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One Page Guide: Electronics Prototyping Costs


What’s the issue?

To be sure of an acceptable ROI with an electronic product development, it is necessary to estimate what prototyping costs for electronics PCBAs are likely to be. This can be a point of issue because you might reasonably think it is a one off cost, but it isn’t. What’s more, per item costs are very high although the cost of prototyping is usually a drop in the ocean compared to the cost of the complete development process. The following questions and answers will help clarify your position and help you control the prototype cost.


What are typical prototyping costs and how many should be made?

The cost of a prototype obviously depends on its function and components, but typically, a cost between £1,000 and £2,000 should be expected. This is is for one production run of maybe 3 or 5 units. 

It is not wise to make too many prototypes, particularly on the first go. People who haven’t been through a product development experience often overlook the multitude of reasons it may be necessary to remake (it  isn’t just mistakes):

  • Correction of design errors. A typical product may have hundreds of parts and each of those parts has a highly specialised datasheet, which may have tens or even hundreds of pages. Obviously, experience and prior use mitigate the risk of mistakes, but it isn’t reasonable to expect design engineers to make no mistakes at all. 
  • Manufacture of the PCBAs. The manufacturer may give feedback to the designer regarding efficiency or feasibility of the design that’s defined, there may be manufacturing errors, and there may be unexpected issues will implementing a design.
  • The market. The initial perception of requirements moves because the development team becomes more knowledgeable about needs – nothing teaches faster than trying things for real with prototypes.
So, the EM advises that not too many prototypes are made in each production run – the risk is that you end up holding a lot of scrap stock instead of a little! Commercial pressure may be such that it is necessary to take the risk, but make very sure the risk in loss of funds is understood before making such a decision. 


Should I pre-empt volume manufacture and make more PCBA prototypes?

The short answer is invariably – No! The risks are covered in the previous section – really quite likely that what’s being made will need update and testing before it is saleable, so any overstocking of an early prototype is likely to become no more that costly scrap. Every prototype version usually renders its predecessor valueless. 
All that said, there are some short cuts that can be taken when commercial pressures are very great, especially if a third party is prepared to cover the risk financially. One thing that can be done is to make a large quantity of unpopulated PCBs (bare printed circuit boards with no components on them), and thereafter to instruct the manufacturer to assemble only one as a first off. If testing reveals the first off is complaint, the balance of the production run may be made, and if not, the cost of error is limited to just bare PCB cost.
If you need any advice on all this please don’t hesitate to contact us – CONTACT above. 

How many times will I have to pay for remaking of prototypes?

As listed above under typical prototyping costs, there are a multitude of reasons why it may be necessary to remake prototype production batches. It is extremely rare that a product will go from concept to production with less than 3 prototype production runs. There may be more. Nevertheless, every time an extra prototyping cycle is requested the ‘why’ question must be answered. Re-running prototypes is part of the development cycle but it must not become an excuse for a lack of attention to detail. Clients should be reasonable and fair but there should never be a barrier to auditing quality management systems. It does help being ISO 9000 accredited – which the EM is. 
A generic example that illustrates this, and also being one that is outside the control of client and developer, is a root client suddenly deciding that what was originally specified as a desktop product must become handheld. Such a demand is far from unlikely, but it would have a tsunamic effect on a development cycle and render original prototypes valueless. 

How do I stop my electronics product developer being a careless spendthrift when it comes to prototyping?

The following tests and observations will help you gauge whether you have a developer that’s evolving your product, or a company that is making too many mistakes. 

  • Every iteration of prototype should teach the developers something. Ask the question what areas of the circuit have been confirmed as working correctly that weren’t previously. Is there some element of feasibility upon which ground has been gained?
  • Repeat mistakes are a warning sign.
  • Test the level of the prototype (TRL or equivalent – technology readiness level of prototype). The TRL prototyping definition covers the stages of prototyping as defined by NASA. What was the level of the previous prototype? Has the latest moved forwards? The goal is a final prototype that conforms entirely with its specification. This item is the most important because it gives you as the customer a view into exactly where the development is. Ask your developer to define the present TRL (or equivalent – NASA didn’t tune it to industry) and state the TRL expectation of the up and coming prototype.
  • Drill into quality records. Ask to do a design audit and expect to see recorded NCRs (non-conformance reports) with associated actions. Confirm these actions are being taken. It is normal not to raise NCRs for issues that are under development, but anything that involves a third party, such as a manufacturer, should certainly be covered. 

Engineering and prototyping are tough topics – patience is advised. Help with implementing the contents of this article is gladly given by the EM (click CONTACT US above).