Agile Hardware Design with Online Circuit Builder Software

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Upverter Expert Makers10 (1).pngNeed to speed up NPI? Try agile development with online circuit builder tools

If you’ve ever paid attention to software developers, then you’ve probably seen the word “agile” thrown around a time or two. Anyone that confines themselves to hardware or software design likely views someone in the other camp as rather odd. Each group uses different tools, design methodologies, and workflows. With agile methodologies having proven themselves in software development, should they also be applied to hardware development?

Even though hardware designers are supremely innovative and constantly push the limits of technology, there seems to be little to no debate around improving design methodologies. Hardware designers tend to thrive on process-based methodologies, and the hardware development process can be viewed as rather linear. However, rethinking hardware design as a collaborative and creative process has the potential to improve outcomes and productivity.

What is Agile Development Anyways?

Agile development actually encompasses a number of different variations. Within the software industry, these include scrum, lean, Kanban, and feature-driven development. Any of these ideas could be easily adapted to hardware development by simply replacing the word “software” with “hardware” in literature and blogs on agile development.

While hardware development and PCB design are often viewed as a purely linear processes that progress from schematic design to PCB layout, verification, and production planning, changes are often required at different points in the design process. No product development process is purely linear as issues surrounding signal integrity, sourcing components, manufacturability, and changes in customer requirements may require changes to earlier portions of the design. Agile development stresses adaptation and responsivity to changes in order to deliver the best possible product to the customer.

Agile processes break a larger project into smaller pieces that can be developed in successive iterations. Each iteration lasts a specific amount of time and is developed through collaboration among members of a project team, and even with the customer. The goal is to prioritize what needs to be addressed during the current iteration and get it working properly. By reducing the size of each portion of a project and stitching it together as the design phase progresses, each portion of the final product can be brought to production level in succession. These iterations are repeated until a working design or product is finished and ready for manufacturing.

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You can take your Kanban tasks off a whiteboard with online circuit builder tools

Agile Methods in PCB Design

Agile methods can be easily adapted to PCB design by breaking up each design phase into its respective components and addressing them in successive iterations. While there is no universal way to break up every project, an agile approach to PCB design might break up a project as follows:

 

  • Schematic design: This lays the foundation for your PCB. If you are working on a complicated design that includes multiple functional blocks, each block could be considered its own sub-project and placed in its own hierarchical schematic. These schematics can be linked together into a top-level schematic.
  • PCB layout: This phase is usually separated from the schematic design phase, but working with design software that synchronizes changes in each document is ideal for agile design. This allows you to quickly implement product changes in each iteration of the agile process as necessary.
  • Verification: Once each sub-project is completed, it should be checked against your design rules and constraints to ensure it will meet your customer or industry requirements. Simulations also come in handy when verifying the functionality of your new product.
  • Production planning: With PCB design, this is obviously the final step in the product development process. However, as you start to work on sourcing components for your board, you may find that some components are obsolete or unsourceable, and you will need to choose replacements. This then forms another iteration of the project, where the layout and schematic are updated with the appropriate replacement components. Note that you can avoid changes by checking sourcing information during schematic design iterations.

 

Throughout the process, you’ll want to take advantage of the verification features in your PCB design software to ensure that each portion of your design obeys your design rules and constraints. Whenever an individual sub-project does not pass muster, it should be included in the next iteration. Sometimes, portions of a design may need to be triaged based on changes in customer requirements, depending on the dependencies between each aspect of a design.

Agile Hardware Development with Online Circuit Builder Tools

Online collaboration tools have been a boon to software developers. They provide real-time collaboration, revision control, access control, automated backup, and sharing features that improve efficiency and productivity. In contrast, hardware developers have lacked the same tools, and these features have normally been integrated into desktop-based software. Data management and sharing features often require a central server and plenty of oversight from an IT team in order to provide network uptime, data integrity, and access control.

When one looks at the benefits seen by software developers, particularly in agile development, hardware designers can see a big productivity boost when it comes to implementing a design workflow that requires collaboration on a complex design. Placing these tools online provides additional benefits, including storage on the cloud, sharing and release management, and access control.

After a quick scan of search engine results, one quickly finds that the online PCB design landscape is fragmented, and most online software only contains subsets of the features required under agile hardware development. Teams are forced to use multiple online and desktop tools, rather than working on an entire product in a single platform. Instead, the right online circuit builder platform will help you take a design to completion and onwards to manufacturing.

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The online circuit builder software from Upverter® provides distributed teams all the tools they need to design new electronics for any application. The design features in Upverter are flexible enough that they can be adapted to any development methodology, including agile hardware development. Your design teams can have access to design features that allow collaboration, provide revision control, and allow forking and sharing directly from your browser. 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.

Going Remote? Here’s How Online PCB Design Software Can Help

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shutterstock_173535041Who wouldn’t love to design new electronics from an island beach?

The idea of remote teams used to be anathema to tech giants that were committed to office life. How do teams collaborate? How can you possibly motivate and supervise people on your team? How do you manage projects, data, access to tools, and communicate with team members on-the-fly?

With new cloud-based technologies coming online every day, more and more businesses are allowing team members to work from afar. Some businesses are creating entirely remote teams in an effort to attract younger workers and broaden their talent base. Other companies are even transitioning all their business operations to a remote model.

Radical Change in PCB Design

With such change occurring in software-driven industries worldwide, one should pose the question: will the PCB design industry be able to keep pace with this level of change? Printed circuit design and manufacturing represent something of a paradox in high tech industries. While PCBs are responsible for facilitating many of the technological advances that make modern life possible, many PCB design tools have lagged behind software in other verticals that emphasize collaboration, open-source sharing, and access from anywhere on any device. PCB manufacturing has generally lagged behind all other industries in terms of automation and transformational innovation, and it is only now catching up to the rest of Industry 4.0.

