To get the lowest single board computer unit cost, you need to own your hardware design, which typically these days means getting someone else (a Contract Manufacturer) to manufacture your single board computer. This is what both the big boys like Apple and the smaller companies do. Here’s what you need:
A complete 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.
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.
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 check box. 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 in 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:
Given the complexity and risk involved in the lowest cost single board computer model previously described, you might decide to buy an off-the-shelf processor board that has an LCD touch interface. This helps you get to market quicker. However, you still have to deal with the following issues and associated risk factors.
You will need someone (e.g. Linux guru) or some company (e.g. Wind River) to build and maintain the software
Almost all low-cost hardware boards come with a basic Linux image, but this is rarely sufficient for production. If you want to change the Penguin logo or modify device drivers, for example to accommodate a specific LCD or touch panel, you will have to recompile the kernel.
Low-cost hardware may not be easy to get through regulatory approval
Vendors selling just a hardware board do not need the same approval needed by the finished good maker. Vendors do not provide ESD and EMI test data, and if you go into the approval testing and fail, there is no Plan B.
Low-cost can often mean early obsolescence
Verify that the vendor will be making this product in the 5 or 7 years your product will be in production.
Many low cost boards will have revisions made with little advance notice. These can cause problems with medical and other equipment that needs to follow strict ECO and change notification procedures.
Low-cost, board-level hardware vendors
If after reading these warnings and this route sounds like a fit for you, check out these low-cost, board-level hardware vendors:
If you have limited engineering resources, and your competency is something other than Linux and its associated hardware, you may be happy to learn there are off-the-shelf Linux Touchscreen Development Kits available. Kits start at $399 and give you a clear line of sight from development through production — one source for touch screen control hardware, software, customizations, and support.
With Reach Display Modules there is no software or hardware finger pointing if problems appear. In providing integrated services to customers, Reach has experienced many use-cases, including embedded browsers, networking (TCP/IP) over USB, video playback, X11 server, Web server, File Sharing (Samba for Windows).
Instead of starting from scratch or configuring software and finding out it won’t compile or doesn’t work, in most cases Reach has already figured out the problems and can create and replicate in production a custom distribution that works for you. Reach can also answer the often asked question, “How does everyone else do this?”
Working with Reach Display Modules has many benefits:
The bottom line is that this is the lowest risk path compared to other single board computer alternatives.