Crowdinvesting vs. Crowdfunding Platforms for Hardware Startups

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Upverter Expert Crowdinvesting vs. Crowdfunding Platforms for Hardware Startups

Which crowdfunding platform should you use to build your hardware startup? The answer is not so simple…

Do a quick search for “crowdfunding platforms” on your favorite search engine, and you’ll find plenty of results with disparate requirements, terms of use, pricing structures, and target audiences. If you’re part of a hardware startup and you’ve got a great idea, a working prototype, or a finished product that you’re ready to take to market, how do you choose which platform to work with?

In this post, we’re not going to sit here and compare different crowdfunding platforms for hardware startups; there are simply too many of them to make an accurate comparison. Instead, there are some important regulatory issues you need to consider when determining how you want to fund the next step of your new venture. As always, don’t take what is written in this post as financial or legal advice . Always consult an attorney if you have questions about the legality of any crowdfunding campaign.

Crowdinvesting vs. Crowdfunding Platforms

Raising money from the crowd to fund your venture is an excellent way to start taking your idea and bringing it to your target market. A large number of people each contributing a small amount of money can add up to a large funding round for your company. There are two possible routes you can take as you consider building your crowdfunding campaign.

Everyone is probably familiar with a traditional crowdfunding campaign. This resembles a Salvation Army donation campaign, except you intend to deliver a real product to market, and possibly even to those who provided funding. The goal is to find people who connect with the project emotionally and ask them to give a small amount of money to support it. The crowdfunding platform you use to support your fundraising efforts will charge a commission for any money you raise.

The other option is crowdinvesting. Although crowdfunding and crowdinvesting may sound like interchangeable terms, they absolutely are not the same thing. Crowdinvesting could reasonably be called “equity crowdfunding,” meaning those who contribute money to the project are expecting to see a return on their investment. In other words, they are buying equity in your company.

This brings up an important issue of risk. Hardware startups that want to raise money through crowdinvesting platforms need to provide some assurance that they can create value (i.e., sustained return on investment) for their investors. This means the company needs to be closer to having a working product they can release to market, or the company should be at the point where it is ready to scale.

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Crowdinvesting is better for companies that are ready to scale

In contrast, companies that seek contributions through crowdfunding platforms tend to carry much greater risk. Contributors must understand that there is no guarantee that there will ever be a working product for sale on the market, and contributors do not own any equity. This can be good for a hardware startup, as they still have a chance to raise significant funds without diluting their equity in the company.

The implication of the above differences is that the two types of platforms attract different contributors. This makes crowdfunding and crowdinvesting platforms ideal for hardware startups in different stages and with different levels of risk. The requirements to participate on a crowdinvesting platform tend to be more stringent than on a crowdfunding platform, as we will discuss below.

Crowdinvesting Regulations

Once you start looking at the landscape of crowdinvesting and crowdfunding platforms, you’ll realize some important differences. First and foremost is the issue of obligations. Anyone that seeks contributions on a typical crowdfunding platform is under no legal obligation to provide a return on investment, or even a working product, to anyone that contributes money. With crowdinvesting, contributors are purchasing equity, meaning they are entitled to dividends in the future, or they are entitled to a portion of proceeds from the sale of any company assets should the company be liquidated.

There is also the issue of investor classes, which limits who is allowed to invest in any company advertised on a crowdinvesting platform. In the US, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) defines two classes of investors: “accredited” (a.k.a., wealthy and financially savvy) and “non-accredited” (a.k.a., not wealthy). Some crowdinvesting platforms only allow participation from accredited investors, while others allow non-accredited investors to participate.

If you are part of a US hardware startup and you want to solicit investment from non-accredited US investors, then you will need to sell equity securities under Regulation CF or claim an exemption under Regulation A. If you want to solicit investment only from accredited US investors, then you need to file a securities registration exemption under Regulation D. If you want international investors to participate, then you also need to file an exemption under Regulation S. Regulation D and S exemptions are easy to file because they carry softer regulatory requirements.

Other countries will have similar legal requirements regarding investor classification and citizenship. You’ll need to weigh the potential options carefully before deciding how you will raise funding. You should also do your homework and verify that the platform you want to use is legally authorized to run these types of funding campaigns. Although I have never heard of a scammy or illegal crowdinvesting/crowdfunding platform, you should still take the time to investigate unknown platforms before you create a crowdinvesting campaign for your hardware startup.