The number of employees working remotely increased by 115% since 2005. 37% of U.S. workers were telecommuting at least part time in 2015, and these numbers have only risen over the last 4 years. Information technology was by far the industry with the greatest number of remote jobs in a recent survey. However, electronics design and the PCB design industry were not even a blip on the radar. This goes to show how such an important high tech industry has continued to lag other software-driven verticals, primarily due to the lack of collaborative tools.

Collaboration with Online PCB Design Software

Now cloud-based design platforms for PCB design will need to emphasize a number of important design, collaboration, and version control features in order for remote design teams to work successfully and create the best new electronics. Hardware startups and larger enterprises can greatly benefit from these design capabilities as it allows them to expand their talent base, provide designers with greater work-life balance, and reduce overhead.

First, design teams and entire organizations can benefit from a design platform that combines GitHub-esque sharing and forking features with a collaborative interface that mimics the capabilities of Google Docs. Bringing these capabilities into an optional desktop application allows users to tailor their experience and access online design tools alongside other desktop design applications.

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With online PCB design software, you won’t have to work on a chalkboard

Just as Google Docs and GitHub allow users to download their data to a personal device, an online PCB design platform should provide the same capabilities. This allows any designer to take their data and bring it into their favorite desktop-based PCB design application. This also allows data to be shared with other members of an organization that may not be part of the design team. You’ll also need these files as deliverables for your manufacturer once you plan on producing your design.

Staying Synchronized During Online PCB Design

Currently, the online PCB design platforms you’ll find with a search engine query contain only a subset of the features required to take a design to production. This forces you to use multiple tools rather than working in a single interface. Instead, a great online PCB design platform will let you take a design completely through to completion and help generate your manufacturer deliverables.

Your schematic editor needs to integrate directly with your PCB layout editor using a schematic capture tool. You should also be able to designate netlists in your editor, as this helps you trace out connections as schematics and layouts become more advanced. This also helps you track which components appear in a given signal net, or vice versa. All of this should happen directly in the cloud as this allows instant collaboration on a single design; you shouldn’t need a desktop application to act as an intermediary.

Your layout and schematic need to stay in sync, meaning changes in one document should be reflected in the other document. Changes can include component replacement, switching connections between components, defining new nets, or any other change you can think of. Keeping schematic and PCB editing on the cloud in a single platform ensures that the two documents can be quickly synchronized and checked as you design. This also allows your routing and layout choices to be checked against your design rules before you finalize and release your project.

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Online PCB design in 3D with Upverter

With online collaborative tools becoming more important as more workers go remote, PCB design software will inevitably catch up to this trend. Online design tools are now on the market that allow designers to undertake a number of important design tasks from anywhere. However, a complete browser-based design interface that allows users to take a design straight from an idea to a manufacturable layout has been lacking until only recently.

Now your design teams can have access to remote tools that emphasize collaboration, version control, and universal access when you use the right online PCB design software. If you’re a founder at a startup or you work for an established organization, the browser-based PCB design platform from Upverter provides all the tools you need to design new electronics. 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.

Circuit Drawing Online: Moving to the Cloud

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Everywhere you look on the internet, it seems that every legacy company is transitioning their services to the could. Programs that used to be relegated to desktop computers have gone mobile, are redesigned for collaboration, and have a mobile version that is accessible from your smartphone. Finally, and thankfully, circuit design software is starting to catch up.

Online software has progressed far beyond file sharing, data sharing, and chat programs. With greater computing power becoming accessible from the cloud, more enterprises are moving critical business platforms online, with 69% of enterprises moving enterprise resource planning capabilities online. Plenty of other cloud-based applications and capabilities are sure to follow.

Who Needs Cloud Applications Anyways?

Now cloud capabilities and distributed computing offer everyone from data scientists to circuit designers advanced simulation capabilities. Whether you’re a hobbyist designer, part of a hardware startup, or part of an established organization, you too can take advantage of the greater collaboration afforded by online design.

With more organizations going fully remote, everyone from hardware startups to larger enterprises need to seriously consider the benefits of using applications for circuit drawing online. Research from Gartner shows that businesses in every vertical are becoming more open to allowing employees to work remotely. Hardware companies are no exception, and collaborative tools for PCB design will continue being invaluable for collaboration on new products.

Developing Online PCB Design Platforms

Without a doubt, more applications will continue to move online, and developers in this area are a hot commodity. According to Crunchbase, at least 236 companies that produce cloud-based applications have received investor funding since May 2019. Developers and founders looking to create new browser-based design software hardware design capabilities are sure to have their platforms be well-received by the market as long as they include the right features.

Developers planning to create online circuit drawing applications should keep a number of points in mind when designing new applications for these platforms. The best online circuit drawing features integrate a number of capabilities from other cloud-based platforms like Google Docs and GitHub. This allows collaboration, provides version control, and enables control over sharing or privacy. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the essential features that should be included in any cloud-based hardware and PCB design platform.

  • Sharing and forking: This GitHub-style feature allows designers to create new versions of someone else’s project and start modifying it immediately. Designers can choose to share their designs so that others can fork them and create new versions or entirely different products.
  • Live collaboration: Startup teams aren’t always clustered in a single office. With more teams going fully remote, collaboration tools are a necessity rather than an option. Live collaboration mimics the capability of Google Docs, where multiple authors can work on a single project in real-time.
  • Integration with component tools: Designers need instant access to a broad range of components, and they shouldn’t have to import models from their desktop just to include them in their designs. A great cloud-based design platform should include component search, creation, and management tools.
  • Data export: Just as Google Docs and other online platforms allow data to be downloaded to a personal device, so should an online circuit design platform. This allows any designer to take their data and bring it into their favorite desktop-based design application.

