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Circuit Board Design For a Small Startup? 262

Posted by kdawson
from the board-games dept.
Patrick Bowman writes "I'm with a small (okay, it's just me) startup planning a camera-related USB device for the mass market. It's probably patentable so I can't give details. I can handle the software but have no hardware design or manufacturing experience. Does anyone have any recommendations for a company to handle the PCB design and manufacture? Instead of starting from scratch I've also considered approaching one of the companies (mostly in China) that make similar devices and asking them to modify their hardware for my requirements, and to provide their source for me to modify. Has anyone taken this route before? How did it work for you?"
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Circuit Board Design For a Small Startup?

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  • Try Express PCB (Score:5, Informative)

    by pcjunky (517872) <walterp@cyberstreet.com> on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:09AM (#27356695) Homepage

    Express PCB will do prototype PCBs for as little as $50 for three units. Free software to get started with (no autorouting but hey).

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Yes, ExpressPCB or PCB123 is nice. Do not go the China route. You will only wind up banging your head against the wall unless you speak fluent Chinese.

      • Re:Try Express PCB (Score:5, Informative)

        by odin84gk (1162545) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:20AM (#27356847)
        He is asking someone to design the board, including the schematic design. ExpressPCB, PCB123, and all other PCB houses fabricate the printed wiring board. They do not design and populate a circuit board for a non-technical person.

        Yes, there are a LOT of companies who do this. I would compare it to asking Slashdot for a recommendation on a website designer. If you want a professional product, expect to spend well over $50,000 for a decent company.

        On a side note, my experience with Chinese contractors is that they focus on making things as cheaply as possible, to a fault. You will hear stories about contract manufacturers in China who will take a design and remove components until it fails functional testing, keeping the savings for themselves. (This is a very, very bad thing since they can remove safety and quality features, such as a snubber circuit).

        I would heavily recommend outsourcing to Mexico before outsourcing to China. Even better, do it in the US.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by b96miata (620163)

          Even better, how about we stop encouraging/helping wild-eyed "entrepreneurs" who have these great ideas that are "probably patentable" but who are wholly incapable of actually inventing said devices.

          Hell, I have an idea for a 400mpg car for the automotive market. It's probably patentable so I can't give details. I can handle the in-car dvd and entertainment system but have no automotive engineering or manufacturing experience. Does anyone have any recommendations for a company to handle the drivetrain de

          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by mcvos (645701)

            1. Ask Slashdot
            2. ????
            3. Profit!

          • by mcgrew (92797)

            When I have a "probably patentable" idea, I say "screw it" because patents cost the thousands of dollars I can't afford to gamble, especially since patent law is on the corporations' side and totally against the little guy.

            Instead I just post the idea to slashdot so the world will have it for free; prior art. If someone has an idea for a camera but doesn't know how to build a camera, or the electronics for one, he doesn't have much of a chance at making a marketable product out of his "probably patentable"

            • by cayenne8 (626475)
              "Instead I just post the idea to slashdot so the world will have it for free; prior art. If someone has an idea for a camera but doesn't know how to build a camera, or the electronics for one, he doesn't have much of a chance at making a marketable product out of his "probably patentable" and possibly already patented idea."

              But, if he just 'gives it away for free', then he won't make any $$ off of the idea, which is the impetus for doing this in the first place, eh? I mean, we ARE all here to make a buck.

          • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

            by Anonymous Coward
            Yeah, let's stop helping people, that's a good idea.

            Many companies start off without the complete expertise to produce the product they envision. Outsourcing part of the work to another company might be smart and profitable for both parties. As long as I don't have to share the risk I'm perfectly OK with that. What's your problem?

          • Re:Try Express PCB (Score:5, Insightful)

            by rubycodez (864176) on Friday March 27, 2009 @11:09AM (#27357629)

            how about we stop encouraging/helping wild-eyed "entrepreneurs"

            bullshit, I've seen inspired people with ideas hook up with the people with know-how and build amazing businesses. teamwork multiplies brain power. and your mocking of the article poster isn't even accurate, embedded software is a core component of his product vision

            • Re:Try Express PCB (Score:5, Insightful)

              by JWSmythe (446288) * <(moc.ehtymswj) (ta) (ehtymswj)> on Friday March 27, 2009 @11:50AM (#27358333) Homepage Journal

                  If the numbers are anything like I've seen, for every wild eyed entrepreneur that has a project survive for even a couple years, that same entrepreneur has had dozens fail. For every entrepreneur like this, there are hundreds that throw everything they have into their "I'm going to make it with this!" project, and fail miserably.

                  A long time ago, I believed in a vision, and the talk. I was young and stupid. I still have tens of thousands of shares in that company. The company sold it's assets, and closed the doors long ago, but in theory if the company were to ever reorganize, those shares could be worth something.

                  I keep them as a reminder, just because someone has a wild idea and hundreds (or even dozens) of people to follow them, it doesn't mean that they will thrive.

                  If the original poster has an idea, great. If he can prototype it, even better. If he can arrange for manufacturing, excellent.

                  Now, if he can take his killer product, get it to market *AND* the public want to buy it, now you're golden. Otherwise, you're just another guy with a dream of making it huge.

                  Lots of people have had killer products, that have gone nowhere. It can be the latest, greatest innovation that's ever existed, but when you can't get it to market, and/or you can't get the public to buy it, then all you have is a story to tell your grandkids (or the other old lonely single guys at the bar where you drown your sorrows every night.)

                  Not to shoot down a dream. Go for it. Just stay practical.

              • Re:Try Express PCB (Score:5, Insightful)

                by tgrigsby (164308) on Friday March 27, 2009 @07:37PM (#27365521) Homepage Journal

                "Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."

