prototype? Which route causes the least amount of friction?
Today’s lesson will cover how you can take advantage of commodity hardware such as an Arduino or Raspberry Pi to quickly spin up a proof-of-concept prototype. This will serve as the launching point to your custom board and help you choose the parts you’ll need to build it.
What is a development board?
Arduino, RaspberryPi, BeagleBone, TI LaunchPad. You’ve no doubt come across one of these popular single-board computers before. Development boards are readily-available, off-the-shelf boards that support a very general design that’s easily hackable. More often than not, they feature some kind of processing with a batch of common peripherals and friendly connectors to make interacting with the board highly flexible and uncomplicated. Popular development boards are also backed by a large community of developers and expansive code libraries, making the implementation of common functions much easier. In addition to being an excellent tool for learnings the basics of electronics, they are a great way to start developing your product’s first prototype.
The point of this step is to quickly come out of it with a proof-of-concept model of your device. The already-populated boards are a cost-effective way to test-drive multiple components to get a better sense of what parts you’d like to eventually build with. You might find that specific chips don’t behave the way that you had expected, or that there’s simply not enough documentation to make its application easy and pain-free. It’s good to get through these hurdles at this point so that you can efficiently get through the next stages of development.
Given the multi-functional use of most single-board computers, your proof-of-concept prototype may be overkill in terms of available peripherals, components, and I/O, especially if you use multiple boards to wire up your system. This is okay and expected. Quickly building up a prototype like this may even get you to explore other functions that are available to you and get you to think about your product from a variety of functional angles.
How do you choose the right development board?
With the rising popularity in hacking electronics, there’s an overwhelming amount of available development boards with multiple models that each offer different powers, functions, and actions. Selecting the right board largely depends on the purpose and function of your design. Is your product small? Does it require solid processing power? Does it need to communicate with multiple devices? Beyond the hardware, do you want to be working with a board that is supported by a large community of hackers and developers?
The easiest way to eliminate possible choices is to start with a single board computer that matches the processing power that your device requires. Then filter by the interfaces, peripherals, and I/O that you need to support your hardware. Again, you will probably have to connect multiple, off-the-shelf products together to achieve your desired function. Hack together a working prototype that you can fine-tune and develop into your own custom board.
Check out our infographic comparing some of the most popular development boards available on the market today to help you get started!
A quick note on setting up your hardware workspace
Now that you’re starting to get your hands dirty, you’re going to need a well-equipped electronics lab to help you efficiently work on your prototypes. Often times, how your workspace is set up and organized is overlooked, costing you on time and causing unnecessary errors. Be sure to download and read our guide of tools, techniques, and tricks to putting together an effective lab. We like to call it Lab Feng Shui.
Next lesson, we’ll dive right into how to go about picking your parts! Anandh, our Head of Hardware, will explain some of the methods that have worked for him in his 10 years of experience in the industry. Coming next week!
If you’re just joining us, spend some time going over our earlier lessons and be right on track for next week!
Lesson #1: What Type of Hardware Startup Do You Want to Build?
Lesson #2: Exploring Ideas
Lesson #3: Customer Discovery
Lesson #4: The Cardboard Prototype
Lesson #5: The Hardware Lifecycle
Lesson #6: Setting Up Your Business
Lesson #7: Division of Labor
Lesson #8: The Block Diagram