Data Export Capabilities

This ability to export design data is about more than just importing data into a desktop-based design application. You’ll need these files if you want to plan for production and create a working prototype or finished product.

The important design data formats any designer needs to plan for production are Gerber files, XYRS data for pick-and-place machines, a bill of materials, Excellon files for CNC drills and a drill chart, and assembly drawings. A complete netlist and a collection of component models allows you to import your design into SPICE-based circuit simulators for verification during design.

Getting Started with Applications for Circuit Drawing Online

Working in an online design environment should make collaboration on new designs painless and while providing the tools you need to move from idea to full-scale production. All of this should happen directly in the cloud; you shouldn’t need a desktop application to act as an intermediary. Instead, an optional desktop application allows users to tailor their experience.

This all starts with schematic design, where your components and electrical connections are defined. Netlists that designate specific connections in your device need to be defined in your schematic editor, and your PCB layout can begin with a schematic capture tool in your application.

Once you’ve located your components and you’ve created your initial layout, you’ll need to check your design against standard design rules and verify its manufacturability. Once you’ve verified your design against standard design rules and through simulations, it’s time to start thinking about creating a prototype from your design. After several design, build, and test iterations, you just might be ready for full-scale production.

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You can design PCBs like this with Upverter

Now you can create high-quality designs quickly when you use the right online design software. If you’re a founder at a startup or you work as part of a remote organization, the browser-based design interface from Upverter provides all the tools you need to design new electronic products, and all in a browser-based design environment. 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.

What to Look for in Software for Circuit Design Online

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Upverter Expert Makers6 Copy 2 (1)

Even though I work in a highly technical industry, I can still be skeptical of new technology, especially when it is a new app or collaboration tool. I sometimes take the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach when viewing new software or the newest smartphone. Even after browser-based design tools started becoming popular, I was skeptical of their usefulness and functionality.

Eventually, most online tools wind up finding their place in the market and prove their usefulness for a number of tasks, and online PCB design software is no exception. With this in mind, it helps to understand the features you need to look for when you want to undertake circuit design online. If you’re a hobbyist, you work as part of a team with a startup, or you are just getting started and are still learning about PCB design, working with a browser-based design tool can offer some real benefits over desktop-based software.

Working with Software for Circuit Design Online

If you head over to your favorite search engine and start searching for online PCB design software, you’ll find plenty of options to choose from. No one has time to evaluate every single platform, especially if you’re a new designer or if you’re trying to get your new company off the ground. Much like other types of online design software, and platform for circuit design online should include features that are a suitable replacement for desktop software while remaining competitive on price.\

Most online design programs will only interface with a limited number of desktop programs if at all, and most will not provide much more functionality than creating a schematic or a simple layout. Most will not contain the tools required to quickly prepare for production, and you will likely be limited in terms of component selection.

The best browser-based design software will include the features to move through the entire design process and take a board all the way to production. This means you’ll need schematic editing tools, a PCB layout editor, and a constraints manager for enforcing specific design requirements. Along the way, you’ll likely need to collaborate with other designers on your new board in order to include the functionality you need.

Collaboration is Key

These days, teams at startups aren’t always clustered in a single office. People are spread across the globe, and each person has a role to play in designing a new electronic product. There are several issues to consider, including basic functionality defined in a schematic, the overall layout of your board, how you will go about sourcing components, and finalizing deliverables for a manufacturer.

My favorite aspect of using online design software is the collaboration it enables with other people on my design team. I’m in the US and I work with designers in Europe, and I’ll often stay up until the wee hours of the morning working with my colleagues on our designs. The GitHub-style interface gives us full control over successive versions of our designs and helps us stay organized. It also allows us to access projects from other designers and draw some inspiration for our new designs.

PCB layout in Upverter for circuit design onlineJust one of many open-source projects you can access with browser-based design software. Thanks to gigneal for releasing this project.

Larger companies need to seriously consider the benefits of online collaborative tools as more organizations adopt remote teams. According to Gartner, more businesses are becoming open to allowing employees to work from anywhere, and hardware companies are no exception. This is where collaborative tools for circuit design online become invaluable as critical team members can collaborate on new prototypes from anywhere.

Preparing for Production

Eventually, you’ll need to produce prototypes of your board and prepare your designs for manufacturing. There are several issues to consider here. First, you’ll need to find a short run manufacturer that specializes in rapid prototyping and can satisfy your design requirements. You’ll want to be sure you understand their capabilities and requirements on your board. It is good to do this ahead of time in order to avoid a time-consuming redesign of your board.

One important step you can take to increase your board yield during a manufacturing run is to make a panelized PCB from your board. This involves laying copies of your board in a specific arrangement on a larger panel. This allows your manufacturer to produce multiple copies of your board in a single run and help you get the highest yield for your costs.

shutterstock_406551418Panelized boards for manufacturing

Your manufacturer will need a number of other deliverables before they can start producing your board. This includes Gerber files, Excellon files, NC drill files, and a complete bill of materials. Many online design tools force you to download design files and open them in a different application before you can create these deliverables. Worse yet, you might be forced to search component distributor databases and compile a bill of materials in word processing software by hand. The best browser-based design software will generate these directly from your design data within your browser, saving you time and enabling the type of collaboration that makes design teams successful.

