3D printing is often praised for democratizing the design of physical products and making manufacturing accessible to the masses. Over the years, spectators have watched in awe as scientists have cost-effectively manufactured custom prostheses for patients, product developers have rapidly prototyped new design concepts straight from their desktops, and consumers have brought their ideas for new products, such as jewelry, to life from the comfort of their homes.
There is, however, one challenge that's outside the realm of 3D printing that's often a bottleneck in the product design process, and that's the electrification of these products with power, sensors, computing intelligence, and connectivity via protocols like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth; in other words, the incorporation of a printed circuit board (PCB) that can make these products "smart".
As the Internet of Things gains speed, there's a growing demand for "smart" products -- the incorporation of connectivity and intelligence into everyday objects. The Withings smart scale is the perfect example of an everyday product infused with intelligence to perform functions such as tracking your weight. As Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association has said: "The Internet of Things is not products; it’s a feature that should be incorporated into most products unless there's a reason not to."
So as electronics and connectivity continue to proliferate everyday objects, it begs the question: what is happening in the field of electronic design to bring new products to life faster?
Drawing from the successes of open source software and 3D printing, electronic design is quietly undergoing a revolution. New tools, processes and devices, are making PCB design and manufacturing more cost-effective and productive (through open-source design re-use), and helping to speed up prototype iterations for faster innovation.
On the tools side, EDA (Electronics Design Automation) software has become more accessible through web-based platforms. Entry-level electronics EDA packages can sometimes cost between $1000-$5000, but new web-based circuit design platforms are changing this. For example, Autodesk’s web-based circuit design platform 123D Circuits is completely free and allows designers to capture and layout circuits directly within their browsers, which they can share with other collaborators, similar to Google Drive. Other online tools like PCBWeb and Upverter are taking similar approaches.
Open source platforms for sharing EDA and CAD files, like my company's product SnapEDA, can save engineers hours of time by providing access to over a hundred thousand CAD files. These CAD files export to major CAD tools (Eagle, Kicad, Altium and Orcad), which means that designers can get an instant productivity boost within their existing design flow.
Another company called Octopart is helping to streamline the component selection process by making electronic part data easily accessible to designers building prototypes. On their platform, designers can access the whole landscape of components in a concise way, including up-to-date stock, datasheets, and other data such as pricing from over 200 component distributors. Their API is making this same data accessible through an API that any application can incorporate. Autodesk PLM 360 and 123D Circuits, for example, use this data.
And finally -- perhaps what will be most exciting to 3D printer aficionados -- is the emergence of new devices that are allowing people to print PCBs directly from their desktops, in the same vein as 3D printing. Voltera in Toronto is developing a product that will allow people to print bare PCBs from their desktops, while Tempo Automation in San Francisco has created an affordable desktop pick and place machine that automates the most expensive and tedious step in the electronic design process -- surface mount assembly.
Of course, when it comes to physical prototyping, we've already seen lots of excitement. The Raspberry Pi and Arduino both come equipped with powerful processors and a range of sensors, and have become mainstream successes due to their low price points. Other prototyping platforms like Electroninks are allowing people to gain hands-on experience with electronics through drawing. These physical platforms are allowing even those outside of electronic design to learn electronics to bring their ideas to life.
Indeed, the challenges of designing electronics are nuanced and unique. But as the electronics industry gears up to ship nearly 50 billion devices by 2020, there's no doubt that innovations in electronic design and manufacturing will be required to fuel the next wave of innovation.
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