Hi, my name is Pradyumna. I'm a CS student at BITS Pilani, and I have a story to tell.
I started college in 2018, and right after I joined I started doing what every CS student wants to do - get into programming. It worked pretty well, and soon I was a server side developer at my college fests' tech team (called the Department of Visual Media i.e. DVM). And thus begin my software development journey.
I did the usual software developer stuff - learnt Python and Django in my first semester, did my GSoC with Open Bio-Informatics Foundation (OBF) in my second. My project with OBF required frontend to be designed using Angular which I had to pick up at short notice. In 2019, I was one of the two people who developed the back-end systems for BITS Pilani fests' mobile apps and managed the DevOps (deployment and management of our server).
Like everyone else, I too was set on a path to become a software developer - either doing a job after college, going for higher studies or spinning up a startup. The only catch was that everything I did would be related to software only. Everything was about code.
Until my sophomore year.
I would wonder how the electronic products I use daily were made. How did we manage to put together a few wires and some silicon to make something as complex as a mobile phone or a laptop? The fact that we are able to create extremely intelligent devices by using inexpensive components seemed very fascinating to me.
I was enjoying development, trying to find the next unicorn SaaS idea. However, over time I realized that not everything can be solved by software. In fact, I had been looking at problems from a very constrained point of view. Often, problems involved dealing with people or things physically – like sensing presence or providing venues for interaction. This led me into explore - what did it take to build devices that solve these problems? Is there any opportunity in this domain?
And lo, I was now into hardware.
My newfound interest led to me becoming part of a team at BITS Library, called Srishtaara. At Srishtaara, we are working towards creating a MakerSpace inside the library premises wherein students can innovate without fear of judgement or failure. We had assembled a 3D printer, cataloged sensors and development boards like Arduino, Raspberry Pi etc. This gave me a nice opportunity to work with a team full of Makers who want to break boundaries of disciplines in order to solve real-world problems, and I up-skilled in the hardware domain.
It's more than just an Arduino
See, usually when someone thinks hardware, they think Arduino. What people fail to realize is that there is more to beginner hardware development than just using an Arduino board! Arduino boards are for experimenting/prototyping. They're not used in commercial electronic products (you're not gonna find an Arduino inside your refrigerator, on a satellite or an aircraft).
Moving from amateur to professional projects is what adds the charm to electronics. It's what enables you to build reliable and cheap products like a thermostat and very expensive, mission critical stuff like a Radar – both of which have changed countless human lives. Designing your product so that it's commercially viable for mass production is difficult and fun.
Making something that works is easy. Making something that works and is also small, durable and cheap is hard.
The market scenario
In India, a big and lucrative market fueled by the desire to be independent is on the rise. A lot of us want to go into IT and get started with coding, but we're not quite realizing the importance of core engineering fields and the magnitude of opportunities waiting for us in that direction.
Hardware allows you to solve problems that you thought were unsolvable (because you wanted to solve them with software, remember?). The development costs are higher, yes. But on the other hand, hardware solutions can return more profit since the cost per unit produced is very less at large scales of production.
Just how profitable can it be?
Like I said, we don't use Arduino and breadboards commercially. Instead of stuff like wires/jumpers doing the connections, we use a Printed Circuit Board (PCB) which has these electrical connection etched into a fiber-glass boards. In place of an Arduino controlling the logic, there's a dedicated Micro-Controller Unit (MCU) which is programmed and integrated by referring to something called its datasheet.
This is where the magic lies. An Arduino costs around Rs. 300 to 400 ($4 to $6) without any components, but MCUs usually cost less than Rs. 50 (less than $1)! Most of the applications might only require MCUs that costs Rs. 15 or less. Imagine the kind of fortune product developers can earn if they sell millions of these units!
How you can get started
There's amateur hardware and there's professional hardware. Amateurs and hobbyists often use development boards and sensor modules along with breadboards and passive components to put together their projects. There are plenty of good tutorials online regarding these, and I'm not going to talk about them.
Instead, I suggest that you don't stop at the hobbyist level and keep exploring this field. The recommended way is doing courses on Udemy or any other MOOC website. I personally recommend this PCB Design course on Udemy. You can also follow the following YouTube channels :
Apart from this, I recommend going through these books -
These books will introduce you to basic components of electronics in case you don't have an EEE background (like me). Apart from this, I recommend that you be active in various sub-reddits related to Electronics like r/AskElectronics , r/PrintedCircuitBoard etc.
Lastly, don't stop exploring and going beyond your comfort zone as this is what will teach you stuff which isn't taught in school.