                This is from an ARGO Computers ad in the July 8th, 1991 edition of Microtimes. The browned page hangs on the wall of my home office. When I think I'm done trying with some project, I look at that page, and then I man up and ask if the project has a realistic chance if I just keep trying.

                There once was a man that tried a dozen different businesses, and every single one failed. At age 40, on his last attempt, something simple that he was good at, he founded a restaurant that enjoyed reasonable success. When he attempted to franchise it, he received 1009 rejections before he finally managed to found his restaurant chain.

                His name was Harland Sanders, his chain was KFC, and before this wild-eyed entrepreneur died he would have told you that 11 herbs and spices weren't the secret of his success. It was determination.

            • by Spazmania (174582)

              bullshit, I've seen inspired people with ideas hook up with the people with know-how and build amazing businesses.

              As have I. But they weren't wild-eyed quote entrepreneurs endquote. They were smart, creative individuals who shared hundreds of clever ideas before running in to someone who, upon hearing the latest idea, said "That's brilliant. What if we did that here, here and here? We could make a business out of it."

              The guy with the one idea, so brilliant he can't tell you about it lest someone steal it,

          • Re:Try Express PCB (Score:5, Insightful)

            by AutopsyReport (856852) on Friday March 27, 2009 @11:10AM (#27357643)
            Even better, how about we stop encouraging/helping wild-eyed "entrepreneurs" who have these great ideas that are "probably patentable" but who are wholly incapable of actually inventing said devices.

            He did invent it, but he doesn't know how to build it. There's absolutely no shame in having the brains to invent a better product but not having the skills to build it.

            So, you can lose the attitude. We do need encouragement for enterpreneurs, whether or not they understand something so inconsequential like how to design hardware. Very, very few of us can.
            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by b96miata (620163)

              What, exactly, is your definition of "invent"?

              Part of an invention is the process by which it operates and is constructed.

              Patenting an "invention" that you have no ability to actually produce is no different than these companies who patented things like "an internet-connected gaming system with wireless controllers" but never built one, because they didn't know how, yet now feel sony, nintendo, MS et al owe them billions of dollars.

              • Re:Try Express PCB (Score:5, Insightful)

                by AutopsyReport (856852) on Friday March 27, 2009 @11:31AM (#27357981)
                You are a little off-base here, bud. What you are talking about are patent trolls which spec out an idea, typically already in use, patent it but do not intend to produce.

                This guy has spec'd out an idea but doesn't have the expertise to build it. He still intends to build it, but needs to outsource that part. Care to elaborate how he is comparable to a patent troll?
                • by b96miata (620163)

                  The patent troll example was to illustrate the example between idea, (and in some cases, patent) and actual invention.

                  I didn't say our fair poster was a patent troll, merely that he hadn't invented the device in question yet.

                  Having an idea for something is not the same as inventing it.

                  • Part of an invention is the process by which it operates and is constructed.

                    Having an idea for something is not the same as inventing it.

                    I have to take issue with this. You've presumed that the invention contains some principle heretofore unknown. Now that's a quite valid definition of 'invention'. But it does not include everything that is patentable, nor does it include everything that is an innovation.

                    Just for one example, you should apply your definition to drugs. The process by which it operates is entirely natural; the invention is the application. Possibly also the construction of the drug, but not necessarily.

                    For another example

              • What, exactly, is your definition of "invent"?

                Part of an invention is the process by which it operates and is constructed.

                So every inventor of a product implemented on a circuit board needs to know the capabilities of modern board fabricators to produce a PCB capable of mass production at a reasonable price?

                That's crazy. He's the inventor - fair enough. All he needs is to hire (or partner with) and engineer capable of implementing his circuit.

                I, for example, could easily design a board to implement his circuit, in any combination of hardware and HDL as necessary, in a way that would yield a finished product capable of low-co

          • by oliderid (710055)

            Even better, how about we stop encouraging/helping wild-eyed "entrepreneurs" who have these great ideas that are "probably patentable" but who are wholly incapable of actually inventing said devices.

            Steve Jobs shouldn't have "great ideas" about software because he can't program?

            • No, he should have great ideas about marketing because he can't program. That has always been his strong point. Let the engineers figure out what to actually do with it. The question is how do you sell it, and to whom?
          • Re:Try Express PCB (Score:5, Insightful)

            by Hurricane78 (562437) <.gro.todhsals. .ta. .deteled.> on Friday March 27, 2009 @11:53AM (#27358379)

            You are confusing inventing with engineering.

            "Leaving research exclusively in the hands of engineers, we would have perfectly functioning oil lamps, but no electricity." -- Albert Einstein

            I feel offended by your comment.

        • by Lumpy (12016)

          Even better. partner with someone that is competent in electronics.

          Honestly, if the guy thinks he can do it on his own he is completely nuts.

          Either get a few million in operating capitol and hire an EE ($68,000.00 to start) and the associated staff, or find one that will partner with you for 50% of the money to be made.

          • by gwait (179005)

            I would go so far as to say he better spend some time on his own to work out how to actually do the hardware part, at least to the point where he will be able to tell if a contractor or potential hw oriented business partner is bullshitting him.

            It doesn't sound like he's at the point where real money needs to be thrown around, this feels like a garage shop startup concept.
            Silicon is practically free these days.

            Reading between the lines I get the feeling he has almost no clue at all about the hardware side.
            I

        • ...my experience with Chinese contractors is that they focus on making things as cheaply as possible, to a fault. You will hear stories about contract manufacturers in China who will take a design and remove components until it fails functional testing

          Or they'll use counterfeit semiconductors that'll blow under minimum load, resulting in lots of angry customers who have to send their expensive toys in for service...

