How do I manufacture my prototype?

I have a great idea for a hardware product but I have no experience with manufacturing. What should I do in the early stages of development?

When building your first PCB you’ll find that you can get bare PCBs fairly inexpensively (more details on this below) but assembly is quite expensive. Both bare PCBs and assembly have large fixed costs for setup, tooling, and NREs. That’s why you won’t see a large difference in total cost for a batch of 10 or 100. Here are some tips we’ve gathered from helping a lot of hardware startups:

  • Assemble Version-1 of your prototype by hand, if possible – this is obviously the low-cost method of assembly. Put together something you can rework yourself. It doesn’t have to be pretty or compact. You can make the PCB purposely larger to facilitate manual reworking and soldering.
  • For Version-2, find a manufacturer who specializes in small-batch. We’ve had good success with PlaceDroid. Their prices are reasonable.
  • In the beginning, go with a manufacturer in your town if possible. Version-1 will almost never work as expected as you may need their help to replace and re-solder parts. Visit them in person and see their factory.
  • Be sure to use parts you can buy from large distributors like Digikey or Mouser. If you specifically design with in-stock parts, you’ll have them in yours hands 24-hours after ordering. This makes it easy to iterate fast. It will be more expensive but that’s OK in the prototyping stage.
  • Prototyping will always cost more than you think and will take longer than you think. And it won’t work the first time. Even the best electrical engineers have to do 1 or 2 revisions since there are too many unknowns at design time.
  • Bare PCBs: OSHPark, Seeed Studio, APCircuits