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Don’t forget about your regulatory environment if you’re running a crowdinvesting campaign

Speaking to Different Audiences

If you’re still at the breadboard stage and you’re looking to produce a working functional prototype, and you have no patent or other legal protections for your work, then your company is a very risky investment. This means crowdfunding is probably the best way to raise cash for your venture. People that contribute to projects on traditional crowdfunding platforms tend to do so altruistically, because they want an opportunity to buy the product later, or because they connect with the product emotionally.

People that contribute money on crowdinvesting platforms are not necessarily more or less intelligent than contributors on crowdfunding platforms. However, the legal requirements that must be met for some crowdinvesting platforms (e.g., certifying investor status or citizenship requirements), both for companies and investors, forces companies to raise themselves to higher standards. The typical social media and blogging marketing strategy for a crowdfunding campaign is not applicable to a crowdinvesting campaign, and it may even be illegal, depending on where you live and where your company is incorporated.

Equity investors in new technology are driven by the potential for return on their investment, and you will need to present a coherent strategy that will generate that return. You’ll need to do your research on the market, come up with a realistic business plan, project expenses, and develop a viable marketing strategy for your product. If you do this correctly, then you have a higher chance of convincing a savvy investor to believe in your company and your vision.

No matter which crowdinvesting or crowdfunding strategy you use to raise money for your hardware startup, you’ll need the right design software to develop your product and take your design from start to finish. The browser-based PCB design platform from Upverter® gives hardware startups the design features they need to create a fully functional product. Upverter’s online design platform includes standard features any designer expects to find in their electronics design software.

You can sign up for free and get access to the best browser-based PCB editor, schematic editor, and component database. Visit Upverter today to learn more.

The Design Guide for Hardware Startups: Design Time (Part 2)

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Upverter Expert Makers -The Design Guide for Hardware Startups_ Design Time (Part 2)Your schematics are the blueprints for your hardware startup

If you’ve already read Part 1 of this series of posts, you’ve received an introduction into validating the market for your new product and developing design requirements. Your design requirements will be revisited repeatedly and will form the foundation for the rest of the product development process. Once you’ve got a high level view of your design and its functionality, it’s time to move on to creating block diagrams, schematics, and a PCB layout for your new product.

From Design Requirements to Electronics Schematics

At this point, it is time to start thinking about translating your design requirements into real functionality and engineering the various steps required to produce the desired results. Your block diagram should summarize each portion of the system in terms of how signals move between different portions of the product. Each function in the system is depicted using blocks with clearly labelled inputs and outputs.

This helps you visualize how signals move through the system and with which components they will interface. It is perfectly acceptable to explicitly state specific components in a block diagram, such as microcontrollers that provide some data processing capabilities. In terms of mixed-signal electronics design, it is a good idea to separate the analog and digital portions of the system into different sections of your block diagram. Avoid lumping analog and digital functionality into individual blocks as this will make it more difficult to translate information into an electronics schematic.

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Example of a simple block diagram

A block diagram should remain a living document as you move on to creating a schematic. As you start building your schematic, you may find that your original design for your system needs to change, and your schematic should change alongside it. Be sure to keep detailed notes on how and why your block diagram was changed, as well as previous versions of your block diagram. This is especially important if you are working as part of a team and will ensure that everyone will have access to the same information.

Schematic Creation

Your schematic is your where you’ll assemble components into a complete system. This is where you should start designing each portion of your block diagram in separate areas of the schematic. You can then define connections between each functional block by creating signal nets. This allows you to enforce some level of organization within your schematic as you build your system.

If your board will include a microcontroller or other programmable components, then this is a good time to start working on your code as you will need to test it before you finalize your layout. Before beginning your PCB layout, it is a good idea to build your ideal system on a breadboard to check that your design will work as intended. From a signal integrity and power integrity standpoint, your device might have some problems that can only be corrected once you build a real PCB layout. However, this still allows you to test your design against your specifications and ensure that it will produce the desired functionality. If some of your functionality tests fail, then this is the time to update your embedded software, your hardware design, or both.

