Need the lowest production unit cost?
To get the lowest SBC unit cost, you need to own your hardware design, which typically these days means getting someone else (a Contract Manufacturer) to manufacture your SBC. This is what both the big boys like Apple and the smaller companies do. You need these three things:
1. A Complete SBC Design
Use in-house resources or hire an engineer/design company to do the design. This includes a Schematic, Gerbers (PCB files), Bill of Materials, working prototypes, and functional tester.
You cannot manage a design effort if you do not know what it involves. Ideally, you have done designs before becoming a project manager. Not knowing what is involved will cause the project to be late, over budget, and not do what you expect. If you get a low quote for the complete design service, you will pay for it later.
If you want a design you can manufacture for 5-7 years, be careful which parts are designed in. For example, the processor used in the low-cost Raspberry Pi is cheap because it is made in the tens of millions for a consumer product. That product can change at any time and the chip will go out of production.
2. Someone to a) Choose and b) Manage the Contract Manufacturer
Just as in the design management, you need to have worked with a Contract Manufacturer (CM) before to understand how they work and how they need to be managed.
Choosing an Asian CM to build a single board computer can put you out of business. It is possible to get an entire production run of say 5,000 single board computer units — all not working. If you have made shipment promises based on delivery dates, this kind of thing could end badly. The big boys all have management in Asia and set up in-circuit and functional testing at the CM to reduce this risk. Even so, the CM needs to have oversight to make sure the tests are performed as specified.
3. A Clear Picture of the Software Development Costs
As an example of the kind of traps out there, let’s say you want to run embedded Linux and so you select a processor for which the manufacturer offers a Linux port. Great – all the driver work is done, right? The inconvenient truth is that for silicon vendors, software is not their strength, and saying they run Linux is mainly a feature checkbox. The typical Linux they provide is a cobbled-together proof-of-concept, not a production-ready and tested platform.
Good embedded Linux software programmers are hard to find and expensive. They require management that knows enough about Linux to make the decisions like what file system to use, what device to boot from, which system upgrade mechanism to support, and so on.
Low-cost Linux LCD Display Chip Vendors
If after reading these warnings and this approach sounds like a fit for you, check out these low-cost single board computer chip vendors:
- Freescale: i.mx28 SoC is low cost, can drive up to 7” display, wide variety of interfaces including CAN. Vybrid line for small displays has frame buffer on-chip.
- TI: Sitara SoC is a family of low-cost processors with LCD controllers.
- Atmel: Wide range of processors with LCD controllers.