REP (not "RIP")

REP - Rapid Electronic Prototyping. What is it and why should you care? Well, we care, certainly, because that's pretty much what we do. Or, at least that may be one way to describe what we do.

Wikipedia has an article on Rapid Prototyping and an article on Prototyping. The Rapid Prototyping article mostly covers mechanical devices and the other article is pretty brief. It does have a short paragraph on Rapid Electronics Prototyping - because I added it. If you search for the same on Google, you get a number of commercial sites, the Wikipedia Prototyping article and a lot about mechanical rapid prototyping. I tend to think that the term may fit and it seems that a few others agree, but is not at all a broadly used phrase at this point.

My first use of rapid prototyping in the mechanical world came back in my days at In Focus Systems, in the early 1990's. We were designing a new portable projector - the first ever to be both VGA (computer capable native resolution) and full motion video capable.

Back then, portable had a different definition. We surveyed all the airlines and found the maximum size that could fit under the majority of airline seats and subtracted 1/2" for the soft carry case. We then put different weights in bags and had a variety of people carry them around to determine - with a bit of by guess and by golly - that 20 pounds or under could be carried around on the shoulder.

The problem we faced is that same problem that many of our customers face today. We had a tradeshow deadline and we needed to study the thermal characteristics in the actual box - we needed to make sure that it wouldn't catch fire or burn anyone. We found a place that could do stereo lithography for us. Off went the CAD files and two days later we received a top and bottom - the projector would have a two piece clamshell construction - that was two inches long. They mis-programmed the machine and shrunk the parts by a factor of ten. Oops.

Next run and we had a good solid base piece. The base was intended to have a wall thickness twice that of the top and worked fine. The top just wouldn't go so we had to hack something together with sheet plastic and glue. The end result was that we had a projector to work with in two weeks, rather than the three months it would have taken for tooling. Before I took it on the road, we also learned enough about the thermal characteristics to make some significant changes. Had we not done so, our first tooled injection molded parts would not have worked and the schedule would have slipped a couple of months.

So what is Rapid Electronics Prototyping? It is getting your design built up and back into your hands fast. Doing so allows you to dramatically cut the time needed to:

  • Study thermal, noise and other electrical properties that are layout dependant
  • Get to a show or press tour faster
  • Get half a dozen or so parts to the software guys so they can get going faster
  • Start your test and debug weeks or months earlier.

Basically, just as the mechanical rapid prototyping did for In Focus Systems, Rapid Electronics Prototyping can cut time out of your schedule and get your product to market faster.

Duane Benson
No tombstoning allowed

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