I'm interested in building a custom laptop computer with the hope of being able to sell it and make a profit. The only problem is I have no idea where to start. I have an idea for a laptop chassis which is very different than what you're used to seeing. I'm looking to design it in a CAD program. I will also need to be able to design the keyboard, which will also be of an unusual shape, the monitor, and the rest of the hardware. I will need to be able to manufacture it, or find somebody who can take my designs and build it for me.

How do I go about getting started? Any suggestions? I need suggestions for:

  • Possible manufactures
  • CAD software
  • How to do computer engineering using off the shelf components

I'm a software engineer by profession, so all this hardware stuff is alien to me. Thanks!


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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm a mechanical engineer specializing in manufacturing. I can tell you right off the bat, unless you have an entire company backing you, this will be pretty much impossible. From a manufacturing standpoint, a single plastic injection mold for a single component can cost up to $40,000. If you don't intend to produce this product en mass (10,000+ units) you can forget about the profit part. However, if you do have a company backing you, China is always happy to build your designs, if you have money for them. \$\endgroup\$ – Faken Apr 22 '11 at 5:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ Would a 3d Printer work? (You know the plastic kind?), that would reduce the cost considerably from $40,000 to probably the cost of a 3d printer, and some plastic (maybe $500 max?) \$\endgroup\$ – onaclov2000 Apr 23 '11 at 3:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ 3D printers do work, but the cost for your case would still be in the low thousands, and there are caveats to the output of the 3D printers - surface finish and strength varies, and is never as good as an injection molded part, also if I was bothering to custom make a laptop, I would want to do it out of metal anyways, so CNC machining is a more likely venue. \$\endgroup\$ – Connor Wolf Apr 23 '11 at 5:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ 3D printer parts are good for checking fit and making mockups. They'll never be as good as a CNC machined or molded part. This is just because of the physics involved. It's like trying to make a motorcycle helmet out of LEGO bricks and plastic cement: Smoothness and finish will be lacking, and it won't deal with impact as well. \$\endgroup\$ – Mike DeSimone Mar 28 '12 at 2:36

I agree with @Faken; plastic injection molds are way too expensive for DIY. You can make first prototypes in SL (StereoLithography), but they don't compare with molded ABS or PC.
For a CAD program there's a number of options, Pro Engineer or Solid Designer to name a few. 3D CAD is expensive, and be prepared for a long learning curve. SolidWorks and AutoDesk Inventor should get you up and running more quickly (sic @Faken).

You can use components for COTS laptops, like display, HDD/SSD and optical drives. However, designing a motherboard is not an easy task. You'll need another CAD program (expensive, learning curve) and a lab to do primarily testing. Laying out a PCB is not connect-the-dots. Keywords: EMC, transmission lines, power.

Since you're a software engineer you should have some idea of the difficulties here. Do you want to run Linux? Can you write the drivers? Can you test your software?

all in all
Designing a new product and hoping someone will be interested is a risky thing, at least. A manufacturer will want to have his say about the design, and ultimately may want to do most of it, if not all, himself. Why do you think your unusual keyboard design will appeal?

