Single Board Computers: Uses, Prototypes & Getting to Market Faster

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Once upon a time, there was a divide between projects developed for production and projects made on a development board. Development boards have always been a great way to test out individual parts of a project, and hobbyist boards like the Arduino Uno are a familiar base for most maker projects. Yet, a professional project based on an Arduino would never have been considered a fair prototype because it would not be a logical tool to use in production. Then, Raspberry Pi entered the picture…

Raspberry Pi brought to market what is arguably the first single board computer that could reasonably be used in a commercial product.  Previous SBCs were much more expensive or severely limited in functionality, but the Raspberry Pi was designed to be a powerful, low-cost device.  The conversation around going to market with a pre-made device versus designing a custom circuit became more complicated.  Even if you only intend to sell a few hundred units, the engineering effort to design down a development board into what you actually need almost always wins out overusing a several hundred dollar SBC in every product.  However, at $35 a pop, the Raspberry Pi can be a cost effective base for products even at thousands of units.  We are seeing more and more commercial products enter the market riding the wings of eagles in SBC form and performing quite well.

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Raspberry Pi 3 Model B

Raspberry Pi Foundation Embedded System Development Boards and Kits View

So, how can single board computers get you to market faster?  It all depends on what you want to do. 

Revising Prototypes & Lowering Single Board Computer Costs

The largest revisions in a product (both hardware and software) tend to occur between versions 1 and 2.  While the prototype may go through dramatic evolutions in the lab, no one can really predict what the market wants from a product until it is released.   It can feel risky to go to market with a “good-enough” product when you feel there is more work to be done, but experienced entrepreneurs see the first revision of a product as an extension of the prototyping process.  It is often more important to get to market quickly than with the perfect product, so it may be wise to save costing-down you BOM with a custom board until rev 2 and just launch your first product exactly as prototyped – single board computer and all.  This is probably not a long-term solution, and you should always do the math to decide the production volume threshold you would need to hit to make a custom board more cost effective.  It is also wise to order all the boards you’ll need for a given run in a single batch to avoid variations, so if you are buying out a particular SBC every month, it’s probably time to redesign.

Testing your Dev Boards

Development boards have always been a great tool for creating prototypes, but the product often has to be created piecemeal.  You’ll find a board for your chosen microprocessor and get that up and running. Then, you find a different board for your power solution and get that going.  Rinse and repeat with sensors, Bluetooth, etc. and you have a Frankenstein project that technically works, but probably looks like a wire tumbleweed blew onto your workspace and requires a kludge of code that would make any developer wince.  The intention behind this sort of prototyping is to do a mass consolidation into a custom circuit before launch.  Of course, at least a few things are bound to go wrong in the transition to a single PCB, the behavior may change a bit simply due to the different connections, and the debugging process could take weeks. 

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BB170-GR

BusBoard Prototype Systems Solderless Breadboards View

If the whole experience has you eyeing that NVIDIA Jetson SBC over your mess of wires and smoldering GPU, you are not alone.  Single board computers, by definition, combine all the necessary components onto a single board to achieve functionality right out of the box.   Any development you do with the sensors, power, and processor of an SBC should carry over much more easily to a new board, and most SBCs have reference designs available to make picking and choosing the components you actually need as easy as possible.  Cutting out the initial rat nest, even if you do not intend to go to market with the specific SBC, saves time and money on multiple fronts.  Even expensive SBCs tend to cost less than the stack of development boards you’d need to get the same functionality, and the documentation all comes from the same source.  This leads to cleaner code, better hardware portability, and much less frazzled engineers.

Dev Board Community: Raspberry Pi Forums

Though the Raspberry Pi has the largest online community of any single board computer, any SBC is designed with the intent of being useful to a range of designers.   Products like the BeagleBone have been used in everything from audio systems to robots, and people tend to freely share their code and design challenges.  

While you should never try to monetize something you’ve directly copied from another user, you can find bits and pieces of your solution already completed just by spending a few minutes exploring projects that have already been done on that board.  You might have a hard time finding someone who has code for a CortexA53 that will tell you when your 3D printer has run out of filament, but search the same thing on a Raspberry Pi 3 and you’re bound to find a kindred spirit who will help you through the entire project.   Nothing happens in a vacuum anymore, and the best ideas can involve just looking at a common application through a different lens.

Launch SBC Projects  

The best way to get started is to grab an SBC and start playing!  We can help you get started on several boards, including the Dragonboard410c, Raspberry Pi3, and Intel Joule.  If you have a project you want to bring to market, see how Indiegogo can get you there even faster! 

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