Every new product introduced on the market went through multiple (sometimes dozens) iterations before a prototype was ever produced. Even after a prototype was produced, still more iterations were required to get to the point where a minimum viable product (MVP) was manufacturable. Follow through even more design iterations, and you eventually have the version of the product you see on the store shelves or a catalog. The hardware NPI process is like a science and follows specific steps, ultimately culminating in full-scale manufacturing.
Your product will never have the functionality you require unless you build a great proof-of-concept (POC). This design phase may end with a somewhat crude board that won’t resemble your final product, but it gives you a chance to focus on designing the functionality you want in a final product. If you can carefully move through each design iteration while obeying important DFM requirements, your functional prototype and the final product will be of high quality and manufacturable at scale.
POC vs. MVP vs. Prototype Design
Whether you’re just playing with a new product idea or you plan to produce a new product at full scale, you’ll need to start with a POC for your new product. This gives you the chance to qualify whether your ideas are feasible in a product produced at scale. This important part of the NPI process affects the prototype and MVP design process. This important part of NPI also allows you to rigorously define the functionality requirements for your new product. Once you’ve defined your requirements and identified the components you need, you’re ready to start building a POC.
Proof of Concept
Any new product will begin with a POC. It doesn’t hurt to try building a rudimentary POC on a breadboard. If your POC works on a breadboard, it is likely that it will also work on a PCB without worrying about complex signal integrity and power integrity issues. Otherwise, you may find that you need to route connections on your board very carefully, take steps to ensure power integrity, or swap particular components.
This exercise with a POC may seem repetitive, but it helps you narrow down the important signal integrity, power integrity, and DFM requirements that should be obeyed in your new product. In the event that your POC will only work on a real PCB, you’ll need to design a basic board that includes your desired components and supports any embedded software. This is an important opportunity to identify any layout problems and manufacturability challenges with your new device before you put it into full-scale production.
Development boards are very useful for building a POC and developing embedded software.
After you identify bugs in your POC, and possibly after you’ve produced a basic board for initial testing, you’re ready to design a functional prototype. Your prototype should be designed with the view that it will be tested for functionality in its intended environment. The POC phase is the time to identify design issues that affect electrical behavior, while the prototyping phase is the opportunity to test things like user experience, embedded software, and overall function.
During the course of testing in your ideal deployment environment, you may identify unanticipated design problems that could not be identified in your POC. This is understandable; a POC is normally tested in a lab and it is impossible to identify every design problem until you deploy in a real environment. Testing in a real environment also allows you to qualify proposed functionality or components you might want to include in your new product.
PCB prototyping will likely involve multiple iterations or testing of multiple variants of a single design. It is important to identify and solve all possible design problems before you do an initial release for your board. A prototype might be released to customers for more detailed testing and qualification, giving you an opportunity to gather feedback and make final changes before producing an MVP. Once you’ve identified and solved all design problems and you’re satisfied with the prototype’s functionality, you’re most likely ready to produce an MVP.
Minimum Viable Product
An MVP release is the final design phase and will likely be the first scaled production run, where a new product is produced with the minimum level of desired functionality. Your MVP will have the greatest resemblance to a final product that can be produced at a huge scale. An MVP can be thought of as a limited release, where you get to test the market for your new product and gather more detailed feedback than you would receive in earlier phases.
DFM in Each Design Iteration
DFM is important in all design phases as you’ll need to order multiple board runs as you continue to perfect your new product. Following basic DFM guidelines will eliminate basic manufacturing and assembly errors as root causes of any functionality problems in your POC, MVP, and prototypes. DFM is especially important in the MVP phase as your MVP is likely the final design iteration before mass manufacturing. Your MVP should be designed to be manufacturable at high volume as this will help you scale quickly.
At VSE, we have experience working on single prototype runs and helping customers scale to mass production. We understand the differences between POC vs. MVP vs. prototype design and production, and we can help you ensure your design will be manufacturable as you move through each design iteration. Whether you need quick turnaround PCB assembly services for a single POC or you are ready to produce at scale, we can expertly build your next PCBA.