If you’re a hobbyist, a new designer, or you are trying to get your startup off the ground, you can get started creating high-quality designs quickly when you use the right online design software. The browser-based design interface from Upverter® provides all the tools you need to design new electronic products.

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 Starting a New Project

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Upverter Expert Makers6 Copy 2

I have been an Altium user for more than a decade, and I’ve just signed up with Upverter to work on some new projects for a friend. While the Upverter is new to me, my initial planning process is exactly the same, no matter what the software.

Determining Requirements

The first step of successfully starting a new project is turning your idea (or someone else’s) into a set of requirements, or a specification. You have to do this before you get started on selecting any components or doing anything else. For example, when I’m working on a complex project, this would involve developing a couple of Agile Methodology personas which I can refer back to during each step of the way. For a simpler project however, this could be just a quick Google document which identifies what inputs and outputs the device will have, and perhaps how I want to approach some of what goes on between the input and output. 

Even when working on a fairly simple device, the process of writing this requirements document will likely give you inspiration for scope creep – wait, I mean additional functionality! It’s much easier to deal with the additional functionality when converting the idea into a requirements document than it is to deal with as you’re halfway through the PCB layout. 

If you’re working as a freelancer or developing the project for someone else, this is a really great time to share your ideas with the client, as sharing your ideas shows your interest to the client and may spark even more ideas from the client. This can help give you a better project to tell future clients about, save you a lot of effort later in reworking the design, and potentially result in additional work, and pay, to integrate the new features and functionality you thought up, all whilst impressing the client.

My requirements document will give a brief overview of the concept of the product, which is typically just a paragraph or two detailing the original idea. Then, it will have a section on what the product will do. Following that, each input will get it’s own section, as will each output. Buttons, screens, and other user interface elements count as inputs and outputs, not just the connectors. If the system is battery-powered, the battery requirements will also be listed, such as expected battery runtime, current draw,  and any environmental constraints that might exist. Finally, I will add a section on the form factor and any size constraints. The form factor section will have some rough ideas of how big I want the device to be, if it will have an enclosure, and how the buttons or inputs might be grouped.

If you have budget constraints per unit for the device beyond “as cheap as possible”, you should also include this in your requirements document. If the budget is $10 and you need a microcontroller, it’s going to limit your choices. The volume this constraint applies to is critical too. If you think your production volume is only going to be 10 units, each component in the device is going to be significantly more expensive to purchase than if you are making 1000 units at a time.

If the device has firmware or software, these should be detailed as well. You might feel this is something you can leave until a later time, but by adding it now, you might find you need an extra button, LED, or connector, which can be a lot harder to add in later.

Determining Regulatory Requirements

If the device you are creating will be offered for sale, now is a good time to look into what certifications it might require. If you are selling a device with electronics in it, you will need to have it certified for compliance with regulations no matter how many you are going to sell. Functionality such as radio communications, battery charging, or AC power all require compliance with regulations. The markets in which you are going to offer your device for sale will also determine which regulations you need to comply with. I examine regulatory requirements early on, as these requirements coupled with the sales volume may heavily influence component choices. 

For example, if I’m building a device that will talk to a phone over bluetooth, but I’m only going to build 100 of them, I will be using a pre-certified radio module despite the higher cost and additional board space compared to using a bluetooth IC. This is because the cost of certifying the device as compliant with intentional radiator regulations doesn’t make sense for the volume of devices I’m building. Likewise, if I have a small volume, I might choose not to build charging circuitry into a battery powered device because the safety testing for a charging circuit is too expensive.

Choosing Parts

Now that I have my requirements, I’ll start another document where I choose high level components based on the required functionality. This is one of the parts I enjoy the most, digging through supplier websites to find all the possible parts that could meet my requirements, then digging through datasheets to determine the most optimal one among them. I’m sure some people loathe this step, but I get real satisfaction out of it. The parts we’re interested in are very high level blocks, not each individual capacitor or resistor.

As an example, if I am building a wireless temperature sensor, you might have the following blocks based on your requirements:

  • Microcontroller to take readings and log them
  • Memory for storing readings if the wireless link is down
  • Real-time clock to determine when a reading was taken
  • Wireless device to communicate readings
  • Battery
  • Voltage regulator
  • Temperature sensor
  • Humidity sensor

Some of these requirements could possibly be put together for a single device to take care of. Many ARM controllers have built-in real-time clocks that are as good as external ICs for example. Digital temperature sensors often only cost a little more with a humidity sensor built-in as well.

Because I know from our requirements that this device will be battery-powered, I can make good choices for low power components with low quiescent currents. I’d probably be looking at a microcontroller which has the deepest, lowest power sleep cycle if the requirements said this would be installed remotely and be running on primary batteries rather than something that gets charged every day. If I had more power to play with, I might be more inclined to look at an RF system on chip (SoC) that integrates the wireless unit and the microcontroller together. Depending on the radio frequency required, I might still do that. This is where the requirements document really comes into play – if the radio was a sub-1GHz unit, I know I would be going straight for an RF SoC from Silicon Labs in their Gecko series. If it needed to be WiFi, I’d probably go for an SiLabs Gecko microcontroller and a separate WiFi radio which I can switch off when I don’t need it. If the power wasn’t a problem, and this was to be a WiFi device that was always plugged in, I would likely be looking at an ESP32 RF SoC instead.

Because I have a requirements document, I can start in the relevant category of components on my preferred supplier’s website and start filtering down specifications that are most critical to my requirements until I have a very shortlist. After looking through the datasheets for parts in this shortlist, I can create an even shorter list with just a couple of highly relevant options.