You’ll need to seriously consider which components you want to include in your board and any suitable replacements in the event your desired components can’t be sourced. It is always a good idea to check component availability through major distributors before getting too deep into your design. If you wait until your design is finished, and you end up including a component that has a long lead time or is obsolete, you risk going through a major redesign once you start preparing for production.

PCB Layout

Creating your PCB layout is the final design step you must complete before preparing to produce a prototype. If you created your schematic using the above guidelines, then you’ll have an easier time creating your layout. Clustering important components together into groups in your schematic based on functional blocks allows you to focus on the layout between a single block in your CAD software. Once you finish each block individually, you can start routing them together into fully connected system.

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With some hard work, your PCB layout can look as good as this

There are plenty of other design aspects to consider, such as the number of layers in your board, your grounding strategy, the need for thermal management measures like thermal vias or heat sinks, and even your routing topology. If you’re a professional engineer, then you probably have the experience necessary to make these important design decisions and create a product that will work in a variety of conditions. Otherwise, you’ve got some studying to do.

Working with an online platform that provides collaboration and sharing features in a GitHub-style environment allows you to take advantage of open source projects and learn from the work of others. This is a great way to get some perspective on how your board should be laid out. There is nothing wrong with studying others’ designs; they’ve put them out there for others to use, so you might as well learn from them!

What Happens Next?

Your journey is not over just because you completed your PCB layout. Before you move on to manufacturing, you’ll want to check your design against standard electronics design rules and constraints. These rules are designed to ensure your product will function as you intend from a power integrity and signal integrity standpoint. They also help ensure that your board will be manufacturable. Working with a simulation tool can also help you diagnose signal integrity problems in your design before you produce a prototype.

In our next post, we’ll discuss the next steps, which involve preparing to produce a prototype of your board and evaluating its functionality against your design requirements.

Working with the right browser-based design software gives you the tools you need to take a design from start to finish, including preparing for manufacturing. The browser-based PCB design platform from Upverter® gives hardware startups all the design features they need to build create watch their ideas turn into reality. This online design platform includes the standard features designers expect in their electronics design software. You’ll also have access to an extensive library of electronic components for building your next product.

You can sign up for free and get access to the best browser-based PCB editor, schematic editor, and component database. Visit Upverter today to learn more.

The Design Guide for Hardware Startups: Getting Started (Part 1)

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Building a hardware - Startup Part1Building a hardware startup is serious business

These days, software companies get all the attention, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The modern miracles we all know and love wouldn’t be possible without PCBs and the businesses that bring them to market. If you’ve got an idea for a great hardware product, then you’ll need to take some important steps before you’re ready to start marketing and selling it to the masses.

Before you start producing prototypes and planning your first major production run, there are some important steps that hardware startups should consider before moving their product into the marketplace. These steps are intended to help get you to the product design phase and maximize your chances of success in your new venture.

Market Validation for Hardware Startups

A cool design rarely sells itself. This means you need to take some time to validate the market for your new idea. Market validation is about much more than just estimating the number of units you can sell per year. It really comes down to weighing the costs involved in producing your products, the costs to market your products, and the revenue you stand to see as a result. The profit you produce from this can then be put right back into growing the business.

In addition to market validation, you’ll need to consider the type of startup you want to build. The range and number of products you plan to create, the links between them, and whether you are marketing to end consumers or other business will determine the best methodology for validating the market for your products. It will also determine your overall product development and growth strategy; this will be discussed in a future article.

Driving Innovation: Demand-push vs. Technology-pull

The drive to innovate a new product can take two forms: technology-push and demand-pull. Regarding the former, new technology allows an entrepreneur to create a product that the market might not know they even need or that is not currently in demand. The latter drive for innovation addresses a real need that is demanded by the market and is currently unsatisfied.

If you can identify a demand-pull innovation, then you have immediate market validation for your idea. Unfortunately, chances are that other companies and entrepreneurs have also identified this opportunity, unless you are targeting a niche market. This means that the first company to successfully create and market a working product will have serious first mover advantage and is likely to see major success. At that point, it is up to you to differentiate your product from that of your competitors and differentiate your product by targeting specific pain points in your market.

In contrast, a technology-push innovation is not always obvious to potential competitors. This also means it may not be so obvious to your potential customers. The problem is that you will spend more time educating customers and convincing them that your product is a better solution to their problems compared to existing products. The market for this type of innovation is more difficult to validate as potential demand for the product is not so obvious.