          • Re:Try Express PCB (Score:4, Informative)

            by Austerity Empowers (669817) on Friday March 27, 2009 @11:45AM (#27358217)

            Nominally if you are operating a consumer electronics business you empower your hardware engineers to never allow a foreign factory to substitute parts in your product.

            Your design includes the schematics, the gerbers AND the BOM, when you do your product testing you test ALL THREE. You provide your factory with what they need to manufacture (gerbers+parts) and force them to ask you for substitutions or deviations.

            You always do a first article inspection, you always test the output of the factory before you go to market, and you never let them have a choice.

            Unless you're in very high volume production, the amount of management you will need here in the US to maintain this, is insane. If you're doing high end, high margin products, you may as well use a US based manufacturer. They can be evil as well, but at least they speak english and are no more than a few timezones away.

            I advocate keeping the hardware design in-house with your software. You can successfully outsource the mfg, you probably want to contract out the layout (drafting), but you want at least one hardware engineer who understands how to design and test PCBs on staff. A lot of them (me included) also know how to do device drivers, bootloaders, and programmable logic that you may need, and ought to be able to handle the signal processing discussions which will arise (CCDs aren't foolproof).

          • by cayenne8 (626475)
            Or, as usual, the Chinese will steal your idea, fab up their own version of the product, sell it under another name, and make money off your idea.
        • Re:Try Express PCB (Score:4, Informative)

          by Rorschach1 (174480) on Friday March 27, 2009 @12:04PM (#27358523) Homepage

          I agree with the $50,000+ price tag if you're looking to have someone else do everything.

          As for building it in the US, have you tried? It *can* be done, but it seems to keep getting more difficult. I do have some PCBs assembled in the US, even though I could have them done in China for less. But for stuff like injection molded cables, I've gotten prices of $8+ each in the US when I can get them for around $1.50 in China. I'm willing to pay 50% to 100% more to keep production in the US, but 500%+ is a little hard to swallow.

          There are also independent QA providers that operate in China who (for a price) will keep a close eye on outsourced manufacturing, and it's their job to know all of the little tricks the factories like to pull.

          Most of the service-related companies I use in the US (printing, PCB assembly, metal fabrication, axial component sequencing) are small, usually family-owned businesses. They're the only ones who have been able to offer the prices and level of service that make it worth paying a premium for. And too many of the big companies, through arrogance or apathy, won't even touch something a little out of the ordinary. They're like the kids working at McDonald's - if it's not on one of the buttons in front of them, they can't do it.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by digitalunity (19107)

        AC speaks the truth. Do not seek any manufacturing in China unless you're planning on high volume production.

        If you're still in prototyping phase, you have no reason to try. You will just end up frustrated.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Frosty Piss (770223)

        Do not go the China route. You will only wind up banging your head against the wall unless you speak fluent Chinese.

        And if your design is worth anything, you'll start seeing it on eBay, at dollar stores, in mail order catalogs, As Seen On TV... You'll wonder where those orders are, because none will be coming to you... Theft by Chinese blackmarketers.

  • Where are you? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Depends on where you are - I recommend working with someone local. This is the kind of project where you would want to work very closely with the manufacturer. If you happen to be in Colorado - I highly recommend Premier Manufacturing (pmscs.com). They're really good at working with specific customers.

    • Re:Where are you? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by IndustrialComplex (975015) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:20AM (#27356851)

      Depends on where you are - I recommend working with someone local. This is the kind of project where you would want to work very closely with the manufacturer.

      I second this sentiment. A 3 hr flight to your supplier just puts a big wall betwen you and them. I don't know the scale of operations you are looking into, but you may want to do a few site visits/surveys to make sure that they are up to snuff.

      Parts control is important. Just because a component comes from the same supplier, doesn't mean that it was manufactured in the same plant. I learned the hard way that some plants produce on the high side of their tolerances, and some plants produce on the low side of their tolerances. And some plants just don't meet their tolerances.

      A refund on a $50 component isn't comforting when all of a sudden your latest units start failing infant mortality tests.

      • Re:Where are you? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by IndustrialComplex (975015) on Friday March 27, 2009 @11:15AM (#27357711)

        And some plants just don't meet their tolerances.

        A refund on a $50 component isn't comforting when all of a sudden your latest units start failing infant mortality tests.

        Actually, now that someone posted a comment about some of the Chinese factories... I think this is exactly what happened with our components.

        These components were manufactured to a tolerance, and sold in lots of 50-100k. I have no doubt that as production continued, the factory stripped out what it could from the components in terms of structural support gradually. They kept removing it while it continued to work, and we kept using the components over the course of 20 years.

        Now, 20 years later, the components that worked for us so long ago, have now been stripped down to eggshell thickness. We began a new production that required some specific qualification tests. Quite literally we ended up with the Rattle in our Shake, Rattle, and Roll tests. The component had snapped off during vibration tests.

        Pulling out the microscopes, we found that the newer components used less glue at their adhesion points than the previous components, or components manufactured in the company's flagship plant. The glue was just enough so that the components would survive safety qualification tests, but when exposed to HALT, they were the first things to go.

  • by Bearhouse (1034238) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:12AM (#27356739)

    In my direct experience, they are highly-skilled in copying/ripping off and even building on/improving on original ideas. Note: This is for stuff which is often already trademarked, registered and patented.

    So, I'd suggest getting some VC/angel financing and professional help, and patent your idea to hell and back in major markets before doing anything else. OK, they'll take a huge chunk of the eventual gain, but 50% of something is a lot better than 100% of nothing.