Creating a High-Level Bill of Materials

It might seem too early to build a bill of materials, since I haven’t even started on the schematic yet, but this is not a BOM you would manufacture from. We’re simply looking at our part selections from above, so we can check our major components and connectors are going to fit within our budget. By making a very simple spreadsheet with each of our most likely candidates for each component, we can fill in pricing data at different volumes. This is when I typically go to a website such as Octopart and make sure the component I want to use is available in volumes at distributors that will allow me to make enough boards. If I know that the first run of boards is likely to be for 1000 devices, but globally, there are only 261 of that part at suppliers, it’s probably a poor choice of component. By using a price comparison website this early on, I can also check to ensure that the cheapest supplier has sufficient stock. By checking each component on the shortlist against stock and pricing comparisons, we can narrow our selection down to a single component that makes it to our ‘bill of materials’. 

This high-level bill of materials allows you to give stakeholders in the project a ballpark idea of how much the device will cost early on. This can really help keep expectations in check, and ensure everyone is on the same page as far as the budget goes.

Prototyping

Now that I have a pretty good idea of which parts to use, it’s time to order some breakout boards, or build them if they do not exist.

Despite the fact I just ‘committed’ to a component in our high-level bill of materials, I’ll typically prototype each component in my shortlist. Why you might ask? Well, specifications lie or might be lacking some detail. In a previous project, I committed to a specific radio module for communications because its datasheet made claims of a certain bitrate over the air. On that project, we ended up testing over ten radio modules to find one that could actually meet our requirements for data transfer, despite what the specifications in the datasheet claimed. If you’re working with a very tight power budget, it can be hard to understand from a datasheet how much power a device will consume in the real world. Not to mention, a table of minimum/typical and maximum values can be quite broad, so testing each device in your specific use case can quickly lead to selecting one component over another due to its power usage. In another project I worked on, I tried five different microcontrollers to determine their current draw in sleep. While some could get to incredibly low sleep values on paper, from a programming point of view, this was very tedious and difficult to achieve and required a lot of code. This made them a risk not worth taking. I ended up going with the SiLabs Gecko mentioned previously, because it was so easy to get it in and out of a very low power sleep mode that exceeded our requirements using only needed one line of code, rather than over a hundred for some others.

It pays off to prototype each major component. Even the components you expect to be a very straightforward choice might turn out to be less than optimal once you start talking to it with a microcontroller. If you are not building a high volume of devices, a slightly more expensive and perhaps less ‘perfect’ choice might have a nice library for your microcontroller, where the optimal choice does not. Being able to use someone else’s proven code to talk to that device could save sufficient time to justify using it over your optimal choice.

This prototyping stage can save you a significant amount of pain down the road if you find out that the component you chose to implement the design with can’t do what you expect it to be based on the datasheet, or that it is very difficult to make it do what the datasheet claims outside a lab. The small investment in time upfront to test your choices may save you days of work revising your design later on.

Writing Code

Having followed this guide,  you should now have breakout boards for each major component in your project, allowing you to build it on a breadboard and start developing code. I moved into electronics from a software development background because I was getting bored of software, so I’ll admit I am always itching to get to schematic capture and PCB layout now that I know which parts I’m going to use. Every time I do, however, it comes back to bite me. Get at least the rudiments of your code worked out on a breadboard or some other configuration that allows you to make changes as needed before committing to a circuit board. I’ve jumped the gun on numerous board spins, moving straight to a PCB only to find I need some additional hardware feature to optimize the firmware, or that perhaps the pin on a microcontroller has some caveat to its function, buried away in the manual, that means I can’t do what I wanted to with it. 

Simulation

If you have analog electronics or logic components beyond a microcontroller on the board, it can pay to quickly build the circuit in a basic SPICE simulator to check that your calculated values function as you expect. Likewise, with logic components, it’s worth making sure the circuit functions as you expect, before you commit to a circuit board only to find you goofed and swapped two inputs and only found out by testing a finished prototype with your oscilloscope.

Schematic Capture and Board Layout

Now that you’ve built your requirements document, chosen parts, and tested them both individually and as part of your entire project, you can enjoy building up the schematic and laying out the board. You’ve put in the effort to get to this point, and you can be fairly certain that the board you build will meet your or your client’s specifications at this point, and that this first revision will have a pretty good chance of working correctly right after assembly. If it doesn’t work, it should be fairly easy to track down the issue and fix the problem, as you have your breadboard to refer back to, allowing you to compare specific points of the schematic with an oscilloscope or logic analyzer to find the fault, and add little wires to the board to fix your mistakes. You probably won’t need to go and make major changes to components after finding them inadequate for the task, as you would if you had skipped the testing.

It might seem a little over the top, a waste of time, or a waste of money to go through all these steps even for very basic devices, but experienced engineers will know that it pays off in the end. The additional effort and seemingly slow progress early on make the rest of the process both much faster and much more risk-free.

I’m a big fan of reducing risk when it comes to design. This doesn’t necessarily mean simplifying the project to remove complexity, or taking the easy route, but rather means exploring complexities or challenges prior to committing to hardware. If you are a beginner just stepping into the world of developing your own hardware, you are likely to consider any circuit board to be a high risk until you have acquired more experience. If you are a seasoned professional, the threshold for high-risk designs is likely significantly elevated, and will allow you to prototype larger blocks of a project at a time, though proper documentation of your requirements would be every bit as indispensable.

See what is new in Upverter or contact us for more information if you want to learn more about the capabilities of browser-based design and product development. Or sign-up for our service today.

How to Manage a Successful Crowdfunding Campaign

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If you have played your cards right with marketing and campaign content, you have blasted past your funding goal and should be excited to move onto the next step. You have already put a significant share of work into the project this far, but now it’s time for the real work to start!

