One of the challenges of building hardware is understanding how the part will perform in real world environments, while keeping an eye on rising costs during the testing process. The unit cost of a single hardware prototype is multiple times more than the production version. Luckily there are several strategies and tools that you can use to build, test, and simulate your product in real world conditions without needing a physical prototype. A lean and timely approach to hardware development is utilizing simulation software to reduce costs and time spent finding fabricators and building new physical models over and over.
Common computer aided design (CAD) softwares like Solidworks, Fusion 360, or Inventor often come with tools that will simulate physical forces on your part and tell you how it will respond in varied conditions. This also includes mechanical behavior of specific materials like ABS plastic, or 316 stainless steel. To do a mechanical simulation, first pick a surface or face that is fixed in place during the simulation. Then pick another surface for the forces to act upon, set the forces, and run the simulation. What you get is something like the image below:
The colors indicate areas of high stress, strain, and you can even turn these simulations into animations where the part will move according to the forces you applied.
You can do fluid and air simulations following a similar process and setup.
Running simulations where multiple pieces interact will alert you to problems such as components colliding with each other that shouldn’t, or if a material will fail while in motion. This type of simulation requires more setup, but is valuable for detecting performance issues before the product is built and field tested.
These simulations provide valuable insight quickly into how your product will perform under real world conditions such as being dropped and how it will handle heat transfer or pressure loads. The cost of bringing in a specialty company to test the extreme limits can be expensive, but performing these tests yourself can be dangerous. These digital simulations will inform you on how to improve your product before it goes out for certification testing such as UL.
Using something like Arduino or Raspberry Pi to prototype a product’s electronic functionality is extremely common-- I’ve used it to test air quality sensors for an air purification device. They are less expensive than designing a full board and available on Amazon. 123D Circuits by Autodesk created an electronic hardware simulator that lets you digitally build and run an Arduino. There’s no need to buy and assemble these parts, all of the components are there for you to choose from and test multiple builds within minutes. These basic electronic builds require more advanced electronic design that can be performance tested. Multisim is a well-known tool for doing just this. You can test your designs on Multisim with different types of digital equipment like an oscilloscope, that would otherwise cost hundreds of dollars to purchase. These digital simulation tools allow you to build and performance test each iteration on both a micro scale of testing individual components and a macro scale of the entire board. These programs also translate well to the file formats (Gerber) needed for production.
Aside from the physical and electrical performance, the industrial design and aesthetics can be tested in the marketplace through augmented reality or virtual reality (AR/VR). The best example of this technology being used in hardware development is John Deere--yes, the tractor and farm equipment company. They use virtual reality as a platform for users to experience their equipment and give feedback on the designs. They also use VR equipment to test the ergonomics of operating their equipment; and they even use it as a training simulator.
So how can you do this at home? An Autodesk platform called ‘EntiTi’ enables you to take your CAD designs and transfer them to an AR/VR platform. From there, you and your potential customers can experience them as they would in real life, but without ever building a physical model. This allows you to get immediate feedback, make changes, and iterate accordingly.
So far, we have discussed mechanical performance and industrial design, but what we haven’t mentioned is manufacturing. If your product has perfect mechanics and aesthetics, but is impossible to actually fabricate, what’s the point? One of the major benefits of our own software is that it actually analyzes your parts for manufacturability in real-time, makes suggestions on how to improve them, and then automatically connects you to our factory where your part is machined.
Anyone can design and improve on multiple iterations of a product using free or inexpensive software simulations tools. You can experiment with materials and understand the physical limits of your parts. The electronics can be tested on a basic functionality to an advanced build that translates into a production ready format. Your end users can experience the product and give feedback without even building a cardboard model. These tools exist to accelerate the engineering process and lower the development costs.