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Ditch the external oscillator before adding the new MCU

Sales Volume Estimation

Perhaps the most important point in market validation is to estimate potential sales volume and customer acquisition costs. If you are designing a piece of technology that is essentially an upgrade of an existing product on the market, it is easier to estimate the market for your product based on existing sales volume. You can then get an estimate of marketing and advertising costs using search engine data.

Once you have an idea of the potential market size, you’ll have to accept that you can’t satisfy the entire market from day one. You’ll need to set a realistic sales target once you launch your product. A good plan is to target a small segment of the market, normally a few percent. Once you have an idea of the number of potential market size, you can get an idea of your customer acquisition rate. This is where you can use search engine data to estimate your marketing costs for targeting your desired segment of the market.

In order to estimate sales conversions from your advertising efforts, you should devise best-case and worst-case scenarios. If you assume an average 10% conversion rate, then this means that only 1 in 10 visitors to your website will buy your product. If each click in a search engine costs $1, your click-through rate is 1%, and your only marketing strategy is pay-per-click advertising, then you will need to reach 1000 people and sell a single unit for $10 plus manufacturing costs to break even on a single sale. Obviously, you need to take this and your other advertising strategies into account when devising a marketing strategy, as there are plenty of other marketing strategies hardware startups can use to market their new products.

Defining Design Requirements

As you go through the process of market validation, you’ll inevitably get some better ideas of what your market desires and how your product should function. After validating your market and determining the functionality it desires, it’s time to start defining rigorous functional requirements for your new product. These functional requirements should define the capabilities required to produce the desired user experience. Initially, you need to focus on what the product can do, not on how the product is built.

Once the user experience and required capabilities are rigorously defined, you can start defining the technical requirements for your device. This is where you need to start thinking like an engineer; you’ll need to consider how data moves throughout your system, how the system interfaces with the outside world, and how it interfaces with other devices. This will inform the next step in the design process, where you start creating block diagrams and schematics for your device.

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Hierarchical schematics take you closer to your PCB layout

Creating a schematic is the first step in designing a PCB to support your new product. This is where you select the components in your system and start linking them together to produce your desired functionality. This where you need to consider the design software you’ll use to create your product. Working with browser-based software is a cost-effective alternative to other desktop-based design programs as it provides automated backup, version control, and collaboration features within a single platform.

As you venture down the road towards turning your new idea into a prototype and eventually a finished product, you’ll encounter plenty of design and production challenges. With the right design tools, you can take a design from start to finish and overcome these challenges. The browser-based PCB design platform from Upverter® provides all the tools any hardware startup needs to build create their next electronics product and plan their production runs. This online design platform includes all the standard features designers have come to expect in electronics design software. You’ll also have access to an extensive library of electronic components for building your next product.

You can sign up for free and get access to the best browser-based PCB editor, schematic editor, and component database. Visit Upverter today to learn more.

Open Hardware Platforms for Electronics and Photonics Design

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Upverter Expert Makers13

Get ready for the open hardware revolution

Like it or not, PCBs might go the way of the dinosaur and be replaced by more complicated photonic or electronic-photonic integrated circuits (EPICs) and electro-optics systems. Designers and researchers that want to get in on the ground floor of this groundbreaking new technology now have access to online design resources that used to be available only to the wealthiest semiconductor companies or were confined to research groups with huge budgets.

Why worry about this now? Entrepreneurs, researchers, students, and individual makers that want to help drive technological change can complement traditional PCBs with these new capabilities thanks to a number of online design tools. These tools are built to be accessible to nearly anyone with a relatively small budget with the goal of supporting open hardware and software. This levels the playing field and provides anyone an opportunity to experiment with new ideas, or to create the next revolutionary new technology.

Open Source Design Platforms that Support Open Hardware

Researchers, entrepreneurs, students, and electronics designers don’t always have massive budgets, but they may have great ideas that push the limits of new technology. Today, online design, simulation, and fabrication tools are available to help you build a new electronic or electro-optic system from scratch. You’ll even have access to manufacturing capabilities for your device through some of these platforms. Using these platforms is a great way to create prototypes as part of an experiment, or to fabricate a larger run of finished products.