    • by Samschnooks (1415697) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:20AM (#27356853)

      So, I'd suggest getting some VC/angel financing and professional help, and patent your idea to hell and back in major markets before doing anything else. OK, they'll take a huge chunk of the eventual gain, but 50% of something is a lot better than 100% of nothing.

      The entrepreneur doesn't start getting anything until the VC have hit their return goals. So it's quite possible that the company is sold, or what have you, for a few million and you still end up with nothing.

      In short, if you're going the VC way, be sure to read and understand the agreement and get legal advice!

      • by nebby (11637) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:34AM (#27357069) Homepage

        This generally isn't true. A VC will get preferred stock and as such in a liquidation event they will be able to recover their money before anyone else can. (So if you take on 1M in funding, sell the company for 500K, you're right, you get nothing and they lose 500K). I'm guessing this is what you're thinking of.

        If you sell the company for 2M and they put in 1M, they get their 1M back and the rest of the pie can be sliced up in different ways depending on the term sheet. (Google participating preferred stock cap)

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by Frosty Piss (770223)

          This generally isn't true. A VC will get preferred stock and as such in a liquidation event they will be able to recover their money before anyone else can. (So if you take on 1M in funding, sell the company for 500K, you're right, you get nothing and they lose 500K). I'm guessing this is what you're thinking of.

          I think the idea with VC is to soak up a high salary, buy a Tesla sports car, acquire a blond trophy GF, an live high on the hog with a phenomenal "burn rate", until all the money is gone, then move on to the next VC project.

      • by oliderid (710055)

        Yeah and having fund with no functional prototype of any sort is a wet dream in those days.

        I don't know his ideas but I'm quite sure that he would waste his time (and his precious contacts) if he has nothing to show.

        If you have no functional prototype, only vague concept on a paper...99% you will find no investor and for the remaining 1% do not expect to keep 50% of your company. The one who is clearly taking the risk here is the VC not the entrepreneur.

        For a first round, try to get money from friends and

      • The entrepreneur doesn't start getting anything until the VC have hit their return goals.

        Every VC is going to have a different contract, and you can always negotiate.
        Furthermore, you're going to be able to pay yourself a salary, and probably bonuses too, unless the VC contract expressly forbids it or the VC people control your board of directors.

    • by qoncept (599709)
      In my experience the Chinese are a lot better at copying something and making it a whole lot worse. For examples, see cordless drills, end tables, keyboards, silverware, toy cars, hinges, blue jeans and Great Wall trucks.
      • by Bearhouse (1034238) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:39AM (#27357153)

        Some truth in that, but if your market has already been hugely cannibalised, (before you even get to it) then it's small comfort to say, "look, my product is better".

        Also, I was in China recently with the boss of a major multinational which develops and sells complex electromechanical industrial products. He showed me two products; one made in their 'state of the art' factory in Europe, the other a Chinese copy. He asked me to spot the difference. I could not.

        His reply; "It's easy. Hook 'em up and the Chinese one works". Ouch.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by seanadams.com (463190) *

      In my direct experience, they are highly-skilled in copying/ripping off and even building on/improving on original ideas. Note: This is for stuff which is often already trademarked, registered and patented.

      OTOH, it sounds like he's not looking for some revolutionary hardware design, indeed he might modify an existing design.

      In my experience manufacturing in China, I have not had any problems with knockoffs (although that has happened in the USA!). However, my products have always had their special sauce in

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by mcgrew (92797)

        It's much easier to defend yourself with copyright law than with patents.

        Also, patents last only 20 years, while copyright is unconstitutionally (despite what SCOTUS says) forever for all practical purposes. Plus, patents require lawyers and cost thousands of dollars, while registering a copyright is cheap; the ones I registered in the 1980s were only $20 each (they've probably gone up).

        If you have to defend it, you're going to need a lawyer in any case.

      • by radish (98371)

        Heh :) I was just thinking of what your take on this would be!

    • In my direct experience, they are highly-skilled in copying/ripping off and even building on/improving on original ideas.

      I can second this experience having worked for an OEM.

      The comments about financing work for some, but not for most. VC will *at least* want to see some finished product moving. Even then you can easily end up with nothing to show for your efforts partnering with VC.

      Finally, if the device is so special, license it out as soon as possible. Why? Because if you are at all successful your i

  • Find some partners (Score:5, Insightful)

    by u38cg (607297) <calum@callingthetune.co.uk> on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:13AM (#27356741) Homepage
    If you're serious about producing something that has the potential to be mass market, I suggest you bring some partners on board. For product development, find an electronic engineer that can cope with the hardware side; and also someone that can speak marketese and has experience in accessing the kind of markets you're talking about.

    It's nice and all to think you can be the next Richard Branson by doing it all yourself, but in reality very few businesses go from zero to IPO with a single guy pulling all the strings.

    • Depends a lot on the exact value of 'mass market' and the sales potential. Really, a lot of this can be done with contract labor. Once the design is done, there are plenty of places out there (many of them reputable outfits that aren't likely to swipe your IP, even) that can handle component sourcing, injection molding, assembly, and even fulfillment.

      Marketing should absolutely not be neglected. Us nerds tend to underestimate (or simply find distasteful) the amount of marketing and promotion that needs t

  • by dg2fer (1114433) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:15AM (#27356779) Homepage

    Think twice. If you request a vendor modifying his product, and it's easy enough he can do it right away -- how do you think you can ensure he won't run his product line to make more devices than you have requested?

    By contract perhaps? Go and sue a chinese vendor in China, then...

