Innovation is everywhere we look. From Apple’s air tag luggage tracker to robot vacuums to gadgets that will feed our pets, innovative electronic devices are changing how we live. Though these devices serve a wide range of needs, they all have two things in common: They need innovators to imagine them and printed circuit boards to make them operate.
My experience and expertise keep me focused on the PCB manufacturing component of innovation, but it is important sometimes to step back and look at the bigger picture.
In any industry, the organizations leading the way are the ones that recognize a need that is not being served, determine how a technology can be improved, or discover something revolutionary. Because successful innovation requires the ability to conceptualize, design, prototype, and build something that will be embraced by the marketplace, innovators need to be skilled in more disciplines than is humanly possible.
While enterprise-level product development teams sometimes possess the resources necessary to take a project from beginning to end, most organizations need to fill gaps in areas such as:
- Product design
- Mechanical and electrical engineering
- PCB design and layout
- PCB assembly
- Marketing and sales
Our industry is a key partner for organizations turning innovative ideas and concepts into technology that enables green living, improves education for students with special needs, and enhances transportation safety. To support their innovations, we have to innovate as well. New devices often demand more from designers because of complex functionality, unique environmental tolerances, or extreme constraints on board size.
The Road Ahead
We must be forward-thinking about how we can serve technology innovators. If PCB manufacturers don’t keep an eye on where today's trends will lead, we may not have the knowledge and tools needed to support an innovator’s vision. Was limited board functionality the difference between the iPod and the Zune? Probably not, but the margin between a multi-billion-dollar success and infamy can be razor thin.
Over the years, we’ve seen products become great successes, unmitigated failures, and everything in between. Projects will struggle to get out of the drawing phase without solid market research, product validation, patent searches, prototyping, product feedback, and iterative improvement. Innovating is hard work and developing a product that will be successful in the market is challenging—but not impossible.
Sometimes the first prototype evolves into a marketable product, and when innovators really endeavor to think outside the rectangle, they create something special. Countless others simply don’t have the patience for innovation, and their ideas never make it out of the concept phase.
To increase the chances of an idea becoming a profitable product, you must do the legwork: Figure out and really understand what people want or need, try to ascertain how many of them there are, and determine if there are other products or patents that already satisfy this need.
The tech community is a big, open place. People like to share ideas, so talk to them. Today’s stranger might be tomorrow’s colleague. Don’t be afraid to pull the plug if the research is not showing that there is a viable market for the product. I have seen many examples of a product going to market and failing because the inventor was convinced that it was a home run and ignored all the signs pointing to a bust.
Taking the Leap
Once you have done your research and planning and have determined that you have a good idea, next comes the fun (and the cash investment): Building the prototype.
Preparation and research are also vital in this phase. Even if you are building a prototype in your shop using pieces from existing products, it is wise to know beforehand if and where you can get what you need for future production runs. Do your homework on materials suppliers, PCB manufacturers, and assembly partners.
Designing a product is one thing, but nothing is more rewarding than seeing it transform into something tangible for people to touch, feel, and interact with. The feedback from those interactions with members of the target market can inform modifications to the product before undertaking larger production runs. The more your potential customers can see, touch, and experience your prototype, the better the feedback you will get, and the better the end product will be. This may take time and several iterations, but it will ultimately be worth the effort.
So, go be an innovator. Make cool things, invent the next biggest gadget, solve a problem, design a PCB—but don’t forget to think ahead and do your research to avoid common pitfalls.
Download The Printed Circuit Designer’s Guide to... Designing for Reality by Matt Stevenson.
This column originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of Design007 Magazine.