The open hardware and open source electronics design platforms that are currently available are not limited to PCB design. There are a number of forward-thinking organizations that have created open-source platforms that facilitate the creation of ICs and EPICs. You can then share your open hardware designs and your PCB through any number of online venues. The platforms I’ll present here provide many capabilities that are normally found in very expensive desktop design platforms.

This allows you to get your foot in the door and start creating new technology on a budget. If you’re interested in designing and experimenting with new electronics projects and electro-optical systems, take a look at these online design platforms.

IPKISS for Photonic Component Design

The IPKISS photonics design platform is built in Python and is available as an open source repository. Although originally built for designing photonics circuits, this platform can be used to quickly generate GDSII files that include structures for interfacing with electronic light sources and detectors. The fact that the platform is built in Python and is open-source allows anyone to extend the capabilities into new areas. You can get the complete source code for IPKISS from GitHub. The IPKISS website also includes some useful examples to help you get started. If you search GitHub for photonics design, you’ll find plenty of other open source design and simulation platforms available for download.

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An example ring resonator in IPKISS (Photo Credit)

Nazca Design

Here we have another open source design platform written in Python. You can download an installer directly from Nazca. The platform was designed for EPICs and includes a number of useful tutorials to help you get started creating your first EPIC. The integrated functionality for creating electronic leads directly on a wafer makes this platform perfect for creating photonic components that will appear on a PCB. The foundry project from JePPIX also integrates with the Nazca platform, allowing you to quickly produce chips from your design when you are ready to assemble a prototype.

NUSOD Simulation Repository

The NUSOD repository contains plenty of free downloads for simulating microelectronic, opto-electronic, and photonic devices. This is a great way to validate your component design as some of these programs will read design data directly from your GDSII files. This helps you craft a unified workflow for photonics design. If you are truly ambitious, you can even integrate this open source software with the aforementioned design platforms into a unified open hardware platform for opto-electronics design.

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With these platforms, you can quickly take your design directly to a foundry

Online PCB Design with Upverter®

Most online PCB design platforms lack one or more critical features, forcing you to search for a compatible piece of software to supplement your workflow and perform critical design tasks. Upverter is arguably the best platform for an idea for a new device all the way through to manufacturing. This goes beyond simply prototyping a board; you can create designs that can be fabricated as finished products with this design platform. All the tools you need are available in a browser-based interface or in an optional desktop application.

Once you’ve created and simulated your component in one of the above platforms, you can send it to a photonics foundry to fabricate the device at the wafer scale and package it as a finished component. You can then integrate it into your PCB by creating a new component within Upverter. This allows you to create a schematic symbol and a PCB footprint for your new component. You can then include this component in your design as you would any other component. You won’t have to fabricate a large number of components. Instead, you can participate in a multi-project wafer (MPW) run and have just a few components manufactured.

The browser-based interface in Upverter includes sharing and forking features, allowing designers to make their ideas accessible to anyone as open hardware. You can also custom design your PCB to integrate traditional electronics capabilities with new technology like EPICs. If you use other desktop design tools, you can also quickly import your existing design data into Upverter’s online design platform, or you can also export your design data from Upverter into a compatible file format and start using it in your desktop design tools.

The online PCB design environment from Upverter provides anyone the tools they need to take their ideas from a drawing on paper to a working product. When combined with the other advanced tools listed above, designers have the capabilities to create advanced electronic and opto-electronic devices for any application. Designers on Upverter have made a plethora of working designs freely available as open hardware projects, and Upverter continuously updates the platform with new features and capabilities that are demanded by the community.

You can sign up for free and get access to the best browser-based PCB editor, schematic editor, and component database. Visit Upverter today to learn more.

A Guide to Making Your Own Circuit Board: Assembly (Part 2)

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Upverter Expert Makers12

The two-layer board shown in the image above is just one of many that is easy to design and produce with relatively low cost. If you’ve moved past the initial design phase and you’re ready to begin preparing for manufacturing and assembly, then you’ll have to follow some important steps. The exact steps really depend on whether you are building on top of a development or breakout board, or if you are going to contract with a short-run manufacturer.