Receiving Funds

Depending on the platform(s) you went with, you can expect to receive the funds into your account anywhere from two days to two weeks from the conclusion of the campaign period. This is a really exciting step! The funds getting to your account are going to be less than your funding total due to platform fees, payment processing fees, and some customer’s cards declining the transaction. We’ve mentioned these in previous articles and your funding goal was set to accommodate this difference.

Product Certification

The first thing you’ll want to do after celebrating that the funds have arrived is to have your first set of ‘final’ boards manufactured if you haven’t already done so. Send these right off to the certification lab before doing any further production to avoid any possible complications and issues. If you have followed best practices for EMC, and your prototypes have performed well during pre-compliance testing, there shouldn’t be any issues. Your lab should be able to certify your product globally (except for in a couple of countries that require in-country testing).

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EMC and electrical safety testing are not optional, but rather a mandatory legal requirement to sell your product. If you are shipping products into the USA, Canada, Europe or Australia, there is a risk that customs will withhold the shipment(s) until certification documents can be produced. This is a more significant risk if you are sending a bulk shipment of the product to a fulfillment facility or distributor/retailer. Fines for marketing/selling an uncertified product can be hundreds of thousands of dollars, making it cheaper to go through certification before you start mass production!

Mass Production

Once your product has passed certification testing, you can prompt your contract manufacturer to build the full production run. If they are doing a full box build for you, then you can sit back and wait. Otherwise, it’s a great time to start preparing your workspace to receive the product for final testing, programming, and packaging.

You’ll want to order packaging and shipping supplies. If you’re fulfilling orders yourself rather than relying on a third-party service, you’ll want to make sure you have a label printer and a good quality laser printer if you have a large order volume. While these printers are more costly upfront than a cheap home or small office printer, the cost per page they provide is significantly lower. When you need to print 3 invoices plus a packing list for every international order, page counts rise very rapidly and taking your printing costs down to 2.5c per page from around 25c for an inkjet or budget laser printer can give you an immediate return on your investment. 

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I’ll leave this section at that, as manufacturing your product is likely the part of the process for which you have the most experience and knowledge!

Fulfilling Orders

If you only have a few hundred orders, it might be easier to fulfill the orders yourself, paying yourself or your staff the labor, rather than paying a fulfillment center to take care of it for you. Beyond several hundred orders, a fulfillment center that is both used to and equipped to deal with that volume of shipments is almost certainly going to be your most viable option. If you have a significant quantity of orders in another country, it may be cheaper to ship a large box or pallet of items to a fulfillment center in that country, and delegate distribution to them, than it is to ship directly to each customer.

If you’re using Crowd Supply for your project, they will take care of the shipping for you at a reasonably small charge per shipment. If your contract manufacturer is doing a box build and full testing, Crowd Supply can receive that delivery and fulfill all your orders for you. You can also do it yourself or use any other fulfillment provider.

If you are using IndieGoGo or Kickstarter, the real challenge is figuring out what to send to each customer. If you have some experience with databases or are willing to learn, importing the CSV data from your campaign into a simple database like Microsoft Access or OpenOffice Base can save you an enormous amount of time. Getting all your orders into a database allows you to use views to massage the data into a more usable format. Additionally, reporting functionality built into the database gives you an easy way to generate packing lists and customs invoices. Using views can also put the data into a format expected by your shipping website. It’s very satisfying when you go from entering the shipping details for every order into a shipping website manually to uploading a CSV file from your database and purchasing a hundred labels at a time. As a comparison, shipping 30 parcels would take me around four hours using a shipping website (including weighing orders and customs paperwork) as compared to around fifteen minutes to do the same job with a database export.

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If you are not experienced with databases, don’t want to hire a freelancer who is, and don’t want to dive into the deep end with them, then data management platforms like BackerKit can help you out if you used Kickstarter. Keep in mind, however, that they will take a percentage of your total funding for that convenience.

Status Updates

Frequent updates to your campaign aren’t just a nuisance the crowdfunding platforms force onto you, but rather a great way to show off what you’ve been working on. Post photos of updated prototypes, your visit to the certification lab as you do your pre-certification work, first articles from the contract manufacturer, and other production progress your customers may find interesting. By showing progress, you keep the hype going as well as help relieve the nervousness of backers who want to be sure they’ll get their product.

If you have the editing skills and feel comfortable in front of a camera, posting video updates can also be very rewarding for your backers, and make them feel more involved in the whole process.

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These updates are not just to keep the backers happy, but also to help build hype for the post-campaign availability of your product, allowing you to continue making sales even after your campaign has concluded. When making these posts, keep in mind that future customers will be looking at them and enjoying the journey, perhaps years into the future. Topping it off, being able to show progress, challenges, and triumphs in this form can help your future campaigns as well.

Future Sales

Now that you’ve successfully delivered the product to the people who pre-ordered from your campaign, you can start selling directly. Hopefully, you manufactured a few extra units allowing you to have some stock ready and prepared for sale at full price. If you are a new company and don’t have an existing sales channel or website, the decisions you make now can stick with you for several years, mainly because it can be arduous, time-consuming, and expensive to change your eCommerce system once you’ve started using it.

If you used Crowd Supply for your campaign, you could continue selling through their platform and having them ship your product. I had not intended to include this in the article initially, but looking at buying a Software Defined Radio transceiver from Lime Microsystems , I can see that this is a viable option that appears to be working well for them. I’m not sure how this would work if you wanted to release small add-on products, extra cables, or third-party products on your store, however, if you only plan to sell your main product(s), this can be a great way to keep utilizing the marketing links pointing at your campaign.

