Electronics Design: Prototype

What is a Prototype?

A Prototype is done in order to explore some aspect of a new opportunity without having to fully commit to it yet. Prototype has a number of potential meanings including:

 

  • the original or model on which something is based or formed.
  • someone or something that serves to illustrate the typical qualities of a class; model; exemplar:
  • something analogous to another thing of a later period:
  • Biology. an archetype; a primitive form regarded as the basis of a group.

So a Prototype is either an early model or a smaller scale development to test a new idea.

 

Why Prototype?

So for engineering, we Prototype to reduce risk, and we learn from Prototypes to improve the likelihood of project success by being better informed for the next round of design. So a Prototype is a core Product Development Process Risk Management strategy.

 

Product Development Process

Product Development Process

A Prototype can also reduce other risks such as financial risk or market risk and isn’t always done for technical risk reasons.

 

Financial risk can be managed by breaking a project up into a series of stages and only committing funds to a stage when its predecessor has been successfully completed. A Prototype is often done ahead of a major block of Product Development to test whether the technical approach is likely to succeed and provide early warning of unexpected problems or interactions.

 

Market risk can be managed by trialling a new product idea with a smaller group of candidate customers to gauge their acceptance of the product. This has to be well managed however as history has shown that this approach, especially in the case of focus groups, can often just elicit the outcome the company hoped for and not a real example of how the market will react. Just look at all the failed Coca Cola new flavour launches.

 

And of course, technical risk can be managed by making Prototypes that implement the highest risk features as early as possible. We covered this in Improving Product Development.

 

A Prototype can often be used during Engineering Analysis in order to evaluate the effectiveness of different options for addressing the Requirements. This is covered in Electronics Design Process.

 

Successful Endeavours Development Process

Successful Endeavours Development Process

And then having designed a product it is normal to build a Prototype to ensure the final solution works as expected. This manages the risk that production tooling might need rework or even redesign.

 

How to Prototype?

This depends on the problem you want to solve. For this section we will focus on technical risks. A Prototype is very useful to allow you to measure some essential elements of the final product without committing to a final solution. So you can explore:

 

  • modelling a problem and simulations
  • noise and interference
  • power consumption
  • performance versus cost (compare several different prototypes)
  • responsiveness
  • system resources required
  • hardware versus software solutions
  • temperature rise
  • materials properties
  • shape and usability / ergonomics
  • fit (especially PCBs in mechanical housings)

And the list can go on. The key is to determine where the risk is and manage that. In Project Management Pre-preparation we looked at using a Prototype to reduce both technical and financial risk at the same time. In this case, other developers hadn’t been able to produce a working product so the client had a clear risk to manage. And our approach was to make a jig that allowed us to explore the sensing that was needed and get real data to then analyse and develop a solution. The same jig allowed the solution to then be tested before we designed the Electronics PCBs and Embedded Software needed for the final product. And the client was able to authorise each next level of expenditure with confidence based on us having delivered against the requirements for the previous stage.

 

Simulation

Simulation

And of course, 3D Printing for Electronics has enormously expanded the possibilities for mechanical prototypes by allowing anyone to quickly build and test the fit of objects together. It is also a viable option for low volume manufacturing.

 

3D Printed Spacer

3D Printed Spacer

3D Printed Spacer Fitted

3D Printed Spacer Fitted

 

Successful Endeavours specialise in Electronics Design and Embedded Software Development, focusing on products that are intended to be Made In AustraliaRay Keefe has developed market leading electronics products in Australia for more than 30 years. This post is Copyright © 2017 Successful Endeavours Pty Ltd.

Improving Product Development Outcomes

In this post we will look at the Product Development Process and how to get improved outcomes. But first here is a fun graphic made from our logo.

Successful Endeavours - Making Electronics and Embedded Software Work

Successful Endeavours – Making Electronics and Embedded Software Work

Product Development Process

The Product Development Process is intended to reliably deliver new products for manufacture or distribution. This is a critical component of a Product Strategy where you are creating the product rather than sourcing it from a supplier. So you would think that it should be a highly optimised, well oiled machine that reliably delivers successful products. Alas that is not always the case. With 30 years of experience in Developing Products for a wide range of industries I have seen my share of projects handled well and not so well. Here are some general principles I have gleaned from my experience in Successful Product Development Projects:

  • Risks must be identified and managed. Track them and eliminate them as soon as possible.
  • Anything clever or tricky needs to be checked by someone else.
  • Everything else also gets checked. Design reviews, code walk-throughs and prototypes save time, money and heart ache later on.
  • Hold the timeline. Foster an attitude that slippage is not acceptable.
  • Test and check everything.
  • It’s not finished until no-one has to do another thing to it.

So six core principles. They are inter related of cousre. Let’s look at how these work out in practice.

 

Successful Product Development Principles

Lets look at how each of these priciples can be used to improve the likelihood of a Successful Product Development Project.