PCB Assembly on Your Own

PCB assembly, also referred to as PCBA, is the process of assembling all your components directly on your circuit board. If you’re working with a breakout board, you’ll have to do all the assembly yourself. There are some services that allow you to order a small run of simple two-layer boards with copper etched in a specific pattern. If you’re a real do-it-yourself type of person, there are some kits available that allow you to actually etch your own two-layer copper board using a toner transfer process. However, this process involves some noxious chemicals and can produce low quality boards.

If you are using an Arduino or similar board, you’ll have much less assembly work to do, and you’ll spend more of your time programming your board. You’ll still need to connect components on the board as shown in your schematic, which is a relatively simple procedure. The same can be said of a breakout board. In both cases, you’ll be less reliant on the PCB layout side of the design process.

If you plan to outsource fabrication and assembly to a manufacturer, then there are some more steps you will need to take before your board hits the production line. On the design side, you’ll need to have a complete PCB layout for your board, as was described in the previous section of this guide. You’ll also need to choose what type of manufacturer you are looking for. Some manufacturers can help you by sourcing components from reliable distributors, while other manufacturers require you to send them your components. Different manufacturers will compete on prices, and some manufacturers will not take short run orders of PCBs.

Once you’ve decided on a manufacturer, you’ll need to submit your board details, bill of materials, Gerber files, and other design data. With short manufacturing runs, you’ll need to wait a few days for your fully assembled board to arrive. In regard to cost, the cost of assembly is highly relative and mostly depends on the type of components being used (through-hole vs. surface mount), the number of unique parts, the size of the boards, and any special requirements. You can save some money on manufacturing if you decide to assemble your board on your own. If you decide to go this route, then you’ll need to procure your own components and some soldering equipment.

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This Raspberry Pi board will come-preassembled; you’ll only need to add your additional components to create a fully functional device

Preparing Deliverables for Your Manufacturer

After preparing your Gerber files, bills of materials, and any other required information, you’ll need to send these files and your layout and schematic files to your PCB manufacturer. Most PCB manufacturers run a design for manufacturing (DFM) check before beginning fabrication. This is done to ensure the design meets minimum tolerance requirements and ensures your board can be produced with maximum yield. These checks normally focus on examining clearances between neighboring conductive elements like mounting pads, vias, and traces.

If your board passes a DFM check, then the PCB manufacturer will notify you that they are ready to begin manufacturing it. This process usually takes around 2-5 days for shorter manufacturing runs. An average 5 cm by 5 cm PCB might cost you about $1-$5, depending on the fab house you select. Now you can sit back and wait for your boards arrive in the mail!

If your PCB layout does not pass a DFM check, then the board fabricator will notify you of any required changes to your design in order to begin manufacturing. If extensive redesigns are required, then you’ll need to make revisions yourself. If the required revisions are minor, then most board houses will modify your design files for you.

Sourcing is another aspect of preparing for manufacturing when making your own circuit board. Some components have long lead times or may not be available when you start preparing for manufacturing. If you work with the right design software, you’ll have some tools that give you visibility into the component supply chain directly from your electronic components database. Component sourcing problems are a primary reason for delayed board delivery, so you’ll need to check component availability if you want your manufacturer to assemble your board.

If you are planning to assemble your board yourself, then your manufacturer will deliver bare boards without any components. You’ll need to weigh the lead time for different components against the lead time for your fabricated boards. If you’re itching to get your board built and tested, the last thing you need is a 3 day lead time on your boards and a 3 month lead time on your components.

Preparing for Manufacturing in Upverter®

When you’re preparing for manufacturing, you need to quickly convert your design data into the format your manufacturer requires. The image below shows a list of available file formats you can use when preparing for manufacturing. You’ll notice that the list includes Gerber files, netlists for use in simulation programs, drill instructions for CNC machines, your bill of materials, and even 3D STEP models for your board. You can quickly download these files to your device and send them off to your manufacturer.

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You might use some of these components while making your own circuit board

You can sign up for free and get access to the best browser-based PCB editor, schematic editor, and component database. Visit Upverter today to learn more.

System-level Electronics Design in a Free Online Circuit Builder

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Upverter Expert Makers11 (1).png

Before you get to the schematic and PCB layout stage, you’ll need some systems design tools to help you get started

When it comes to PCB design, most designers (and software companies) place schematic design as the starting line in any design. While it’s true that your schematic will form the foundation of your PCB layout, adding another layer of abstraction to your design provides a number of benefits as any electronics system becomes more complex. This extra level of abstraction may seem like an unnecessary task, but it will save you time later as you start creating your schematic.