    First, build a prototype yourself so you know it will work. Or find someone at your location with the appropriate knowledge. Short distances speed up development. The one will then very probably be able to design a custom PCB out of the prototype. And the appropriate software (e.g. Eagle) isn't expensive.

    But if you shouldn't know how to build the prototype yourself, I wonder how you know your invention will work at all...

    However, good luck.

  • many many sources for this - look in trade journals such as EDN and Electronic Design and Embedded Systems Design.

    To a lesser degree, some wisdom can be gleaned from Circuit Cellar Ink.

    I have some (limited) experience with Asian contract mfrs, and would not recommend this for a startup.

    GOOD LUCK

  • by KlaymenDK (713149) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:20AM (#27356849) Journal

    http://www.pad2pad.com/ [pad2pad.com]
    A printed circuit board manufacturer providing all your custom printed circuit board

    http://www.olimex.com/ [olimex.com]
    Electronic design and PCB sub-contract assembly

    http://www.eurocircuits.com/ [eurocircuits.com]
    PCB manufacturing; verified a la carte on demand specifications ...also...

    http://www.emachineshop.com/ [emachineshop.com]
    Machine shop to create custom parts, products and prototypes

    http://www.tapplastics.com/ [tapplastics.com]
    TAP Plastics specialize in fiberglass resins and fabrics for fiberglass repair, plastic containers, and custom fabrication

    (non-affiliation yadda yadda goes here)

  • Stay Local (Score:4, Informative)

    by timias1 (1063832) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:20AM (#27356855)
    There is a cottage industry of small engineering firms that could suit your needs in the US (assuming your in the US). Generally they are run by senior engineers who have done many projects of similar size to what you're sort of talking about. Generally the firms in China do not do their own design work, and unless you speak Chinese, the language barriers will be an extra challenge to overcome, not to mention the difference in time zones. Also don't forget you will have to gain certain regulatory approvals depending on the nature of your product, and I doubt anyone in China has much background designing the product around these requirements. Personally I think it is best to stick with a local company, or at least one in the same country as you.
    • by Cornwallis (1188489) * on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:27AM (#27356939)
      But think of all the free publicity he'll get when his Chinese-produced product gets condemned for leaking toxic everything into the environment, the workers all turn out to be slaves, etc., etc., etc.
    • by Ancient_Hacker (751168) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:37AM (#27357131)

      Lotsa good and horrible advice above.

      If you're going to make a commercial product, and you want it to be manufacturable and have high yield and work reliably for more than a week, you need a lot of expert help.

      You need an EE to design the circuit.

          Then you need a manufacturing EE to redesign the circuit so it does not use any rare or known unreliable or hard to surface mount or single sourced parts.

        Then you need a quality engineer who will redesign things so the hot voltage regulator is not right next to the electrolytic capacitors, and shuffle the pcb traces so they're less likely to short out from tin whiskers, and rearrange them for better ESD protection, and they will test it in an environmental chamber for performance over a wide temperature range.

        Then you'll need a standards EE who will make sure it meets EU and US standards for safety and toxicity and flammability and electromagnetic emissions.

      Then you need someone on site at the manufacturing facility to do QA and make sure they don't divert your product into the black or grey market.

      Then you need enough extra time and money to do the whole thing over again if the original design still turns out to be unmanufacturable or have poor yield or reliability.

      Don't feel too bad, when Apple set up their own disk drive manufacturing facility, the yield even after extensive tweaking was only about 40%. And that's with huge amounts of money and lots of experienced engineers in the area.

      You need a whole lot more than a PCB house.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by SparkEE (954461)
        There's no reason all those EEs you mention can't be the same person, unless you're hiring someone with less than a few years experience, or has worked only in a large company all his career. There are many small (1 or 2 people) design firms that have the expertise to see a design from concept to production.

        Find a local design consultant, someone relatively senior in experience. Let that person worry about finding a PCB house for prototypes and small-scale production. If the product is successfull, an
      • by ajlitt (19055)

        From experience, I can tell you that you won't get anywhere with a hardware startup if you don't start prototyping until you've lined up resources to see your product through production. No investor is going to listen if you're asking for millions up front in material, engineering, and manufacturing costs, especially if you don't have a prototype or mock-up to show for it.

        Bring in an engineer experienced in the technologies and market you're targeting (USB, embedded, PCB design, CE products). Give them a

      • You need an EE to design the circuit.

        Then you need a manufacturing EE to redesign the circuit so it does not use any rare or known unreliable or hard to surface mount or single sourced parts.

        Then you need a quality engineer who will redesign things so the hot voltage regulator is not right next to the electrolytic capacitors, and shuffle the pcb traces so they're less likely to short out from tin whiskers, and rearrange them for better ESD protection, and they will test it in an environmental chamber for performance over a wide temperature range.

        Then you'll need a standards EE who will make sure it meets EU and US standards for safety and toxicity and flammability and electromagnetic emissions.

        I think you just need a "quality" engineer in general. All of those fall into my unofficial job description and I handle all of those well.

      • If this USB device is powered off the USB port, there's a good chance that most of the concerns above won't be relevant. If you program it yourself after it's manufactured, you have some protection against being ripped off. If it's an all-electronic device, yield should not be a problem. Final QA has to be under your direct control.
    • As someone who formerly worked in the US consumer product safety testing industry, I can say this is the least of his concerns.