Risk ManagementRiskManagement

Risk Management is an old idea. Not surprising since risks have always existed. Did you know that during the Manhattan Project it was determined that there was a chance that a fission bomb could ignite the whole atmosphere ? Having got contradictory reports the argument was eventually settled by a report showing that although it was possible, it was unlikely. How comfortable would you feel running that risk ? Fortunately the average Development Project is dealing with much more mundane risks such as achieving Technical Requirements such as:

  • Power Consumption
  • Unit Manufacturing Cost
  • Performance Criteria

But the approach is still the same:

  • Identify the risk
  • Work out how to ameliorate the risk – reduce it – or eliminate it
  • Do tests to confirm the risk has been dealt with
  • Iterate until it is no longer a risk

Review the clever bits

Test Everything - Clever Design Needs Test

Test Everything – Clever Design Needs Test

Where possible, any particularly clever or tricky areas of the project need to be reviewed by someone not involved in the everyday work of the project. This is primarily to ensure that assumptions are challenged. If you can’t get an outsider to do the review, use a process like Six Thinking Hats by Edward De Bono which can allow team members to step outside their emotional and assumptive predispositions. Unchallenged assumptions are unmanaged risks.

 

Review the rest of the project

Test Everything

Review Everything

The astute amongst would have noticed that I am proposing everything gets reviewed. But the tricky bits get extra review. This section is for the regular bits. Reviews are an essential tool to find mistakes early and eliminate problems down the track. You don’t have to solve a problem you don’t have. Or as Jack Ganssle famously quipped “Skip Bugging To Speed Delivery“. The whole article refers to using Code Review and Design Review to find problems early and fix them so they don’t become much bigger problems later on. Imagine a scenario where a Software Bug causes an electric motor to try and spin backward every now and again and then corrected itself almost immediately. You would get a momentary shudder or jerk followed by correct motion and it would only happen every now and again. How would you determine that this was a software fault and where the fault lay? It could be symptomatic of any number of issues including Mechanical Design and Electrical Design. How about this similar real world case. I won’t mention the company, but their elevators had an Integer Overflow problem in the motor controller that caused the elevator to go in the wrong direction, about once a month, for half a floor. Very disconcerting to the passengers if they pressed up, and promptly dropped half a floor before then going up. Fortunately they found it and fixed it before it happened to someone at the top or bottom floor. All the Software Industry Metrics show for that for Software Development; Design Review, Code Review, Unit Tests and System Simulation save money and time. And yet in many projects they don’t happen enough or are done after the event as a Quality Assurance box ticking activity where they add mostly cost and little in the way of value. Lean Coding argues that you can reduce your Software Development Budget in particular by doing Code Inspections during the project as part of the Risk Management and Quality Management process. By reducing the bugging, you can reduce the debugging.

 

Stick to the Timeline

Project Development Timeline

Project Development Timeline

An attitude that the schedule slipping is normal can be very costly. Some examples of how to avoid this are:

  • Develop and Simulate the Software before the Hardware is ready
  • Prototype early and thoroughly
  • buy in IP where it makes financial sense – this can also reduce risk
  • get expert assistance with areas outside your competence
  • review regularly and honestly

As someone who has done a lot of team leading and project management, I have learned to ask about progress in more than one way. I find the following to be very common: Manager: “This module is estimated as 10 days of work to complete. How complete is it”? Developer: “About 80%”. Manager: “How many more days of work are required to fully finish everything”? Developer: “To fully finish everything, I would think 6 more days would cover it all”. The discrepancy is easy to spot. People estimate high on progress because they want to please. They also like to finish well so they tend to estimate conservatively on required effort. In practice the real answer lies somewhere between the 2 extremes. If the task had already consumed 6 days of effort then it is likely to run late. If you have ever built a house you might have experienced the knock on effect it has when one trades person doesn’t turn up and everyone else misses their scheduled action time because they are now waiting on a predecessor task, the trades person who has to come back again, before they can start their task. The same thing happens on projects. So fight hard to hold to the schedule. It is better to over resource a task (according to the plan) and get it done than to let everything and everyone slip which usually costs a lot more. Additionally, it is quite common that the later you are in the market, the lower the overall profit. So it is worth holding the schedule for this reason as well.

 

Test and Check Everything

Test Everything

Test Everything

This is another Risk Management related principle. Don’t assume it will be OK. Even if you have done it 100 times before, test it again this time. Make sure it really is OK. This ensures it really is 100% complete. This also implies that you are going to design things so they can be tested. Another principle. Design For Testability or somestimes called Design For Test. Do it. It will save you time, effort, money and sleep. Test Driven Development is another example of a Modern Development Methodology where you set up the test first then develop the product so it passes the test. If the Product Requirements change, you change the tests first, show that the old Product Design fails the test, then update the Product Design until it now passes the test.

 

It is not finished until no-one has to do anything else to it

Many tasks are called complete but they aren’t. The documents might be checked into the Revision Control System, also known as a Version Control System or Version Management System, but it isn’t complete until it is 100% tested, 100% integrated, 100% reviewed and 100% signed off and no-one has to do another thing. This also means that when tasks are identified that weren’t thought of in the original Project Plan, you then add them and don’t try and fiddle them into existing tasks. This is different to working out the fine detail of a task and realising it is under resourced or over resourced on the Project Plan. You also want the extra tasks visible on the Project Management Plan so when you do the next project you have evidence that they were required last time and can make allowances for them.

 

Trip Assurance for Developers

Satisfaction Guaranteed

Satisfaction Guaranteed

In marketing, the term Trip Assurance refers to the client having a clear expectation of this transaction or experience being a good one, just like every other one has been. I think we can begin to develop some of the same as developers whereby projects can be routinely good experiences and likely to be so each time.

 

This post is also available as an eZine article with Expert Author classification.

 

Ray Keefe has been developing high quality and market leading electronics products in Australia for nearly 30 years. For more information go to his LinkedIn profile. This post is Copyright © Successful Endeavours Pty Ltd.