The electronics system design space has historically consisted of a relatively small number of users, and Microsoft Office tends to be the most popular set of tools for system design. If you’re building your next electronic product, where can you get the tools you need for system-level design? Instead of working with an external flowchart tool, your electronics design software should include the features you need to create a functional block diagram or other system-level diagram for your next project. You can access system design features that are uniquely adapted to electronics in the right free online circuit builder.

Should You Start at the Component Level?

With a simpler device, starting at the component level is not necessarily a bad thing, simply because you are using fewer components. As a project becomes more complex, the answer becomes a definite “no.” In a complex system, it becomes easy to lose track of high level functionality as you focus more on the components in a schematic, rather than the links between groups of components.

Instead, it is better to start at the functional level, where the relationships between different product functions are described without specifying specific components. An example is shown in the image below. In this simple camera system, the different portions of the system that provide broad functionality (the camera, FPGA, Flash memory, and USB connectivity) are linked together to show how data and signals move between groups of components. While this system diagram only includes four functional blocks, it becomes easy to see how this same system could become increasingly complex as more functions are added.

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The start of a simple camera module in Upverter’s free online circuit builder

This approach lends itself naturally to hierarchical schematic design. In this design methodology, each of the functional blocks in the above image would be designed in its own schematic. These individual schematics would contain all the components required to provide the specific functionality for that block. These schematics are then linked together by defining nets throughout the system. This forms a parent-child relationship between different portions of the system that reflects the system-level diagram. Once you receive your prototypes, it becomes much easier to trace design problems back to a specific functional block. If you need to implement a redesign, you just need to go back to the schematic for the functional block that happens to have a problem.

If you’re skeptical of this design methodology, then take a cue from successful electronics design architects around the world. The central ideas in system design are used at the IC level, board level, and overall product level in the most advanced technical industries. When you start designing your next electronic device at the system level rather than the schematic level, you can give yourself and your collaborators a higher level view of functionality, rather than getting mired at the component level.

Upverter’s Free Online Circuit Builder for System Design

Not all design platforms include a set of tools for creating functional block diagrams of electronics systems. This means you’ll need to use an external drawing program on your desktop or subscribe to a flowchart program. While these tools allow you to create a block diagram for a hardware system or a workflow for software, they don’t all include tools that for electronics systems.

The free online circuit builder in Upverter gives you access to an advanced schematic editor, PCB layout editor, and tools to generate deliverables for your manufacturer. These online design tools are accessible alongside a system design tool that includes premade and customizable functional blocks. You’ll even be able to explore your projects in 3D. All these design tools interface with a revision history feature that tracks changes to your design by all collaborators.

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You can build boards like this with the right free online circuit builder

Placing these tools online provides a number of benefits that simply aren’t accessible in desktop design programs. First, your design is accessible anywhere by multiple team members. You’ll also be able to export your design files in standard formats for use in your favorite desktop design platform. Finally, you’ll have access to a massive components database without having to use a 3rd party data warehousing tool.

With the browser-based design features in Upverter®, anyone has the ability to access systems design, schematic design, and PCB layout tools in a free online circuit builder. The unique browser-based design interface includes an extensive components library and features to help you prepare for manufacturing, allowing you to take your design from start to finish. Upverter’s free online circuit builder includes standard features any designer expects to find in their electronics design software.

You can sign up for free and get access to the best browser-based PCB editor, schematic editor, and component database. Visit Upverter today to learn more.

A Guide to Making Your Own Circuit Board: Design Time (Part 1)

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You might use some of these components while making your own circuit board

As a newbie, hobbyist, or even electronics enthusiast, you can easily get overwhelmed with some of the terminologies used in the electronics industry. We have seen cases where a lot of upcoming electronics enthusiasts quickly lose interest in this domain and drift to other sectors. If you’re planning to make your own circuit board, it can be difficult to figure out how to get started. It all starts with the right components, design software, and plan for assembly.

Making Your Own Circuit Board

Any new product or electronics project will need a printed circuit board (PCB) to support the electronic components that give your new project its functionality. All your components are connected with copper traces embedded on the board, as well as mounting pads and other conductive elements. If it’s your first time designing a PCB, you’ll need to think about how your components connect to each other and how they will attach to your substrate.