      Starting with hardware that's already been through electromagnetic compatibility testing would be a huge leg up in getting the project done. A USB based camera device wouldn't need any safety certifications to be sold in the US or Canada but FCC compliance testing does need to be done in the US. Sale in the EU may require a declaration of conformity that it complies with the low vol

  • Device qualification (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    The first hurdle is prototyping the device. If push comes to shove find a near-broke college student to do the hardware design for you, a better choice would be an outfit with experience such as Parallax, Systronix, or Digilent. But before you can go 'mass-market', you will need to test your device and not just to make sure it works. Does it meet all government requirements (FCC part 15)? Is it safe (UL certification)? Are there going to be any manufacturability issues (just because you made one does no

  • Get An NDA! (Score:5, Informative)

    by CyberLord Seven (525173) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:30AM (#27356999)
    I assume the "patentable" parts of this are in the software since you have no hardware experience. Others are giving good advice on where to go for hardware experience. In particular I like the idea of a partner. If you live in the State of California I suggest you try to snag a copy of "Small Time Operator". It is published by Nolo Press in Berkeley and is full of smart business advice for those new to owning their own business in the State of California. Check out the sections on incorporation and partners carefully.

    Something I don't think you will get from others is the suggestion that before you talk to anyone you get a copy of an excellent non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

    With a good NDA you can talk freely about your project with little risk of the second party being able to talk to a third party without significant financial repercussions. I have worked in procurement* for the last sixteen years and I could talk for hours on the value of a good NDA. Try using Google for an example of a good NDA. They need not be complex, but they do need to spell out the repercussions if the second party talks about your idea with a third party. Get them to sign before you share any critical details.

    *I hate that we stopped being purchasing and became procurement for one simple reason; one of the accepted definitions of someone who procures is pimp! I really don't think that is the impression a Fortune 500 company wants to make, but then they did not ask me. :)

  • Good luck (Score:5, Informative)

    by Rorschach1 (174480) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:31AM (#27357003) Homepage

    Good luck getting source code from Chinese companies. I've tried a few times, and even with a company that I already buy tens of thousands of dollars of equipment from, the answer has always been an emphatic 'no'.

    In some cases, the problem may be that the source code isn't theirs. Take two way radios, for example. There are many, many different models on the market that all share the same basic firmware. Each of the companies licenses it from one design house, probably along with some of the hardware designs, too.

    It's often hard to tell who's even a manufacturer and who's just a trading company, unless you go and personally tour the factory. Even then they can make it difficult to figure out who's who.

    Where I HAVE had a measure of success is in buying partial products. For example, if you look on SparkFun Electronics' website, you'll see a weather sensor assembly. I bought those from a weather station manufacturer in China, and since their usual wireless interface wasn't FCC approved and wasn't needed for my application anyway, I negotiated a deal to buy the bare sensors at a significantly reduced price that still gives them enough extra profit margin to make it worth the hassle (the unneeded touch screen display is the expensive part), while still being far cheaper than designing and producing my own hardware. The reason they're at SparkFun now is that I'm way behind schedule on designing my own electronics package and I got tired of them taking up warehouse space, and sold part of the lot at wholesale.

    The good news is that lots of Chinese companies are basically family-owned, and you CAN sometimes get through to the people who make the decisions, where with US companies you might not. But again, I've never had any success getting firmware source (even relatively simple stuff that I could recreate myself in a week) from any of them. Cable assemblies, housings, and so forth, sure. But not a single line of code.

    If you're serious about making it happen, consider catching a flight to Hong Kong next month. The Hong Kong Electronics Fair, electronicAsia, and the China Sourcing Fair are all there at the same time around the 12-16th, and the massive Canton Fair (this will be my first year there) is right after that in Guangzhou, but that takes a little more planning.

    Just showing up in person and leaving business cards (bring a few hundred, seriously) will get you much better responses later in email. They know you're serious enough to make the trip, at least. That was a benefit I hadn't foreseen my first trip. Also, allow a couple of days extra after the fairs for meetings with vendors if you do make some good contacts.

    Also, one book I've found particularly useful in understanding the business culture in China is "The Essential Guide for Buying from China's Manufacturers" by James Lord, ISBN 1419628461. Wish I'd read that before my first trip there. (Tip: Beware the phrase "no problem". =])

    If you do make it to Hong Kong, drop me a note and I'll meet you for a beer some time.

    scott@argentdata.com

    • by cerberusss (660701) on Friday March 27, 2009 @11:24AM (#27357863) Homepage Journal

      Tip: Beware the phrase "no problem".

      Also beware the phrase: "do you want a girl for tonight?"

      When I did my bachelor's thesis in Shanghai, I once drank a beer with one of the Western people I knew there. He worked in trade. He said that agreeing to said phrase will significantly alter your negotiation position in the morning. On the wrong side. :-)

  • by bdcowell (146124) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:32AM (#27357031)

    I work at Plexus, a global Electronic Manufacturing Services company, in the engineering services division. We do hardware, PCB layout, software, mechanical, test, project management, etc. Whatever piece or pieces you are looking for, we can do. If you want to use us for manufacturing eventually, great. You pay for the development, so you own the IP and can take it wherever you want. We work with multi-billion dollar companies but also have worked with 1-man startups before.

    http://www.plexus.com/contactus.php [plexus.com]

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Well I can help with his shameless plug. Our company uses Plexus for manufacturing and product testing and they are quite professional, timely and flexible.

      I'm a PCB hardware engineer by trade.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Pascoea (968200)
      (Former) Plexus lab bitch here. Very good company with some extremely talented engineers. They are fairly expensive, but you certainly get what you pay for.
  • A while back, I came across some articles on open source hardware and how exciting/fast growing those projects are. The thing isn't that you have a patentable idea. It's can you stay ahead once anyone else sees your idea and makes their slightly different copy of it?