If you run a small hobby business or are targeting hobbyists, a website like Tindie could be an easy route to online sales as you work towards making sales from your website. This will also give you an additional sales channel once your website can accept sales. If you haven’t heard of Tindie, it’s like Etsy for electronics and geek goods. 

Amazon, eBay, Facebook Store, and other sales channels can increase your sales, but the fees and percentages they take can be fairly steep if you didn’t build much margin into your product. That being said, they do have massive customer bases and may offer you significant sales opportunities compared to selling directly through your website.

Rather than, or in addition to, utilizing an online marketplace, you might want to sell directly to your customers from your website. There are two main ways to approach this: using a hosted eCommerce system (Software as a Service – SaaS) or hosting your own webstore.

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The major Software as a Service (SaaS) platforms are Shopify, BigCommerce, BigCartel, and Volusion. Wix and Squarespace are website building platforms that also offer some eCommerce functionality. They all charge a (sometimes hefty) monthly fee and can come with some severe limitations, which can often be overcome by using plugins that cost you monthly. My experience using SaaS has been an expensive one, the base package of $20-$30 a month can quickly balloon out to $300-$500 a month with just a few additions like some marketing, calculated shipping, product customization, and other such plugins. Using a SaaS eCommerce package sounds like a cheap and easy means to get started with eCommerce, but unless you don’t have the skills to host or interest in hosting your own system, it is likely to either cost you a relatively large amount of money or leave you lacking basic features. Ten years ago, eCommerce systems were all about how many features they could pack in. In comparison, today’s systems seem to be about how few features they can get away with, and how well they can charge you extra for even the most basic functionality, like calculating shipping fees at checkout or printing a packing list. There are some significant advantages of using a SaaS system though. For example, they take care of security, compliance, and scale to large volumes of traffic very well.

If you still want to have your own eCommerce system and are unwilling to pay a hefty premium for someone else to take care of it for you, it’s not overly difficult to set up your own system reasonably cheaply. There’s a wide range of commercial, open-source and “open source” platforms available which you can host yourself. I put the second open-source above in quotes because they are commercial ventures masquerading as open-source software using a freemium model. Many of these options also include a hosted option for the software, typically at a much cheaper price than that of the big SaaS packages. Like SaaS options, they offer a bare-bones webstore package and require you to pay for add-ons that give you some of the most basic features in an eCommerce store (like calculated shipping or even just a weight/destination table priced shipping option in the checkout).

My preferred package for eCommerce is nopCommerce , which is an open-source enterprise-grade eCommerce system that is free (you can pay to remove the ‘powered by’ message) and extremely well featured.  It runs on ASP.NET, so does require windows hosting which can be a little more expensive than Linux hosting, yet it’s fairly easy to set up and configure and has a good community behind it for support. There are paid add-ons and themes, but they are relatively cheap and one-off payments. I haven’t managed to find another eCommerce package with quite as many features as nopCommerce has out of the box.

There are plenty of other popular open-source websites available including Magento, WooCommerce, PrestaShop, OpenCart and many others. These can require quite a bit of extra setup work over the SaaS options, but after a year, you could be looking at significant cost savings.

Thank you for following along with this series on using crowdfunding platforms to launch your product. I hope it’s the start of an epic journey toward a product launch success for you. Crowdfunding, and dealing with the volume of orders you receive all at once can be daunting but it can also be an incredibly exciting experience. There are not too many other methods available to generate as much interest in your product or grow your business as rapidly as crowdfunding offers. The opportunities for a cash-strapped startup or someone wanting to run their ‘side business’ full time are just as big as for a large company looking to gain extra marketing reach and make a big impact. In the end, if you want to boil this series down to its essence, I feel the key point to take away here is that planning and marketing are what will make your campaign successful. With good planning, you can respond to events and unexpected circumstances rather than just reacting. Your project will be more likely to stay on track and on budget. Having well-planned marketing will drive interest and traffic to your campaign making it a huge success. Something I haven’t mentioned in the series but is just as important as everything else: Don’t forget to have fun, enjoy the experience, and make sure you take some time for yourself and family. It’s very easy for a campaign to become all-encompassing in your life leaving you working long hours and missing out on enjoying the experience.

If you haven’t read the first article in this series and want to learn more about crowdfunding in general, start here to read the whole series. Or sign-up for our service, see what is new with Upverter or contact us for more information if you want to learn more about the capabilities of browser-based design and product development.

Marketing Your Crowdfunding Campaign

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If you’ve been following along with this series so far, you now have an idea of what platform you want to use, and a good idea of your pricing, rewards, and content. I’ve been mentioning marketing a lot during my articles, but I never went into the specifics of how to handle it. If you have the budget, you could hire a firm or team to do this for you and save yourself the painstaking effort, but if you’re doing it yourself, then this article will, hopefully, get you on the right track. Keep in mind that if you have your own ideas, you shouldn’t be afraid to go for it and try them out!

Pre-Launch Marketing

As mentioned in the previous article, you need to have your social media accounts set up long before you’re ready to go live with the campaign. These accounts and your activity should at least be creating some awareness of what you’re doing in the relevant communities. You need to have also joined and been interacting with the appropriate groups on Facebook and Reddit.

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Having the social media side of things down is great, but it doesn’t supplant mentions on prominent blogs and news sites. Getting an article on a popular blog can account for reaching your entire project goal without much difficulty, so they are essential. Years ago, I saw two similar projects for laser-cut wood stationery running in the same month on Kickstarter. One made $700, while the other made $80,000. Both were pretty similar as far as usability and function go, but one went all out on blogs and marketing, and the other only posted about their campaign in a couple of facebook groups that were not particularly relevant.

