When to Move from Hobby Boards to a Product-Specific Custom Solution

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When health and wellness startup Vital wanted to make a consumer-facing, smartphone-connected finger cuff that tracks vital signs, the company had to move from a rough prototype to a minimum viable product in a matter of months. Rather than pushing forward with its current board, the company moved to a PCB design process that was customized. This product-specific custom solution, accommodating a pump, valve, and pressure sensor, did much more than a hobby board could and got the product to market on their tight timeline.

So many companies, like Vital, use a hobbyist development board as a canvas to sketch and refine their ideas. However, as the Vital team moved from idea to prototype and production, they made the transition from hobby boards to increasingly more custom solutions. This enabled them to reduce sourcing risks related to the availability and quality of components and to ensure that their design met functional requirements.

What’s the difference between a hobby development board and a product-specific custom board? Simply put, hobby boards are for experimentation while custom boards typically serve as the basis for finished commercial products.

Why hobby boards make sense for prototypes

Typically, a basic microcontroller board for a hobbyist is economical, costing perhaps $10 to $20—a perfect price point for quickly trying out new ideas and determining if a concept is worth pursuing. These inexpensive hobby boards tend to have small form factors, lending themselves to simple designs that are easy for developers to use. Most hobby boards don’t require much design engineering skill, either. They are built for accessibility and ease of use, and even a creator with limited technical capabilities can use the intuitive development tools to build a workable proof of concept. Hobby boards are typically also supported by a strong online community that can offer additional help.

Take two popular boards, Arduino and Raspberry Pi, for instance:

Arduino: open-source microcontroller. Source: SparkFun Electronics
Arduino: open-source microcontroller. Source: SparkFun Electronics

Arduino is a popular, open-source microcontroller used for building devices that can connect the digital and physical world using sensors and actuators.

Raspberry Pi, a Linux-based single board computer. Source: Herbfargus
Raspberry Pi, a Linux-based single board computer. Source: Herbfargus

Raspberry Pi is a Linux-based single-board computer that is used for building interactive devices that require more advanced computational power.

Why custom boards are essential for scaling 

Hobby boards are widely available online. However, suppliers that distribute hobby boards usually only have a limited number of boards available. This can create issues if you want to proceed to large-scale production. With a custom board, you can select components that are available in the quantities and timeframe required to support your production plans.

What’s more, with hobby boards you don’t often have insight into who designed the board or the manufacturer’s background and capabilities. Some suppliers might use recycled parts or components of dubious origin and quality. This is a serious drawback — if you produce a faulty end product because of an unreliable component, you can face everything from a compromised reputation to liability for damage and injuries. With a customized design, you are able to control all sourcing of components and the quality of the design.

Finally, with hobby boards you’re either forced to adapt your product’s functionality to the board’s limitations or support features that you don’t need. Both of these scenarios can have a negative impact on your product’s performance. Since you are driving the development with custom boards, reliability and performance are in your control, which will help you deliver the consistent results backers want.

Consider the switch to custom before crowdfunding

Hobby development boards are great for your initial proof-of-concept stage because you’re simply demonstrating that your idea is possible. However, to prepare for your Kickstarter campaign, you need to understand how much money you need to raise and how to price your product.

This is only possible if you have a solid grasp of how much additional design and engineering work is needed, how you will manufacture your product, which components you’ll require, and how you’ll source them. That’s why it’s crucial to plan for the transition from a hobby board to a custom design before you launch.

Where to start with a product-specific board

A product-specific board provides real benefits as it’s purposely built to fit your product’s use case. However, creating a custom board requires investment—in terms of time and money—and access to electrical design and engineering expertise.

If you’re not an engineer yourself, you’ll likely need some professional assistance to design a custom board and incorporate it into your designs. You can find electrical design assistance through an independent design house like AVID Technologies or Embest. After you provide a detailed technical specification, a design house engineer can take your project from a proof of concept to a fully functional prototype. Often, a partner that has design and manufacturing capabilities can help with specifications and designs for manufacturing too, so that you can stay focused on the user experience, marketing, and business aspects of your journey.

If you do have the engineering knowledge and capabilities required in house, you will need to work with professional tools for tasks such as PCB design, software development, and debugging. In general, these tools are proprietary and expensive; and you won’t find a plethora of resources and communities available online, like with Arduino or Raspberry Pi.

Communities and programs can help you make the switch

When you find it’s time to transition from a hobby board to a product-specific board, step back and consider your own skills and comfort level as a developer. You can expand your knowledge through an online community such as element14 or Hackster.io. Seek out hacker spaces in your area for in-person learning, too. Then, when you’re ready to go past a prototype and into commercially viable product, consider programs like Hardware Studio Connection, which pairs hardware creators with experts experienced in taking products to market.

—Bob Merriman