    Apparently, the thing with the OSH is that they released their base design and have basically something like a forum to suggest/give improvements. Of all the various Chinese fabs that they ordered a few thousand from, each of the chinese folks o

  • EZpcb (Score:3, Informative)

    by arugulatarsus (1167251) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:34AM (#27357075)
    I've had nothing but success with EZPCB. They charged around 150$ for 36 boards... They design, routing and assembly services too.
    The way I coordinated with them, because they are in china, is by MSN instant messenger when I was about to go to bed.
    They are courteous, they make a good product, and are inexpensive.
    expect a 2 week delay from order to reception.
  • by sirwired (27582) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:37AM (#27357135)

    You want to target the mass-market, yet your firm consists of only you? You need to think about how you are going to get mass-market retailers to actually sell the thing, how you are going to get press coverage to publicize it, where you are going to get funding for the production runs, etc.

    There are certainly ways to go about this for software (i.e. a game developer producing a little gem for XBox Live), but because of manufacturing costs, this is harder to do for hardware.

    I think your best hope is to get a crude hardware prototype with your software running on it, and let an actual mass-market company buy it off of you (or hire you.) The alternative would be to somehow get funding, but if you have no experience in the industry, you won't find anybody willing to hand you money.

    SirWired

  • This sounds like you did not really think it all trough, and overestimate your own potential. It is not hard nowadays to produce a electronic prototype of most thinks you can think of, with the help of MCU's from AVR. The Arduino community does it all the time, so why not you? If you can demonstrate such a prototype, you can convince other people that it might make a profit. If you don't, well maybe sucking (up to) VC's (off) might work.
    By the way, if you are not able to do the hardware side, then I very mu

  • You can get some short-term IP protection by filing a PPA. Filing fee was $100 last I knew (small entity). Go to nolo.com and buy "Patent It Yourself" for about $30. Read, understand, and follow all safety instructions. Then you can talk to potential partners, investors, vendors, etc. more confidently.
  • http://4pcb.com/ [4pcb.com] great manufacturer located in Denver. They have great deals, willing to work with you at all levels of production (prototypes vs. actual production releases). If you are new to design they are very helpful and willing to test your designs before printing, to warn of any mistakes you may have.
  • Check out the following groups:
    The Open Hardware Foundation (www.openhardwarefoundation.org)
    The Open Graphics Project (www.opengraphics.org, www.traversaltech.com)

    Their OGD1 board is in prototypes. They should be able to help you with design and refer you to board fabrication companies.

  • by TheGratefulNet (143330) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:54AM (#27357375)

    its sad but true.

    I almost went thru this myself. I'm a software guy but do a decent amount of hw design and building. I once designed a camera RF remote control (it was semi popular on the dpreview website where I posted the design) and I even started talking to a china business guy (I met on ebay as a seller for some of my raw parts) and we started to talk about what it would take to custom make the boards and the plastic boxes for it.

    upfront tooling costs and all that would have been covered by me, not him. I'd have to take essentially all the risk.

    and what would I get for it? my production run would be done but then, once done, they'd run 10x or 100x of their own from MY design! they'd screw me. I got that feeling loud and clear.

    I didn't go any further. sad, isn't it? but I can't 'police' across the ocean and I do NOT want to spend my effort only to be robbed of my design so blatantely. I was told 'this is how it is' either deal with it or don't do it.

    so I didn't do it.

    if you can, do it locally. you have more control over things and the ethics, well, they may match yours a bit better.

    (I also have learned a lot by hanging out on various DIY audio forums; there are a lot of folks who have experience with 'kit building', meaning they make/design their circuit and board (usually using Eagle) and then sell partial or full kits. its a good exercise to go thru and there's lot of info about it for people starting out, just check the web based audio forums or any other 'DIY' style forum).

    Eagle isn't too bad and even a sw guy like me came up to speed on it in less than a week and had a board designed (on paper, at least; then I did the toner transfer method to get my first copper board made).

    anyway, avoid china. unless you KNOW how to manage such a thing, most likely you will be taken to the cleaners ;(

  • by WindBourne (631190) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:57AM (#27357429) Journal
    back in 1994-95, I had an idea of converting tv signal to a video stream (ala sling media). Contacted a firm in Atlanta, and they were going to charge some 20K (guarenteed 3 boards, etc), but found a firm in HK that would do it for 5K. We opted to go with the 5K. Had issue after issue after issue with them. In the end, after spending 20K and still not having SQUAT from them, I called it quits. That is why Sling has a product and we did not. Otherwise, the unit would be different and it would have come from Colorado.

    Do yourself a favor and do it local. Once you have the product selling, if you still feel like you can increase the margins by getting it done overseas, then and only then do it. Just keep in mind that Asia does not have the same laws and know it. Basically they will nickle and dime you to death. And for the states, I suggest knowing EXACTLY upfront what you need done. Shop around. They all have specialties of items that are one offs. There are a number of chips out there that will allow you to try various ideas.

    One last thing. If you get your company going, if I may suggest, keep your engineers local. If you go over to Asia, any ideas you have will likely end up in some other product before yours is out the door.
  • Not too long ago I worked for a company that would take OEM (Gilbarco, Tokheim, etc.) gasoline pump parts (pcbs, panels, buttons, etc.) and send them to Shenzhen, China, to be ripped apart, analyzed and remade. IMO the recreated parts were better than the original.

    So rather than trying to convince OEMs to modify their designs for your purposes, buy one, send it to such a company and pay FAR less while getting exactly what you need with full control over the manufacturing process.