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    \$\begingroup\$ For mechanical design, I suggest SolidWorks or Inventor. Fairly quick learning curves and very powerful. Rapid prototyping is definably a possibility for prototyping. For an entire laptop's mechanical components, do expect to spend around 1k - 5k depending on the process you chose. \$\endgroup\$ – Faken Apr 22 '11 at 6:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Faken - don't forget the "unusually shaped" keyboard. If every key has its own shape this already adds a few kilodollar. \$\endgroup\$ – stevenvh Apr 22 '11 at 6:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well, for rapid prototyping, the cost associated with complexity can be completely ignored as they generally charge on a per weight basis, a beautiful property of rapid prototyping. Using cheap material (nylon) with low quality processes (fused material deposition) you can do the entire laptop for around 1k. Using expensive materials (steel/titanium!) in high quality processes (selective laser sintering) you'll run into the 10's of k. \$\endgroup\$ – Faken Apr 22 '11 at 7:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ I want to point out that, by far, the most complex part here is the custom motherboard. If you do want to go with a custom mobo, the design time involved will massively outweigh the mechanical design time. Also, you will have to get a partnership of some sort with Intel/AMD, since their chipsets do not have full design documents available. \$\endgroup\$ – Connor Wolf Apr 23 '11 at 5:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ Not just Intel and AMD; you'll need to get NDAs signed with graphics and networking chip vendors as well. Want PCI Express? You'll need a 15 GHz scope ($300K) to debug it and a crash course in electromagnetics so you don't have the world's biggest pile of crosstalk. If you want to sell this thing, or even donate it or give it away, you'll need to make sure it passes FCC emissions tests. Repeat for every country outside the US. And on and on. Oh, and if you don't have a company behind you, kiss the next ten years of your life goodbye. \$\endgroup\$ – Mike DeSimone Mar 28 '12 at 2:41

A short rundown on what steps are involved:

First you decide on the requirements like computing and graphics power, memory, storage, runtime, ports and interfaces.

From this you work out the battery size and cooling requirements, and the size of all the required parts. You may want to rip apart a few laptops to see how cooling is accomplished.

You check the application notes and reference designs of the vendor to see how a mainboard may be set up.

Step by step you move towards a frame of spatial requirements.

Once that is finished, you move on to the actual design part, where the real work starts. Faken's comment is absolutely correct. On a professional level notebook, each design step is done by a team of experienced specialists who have full command of a set of expensive tools. This should be a few manyears of training with the tools and learning the tech, and a few manyears of applying those skills to produce a good notebook.

In short: it cant be done alone, at least not to make a profit.

If your idea is truly novel, you may want to learn how to use a 3d-modeling program, set up a good model and presentation, and go hunt for venture capital. If you are lucky, you get bought :-)


The laptop space is very crowded, and dominated by manufacturers with long experience.

I recommend a more focused, niche strategy based on making individual components first, so separating out the keyboard design from the CPU/box from the display means you can solve.

If you aren't solving a user problem adequately, your product will not gain traction in the marketplace.

The founders of Apple, as an example, didn't make the Apple II as the first product - they built blue boxes (low-tens of dollars), then the Apple I (a circuit board), then the Apple ][, etc.

For unique case designs, you might look at what Ben Heckdorn does to make vintage computer gear portable - works of art IMO - http://bit.ly/benheckshacks


This question has many analogies to "How do I make a new movie with an original script, soundtrack, etc.?".

As you can see from the credits at the end of a big-budget movie, such a movie requires hundreds of people. Likewise, designing a computer that does everything the latest laptop computers do in a similarly "polished-looking" case also requires many people.

There are other people that want to make highly customized, individualized laptops -- some of them listed at http://www.oddwiki.org/odd/ComputerComponent/CustomNotebook -- but as far as I can tell they haven't quite reached critical mass. Yet. Perhaps you might like working at a laptop design company?

Alternatively, you could scale back your expectations to something that a single person can do, or a few people can do, analogous to non-commercial and other independent film. The barriers to producing an independent film keep dropping -- nonlinear film editing software, lower-cost cameras, etc.; the barriers to building a computer yourself also keep dropping.

It sounds like you are mostly interested in the outside appearance of the laptop. Perhaps if you scaled back your expectations to customizing just the outside, and used some standard off-the-shelf motherboard, display, etc., the result still would be pretty cool. As "The Programmer" mentioned, Ben "Heck" Heckendorn (who also makes independent films) gives some good tips for re-packaging off-the-shelf computers: http://bit.ly/benheckshacks , http://revision3.com/tbhs , http://www.element14.com/community/community/experts/benheck , etc.

You might also pick up some case modding tips elsewhere: Wikibooks: How To Assemble A Desktop PC, Wikipedia: case modding, neatorama, dmoz: case modding, etc.