When you’re getting ready to tease your product to build hype, make sure your website has a way for people to sign-up for the newsletter/mailing list. I have found Mailchimp to be the easiest platform to use, but there are many other alternatives available, so feel free to rely on whichever suits you the most. Having a popup on your website after 5-10 seconds is an annoying but effective way to get mailing list subscribers. A “Coming Soon” page with a mailing list sign-up for the product is a great idea too.

If you’re not sure where to get featured, research other campaigns in the same genre and search for them using a popular search engine. Once you’ve researched a few campaigns, you’ll quickly figure out the top 10 or 20 places. Large, relevant YouTube channels and Instagram accounts can also be wonderful reviewers, depending on your product. Some sites you’ll find are purely news-based, while others might want to get hands-on with the product and show what it can do. Previously in the series, I mentioned budgeting for additional prototype boards – this is their purpose.

As you find places that could review or mention your product, collect the names of the people posting the articles if they are available (especially for larger websites with many writers). Some sites may only take a press release, while others might respond better to receiving a more informal message. Create a spreadsheet of all the websites, their writers, and their direct email addresses where possible (an info@ or news@ address probably won’t do much for you). Alternatively, you could use a free CRM/Marketing tool like HubSpot to manage these contacts and keep track of when you messaged them. I found HubSpot’s canned messages system made contacting a lot of people using personalized messages much easier for one of my campaigns. If you don’t feel like it’s the right tool for you, keep in mind that there is no shortage of alternatives out there.

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Prioritize your top contacts to send ‘review hardware’ to, and make sure that the hardware is shipped at least a month prior to the campaign to allow time for them to receive and play with it. Send the others your press release or a personal message about your campaign, with a link to the campaign preview and the launch date. Hopefully, you’ll end up with several articles about your campaign going live during the first days of the campaign to get the momentum going. 

If you’re working on a product with broad appeal, contacting your local city’s media outlets (newspapers, radio stations, TV stations) can be an excellent source of additional traffic. Some news sites will appreciate a local interest piece to cover, whilst others may prefer to wait for you to hit your goal and cover the campaign as a local success story. 

Post-Launch Marketing

Once you have launched your campaign, you will want to share the link on the Facebook groups and Subreddits you previously joined, as well as post about the campaign on your own social media pages. Don’t be spammy; this can be a significant negative influence on potential customers. Be respectful of group rules. Posting about something you’ve done with your project and putting the link right at the end can be a positive way to share your campaign.

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The perfect time to send an email to the mailing list you have been building is right after clicking the Launch button. These people have taken the time to sign up and can be expected to already be somewhat invested in the product. The mailing list subscribers are likely to be your early bird backers, purchasing those limited rewards as quickly as they can.

As you hit significant milestones such as 50% funded, fully funded, and hit stretch goals (if you have them), you can follow up with the contacts in your spreadsheet. Don’t be demanding, and don’t email them too frequently if you didn’t hear back from them after your first message, then hitting an important milestone can be a great excuse to follow up. If you’re targeting news sites that require press releases, get these written up before you go live. That way, all you’ll need to do is send them out, saving critical campaign time for more pressing issues.

Elaborating further, press releases might sound difficult or scary, but surprisingly they aren’t. If you’re still not sure you’re up to the challenge of writing a press release, you can hire a freelance reporter to write it for you. However, if you are doing it yourself, consider investigating the style of the site you’re sending to, and simply writing the article about your campaign in the same style so that all they’ll need to do is publish it.

If you have a marketing budget, well-targeted Facebook ads can be surprisingly effective. In my experience, spending $1000 on Facebook has given me about a ten-to-one return with a highly targeted audience. GoogleAds have done nothing for me, with a 0% return on any amount of money spent on the platform for my projects. You can pick up $100 vouchers for GoogleAds (generally requires some spend of your own) relatively easily, so it’s worth giving a go despite my experiences.

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On your website, keep collecting mailing list subscribers. You will be able to send updates on the campaign to the mailing list, and it will be helpful for post-campaign marketing as well as any campaigns you run in the future.

Post-Campaign Marketing

Once you’ve successfully concluded your campaign and are looking for new sales, you can follow up with some of the sites that mentioned you or reviewed your product and let them know you’re now accepting direct sales. A quick marketing push can give you a sales boost from those who had a wait-and-see attitude regarding the campaign, or missed out completely.

Hopefully, you’ve kept the mailing list subscribe popup on your website active, as well as collected mailing list subscribers through your Facebook page. You can send an email out to the mailing list subscribers at this point too to capture sales from those subscribers who have taken the time to express an interest in your product. You’ll probably see a conversion rate of about 5% from these emails.

Facebook ads with a minimum daily budget can be efficient if you have a good target audience. In my experience, the ads get better results after several weeks once the Facebook algorithms learn whom to show the ads to. Consequently, you shouldn’t rush to cancel them if you don’t get the results you were hoping for after just a day or two.

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Marketing is critical to selling any product, but especially so on a crowdfunding platform. Because you only have the funding period to reach as many people as possible, and to make as big an impact on those people as possible, solid preparation becomes a necessity. If possible, you should have everything in place at least two months before you are ready to go live. All your press and media contacts should know about the campaign at least four weeks ahead of its launch date. The work you put into the marketing aspect of your campaign will be the most directly correlated to the amount of funds raised. Having an exceptional product is important, having a quality campaign is very important, but getting people to see that product and that campaign is critical. 

If you haven’t read the first article in this series and want to learn more about crowdfunding in general, check it out. Or sign-up for our service, see what is new with Upverter or contact us for more information if you want to learn more about the capabilities of browser-based design and product development.