  • http://www.batchpcb.com/ [batchpcb.com] you might have to wait a week or 2 but cheap and just what you are looking for.
  • by Big Hairy Ian (1155547) on Friday March 27, 2009 @11:09AM (#27357627)
    Have you thought of approaching one of your local universities with a view to making a lot of the design a project for a gifted student (Cut him in on any royalties). It's the kind of thing most Uni's are crying out for. If it ends up winning any awards you are happy the Uni's happy and so is the student.

    Just a thought

    • by speedtux (1307149)

      In my experience, "gifted students" have their own new product ideas; they don't need someone else's.

    • by n7ytd (230708)

      This may seem to be a good approach to get some free/low-cost development, but keep in mind:

      • A student close to graduation has no experience. If your budget is this tight, you probably don't want to bet all your hopes on the guy who's never done this before. You recognize that you don't have the needed experience, so hiring someone else without the experience is no help. An experienced engineer will know enough to not just layout your PCB, but will be able to foresee problems in your design, or ways to re
  • There is a Wired article [wired.com] that you might find informative. It chronicles a hardware startup. It won't help you with the specifics, but it will provide a heads-up for what you can expect dealing with a manufacturer from China, selling, etc.
  • It's a good idea to at least file a provisional patent on your concept before you discuss it with vendors. Write up your ideas and sketches as completely as you can, and send it in to the USPTO with a check for $110 using form SB16, available at: http://www.uspto.gov/web/forms/sb0016_fill.pdf [uspto.gov]
  • Find a local electrical engineer who is willing to do consulting work and get that person to do the schematic and produce a working prototype. Many will also be capable of doing the pcb layout. You might end up buying the software for them. OrCAD is usable if it's a simple design. Altium/Protel is easier to use for larger projects.
    Once you have a functioning layout, you can look at fab companies. At that point, it makes sense to go overseas, not before, because trying to get a decent hardware design do

  • Already been done (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Antique Geekmeister (740220) on Friday March 27, 2009 @11:51AM (#27358355)
    If it's "probably patentable", it's probably already been patented. Companies that take their IP seriously and engage in electronic development are very good at writing broad patents to protect their market from minor advancements. Unless your idea is already in the patent process and you have a competent patent attorney who's already helped you write the application, your idea is unlikely to be patented, and you are very likely to be robbed. Look at the history of the Microsoft Mouse patent lawsuits for examples of big companies ripping off small developers for clever improvement ideas, and _NEVER_ rely on an NDA with a big company to prevent them from rebranding and profiting from work you discussed in a closed meeting with them, looking for investment funds.
  • If the hardware requirements are simple enough, I would seriously consider doing the design in-house.

    I have my own start-up company and faced the same situation when I first started. I am a computer engineer though, and can do the PCB design myself, but would rather outsource as much as possible. Long story short, after getting a number of quotes, a production ready PCB design (sans software) was around $50k for a fairly straight forward design. I don't know about you, but I didn't have that kind of cas
  • You have a lot of work ahead of you.

    First, you need to build a functional prototype. This doesn't have to be manufacturable at low cost; it just has to work. It can be larger than the production version and the parts cost may be higher. Then you'll have something to demo, and can get feedback on whether this is something worth making in quantity. This is something you can get done by one EE who does prototypes.

    Second, you need to decide whether your idea is good enough to patent. If it's a "me-too"

  • If your idea is truly novel, IP protection is paramount (patent,NDA...etc.). Then next is to produce a proof-of-concept, not so much a prototype that you can replicate for mass production. You need this to engage with customers (or reseller/partner) so that they will give you feedback. It may or may not be 100% what the end-user may want/need, hence the proof-of-concept. Once you delve/invest into a final design/mass production unit, it'll be tough to change if you're in a 'wrong' direction.
  • I run a contract technology development firm (KappaStone) based in Columbus, Ohio. We work with start-ups and small companies all the time and I'd be happy to sit down and talk about your concept. Although the bulk of our work is done on a cash basis, we are willing to discuss alternative agreements on a case-by-case basis.

    If you have any interest, visit our site at http://www.kappastone.com [kappastone.com] or give us a call at 800-706-4534.
  • by drolli (522659)
    for small things it is quite ok. The autorouting sucks an needs lots of manual tuning, but thts ok/
  • Most people in consumer electronics do their own software & their own hardware. There aren't big companies with dedicated job functions like there were.

  • You need an engineer at this point, not a PCB design.

  • Get over it. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Spazmania (174582) on Friday March 27, 2009 @01:23PM (#27359963) Homepage

    I can't give details

    Get over it. The whole secretiveness about our product thing is a fast track to failure in a startup company.

    You need customers, first adopters, partners and venture capitalists. Until you're ready to talk freely, they won't even return your phone call. Worry about the patents when you actually have a revenue stream.

    Seriously. How many hardware geeks here on slashdot who might have been interested in your project chose not to contact you because it isn't worth their time to chase a secret of dubious quality?

  • freescale has a reference board for a webcam, it may be usb. Reference designs are generally wide-open-source (as opposed to merely open-source).

  • You say this is a mass market item. You say you are a one man shop. Guess what -- you can't scale yourself up to deliver to a mass market fast enough to be successful. IOW: your business model is utterly broken. Not to worry, I will describe a proven one that works well:

    Step 1: Build a quick prototype using whatever and whoever is convenient. I would suggest hiring someone local to do the PCB design for you, get the source files from them so you can later do it yourself or hire someone else.

    Step 2: Hav

  • Linux.. kiCAD (Score:2, Informative)

    by mckillnm (751344)
    My offer is kiCad..

    http://kicad.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page

    Great schematic capture, auto-router, parts list, etc.. all open source!

    -Marko

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