A PCB can be single-sided, i.e., one copper layer, double-sided (two copper layers), or they can have multiple layers, as seen in some complex development boards and computer motherboards. A board with fewer layers is usually easier to design and costs less to assemble. PCBs can be produced at home depending on the board complexity, or you can outsource assembly to a PCB manufacturer for a fee.

Anyone that wants to make their own circuit board can consider using some system-level design tools and building on top of a development board, like an Arduino, Beagle Bone, or Raspberry Pi. These boards provide plenty of features and are easy to program with open source software, especially if you already have some software experience. Whether you use a breakout board, development board, or you assemble something yourself, making your PCB involves going through some important processes.

Another great way to get started with using design software and getting some ideas for a new project is to take a look at some open hardware projects. Not all design tools will give you access to open hardware projects in a GitHub-style interface. If you can access and fork these projects directly from your design tools, you can easily expand on an existing project that you know works, rather than reinventing the wheel.

Schematic and Board Design

Before getting into the schematic design and board design stages, you’ll want to make sure you carefully define your board’s functionality. This should include specifying requirements at the functional level and determining which components you need for the job. If you’ve already gone this far, then you’re ready to jump into the design process.

Circuit Design

Circuit design is the first stage of producing a PCB, and it just happens to be the most crucial stage. No matter how well a car is designed, if you put a terrible driver in the front seat, someone is going to get into an accident. This same analogy applies to making your own circuit board; no matter how good the manufacturer is, the end product will perform poorly if the board and schematic are designed incorrectly.

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Getting started making your own circuit board with a new schematic

In this stage, you’ll need to create a sort of blueprint that describes how the electrical components will be connected to each other. To create your schematic, it’s best to use a schematic design program that includes a large electronic components database. After selecting which design tool you want to use, you can quickly jump into the schematic editor and start adding your desired components. Your job is to connect them together, define your power and ground pins, headers, and other required I/Os.

Most electronics enthusiasts aren’t in the business of hiring design engineers to build their boards. This is where your design tools can provide some major assistance as they can check to see whether your circuits will meet basic electrical design rules. If you’re familiar with a simulation tool like SPICE or Verilog, you can use your design software to run simulations directly from your schematic. This gives you an opportunity to test your board’s functionality before you actually build it.

PCB Layout

The next stage after the schematic design is designing the PCB layout. The PCB layout is all about allocating where the actual components will be placed on the final board. The PCB layout will also show how copper traces will be routed and connected between components. The easiest way to get started with a layout is to use a design platform with a schematic capture tool. This saves you a significant amount of time getting started with a new layout as CAD models will get imported into a new board directly from your schematic.

UPS_layoutAn example of a 5 V, 2.5 A uninterruptible power supply board

Component placement on any PCB is crucial. Some components might interfere with each other and cause unexpected behavior. For example, if you have both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi modules, they both operate at 2.4 GHz and can interfere with each other or with other components on the board if not placed correctly. Be sure to follow your component manufacturer’s guidelines if you’re unsure of how to work with some of these components. Some development boards, notably some Arduino boards, will already include these components in the layout, and you can rest assured that they will work properly. This allows you to focus on expanding your board’s functionality instead of debugging component placement.

Once your board has passed all your rules and constraint checks, it’s time to start preparing for manufacturing and assembly. By this point, you should have an idea of whether you want to assemble your board yourself, or whether you want to contract with a manufacturer. If you’re using a breakout board or development board, you’ll most likely be assembling your own board. More complex devices will require a custom board that can only be fabricated by a manufacturer.

Making Your Own Circuit Board Online

If you’re interested in accessing a top-notch electronic design automation (EDA) platform, Upverter is ideal for new designers that want to quickly get started with a new project. Unlike other plawtforms that separate schematic and PCB design into separate programs, Upverter provides a schematic editor, PCB layout editor, and even a 3D viewer that lets you see how your board will look once it is assembled. All these features are accessible in a single browser-based platform. You’ll also have access to some tools that help you prepare your board for manufacturing. We’ll get a deeper look at these manufacturing features in our next article.

You can sign up for free and get access to the best browser-based PCB editor, schematic editor, and component database. Visit Upverter today to learn more.