May 11, 2010
Makers Mark: How the Internet has Grown the World of Hardware Tinkering

Makers Mark: How the Internet has Grown the World of Hardware Tinkering

About 26 people attended tonight’s meeting. Josh Zapin facilitated and Jeremy Kohler recorded the minutes.
Applied Trust (http://www.appliedtrust.com) provides refreshments, Copy Diva (http://www.copydiva.com) provides the audio-visual equipment, NCAR (http://www.ncar.ucar.edu) provides the facility, and ONEWARE (http://www.oneware.com) sponsors these minutes.
Thanks also to Brian at http://covervillemedia.com for creating the podcast.
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The Maker’s Manifesto: If you can’t open it, you don’t own it. Makers take common objects and make them into something more. Do you read Make Magazine? Extreme do-it-yourselfers is a hardware revolution underway today. Today the open-source movement helps makers share ideas (see http://instructables.com). You can learn how to create a flex box, which is a mobile robotic platform. How about an electric giraffe that carries people around? This is a far cry from those Radio Shack circuit boards we used to play with.

Nathan Seidle (nathan@sparkfun.com) is CEO of SparkFun Electronics in Boulder, Colorado, a company he founded in 2003 as an undergraduate student in electrical engineering. The company, which has grown to about 90 employees, provides tools, hardware, and other resources for artists, engineers, prototypers, and hobbyists to “play with cool electronic gadgetry.” He is an accomplished engineer, innovator, and bootstrapping entrepreneur.

View the speaker's slides can be found here.

Podcast of the program can be found here.
http://makezine.com/04/ownyourown (Maker’s Manifesto)
Hot Irons and Curious People
That electric giraffe is quite large and scary!
We’ll talk about what you can do without a whole lot of technical expertise. I started SparkFun when I was on the rowing team. The guy in front, the coxswain, yells at us to stroke through an amplifier. A very expensive amplifier. I wanted to make myself a cheaper one. So I built a prototype and it blew up my programmer. I needed parts and I could only find them at a crappy Bulgarian site. Bulgaria? No way I wanted to send my credit card info to Bulgaria. So where do I get parts? Radio Shack just doesn’t have very much--there’s no good selection. Well, I went and bought a bunch of parts from Bulgaria and put them up for sale. And my third order came from France! I completely underestimated the demand for these products. So at SparkFun we set up an online store with actual descriptions and pictures. It looks like any good consumer company. At the time, I’d say the electronics world was five to eight years behind the curve.
Audience comment: The Radio Shack stuff, even when you can find it, isn’t reliable.
Radio Shack has basically moved away from components.
Audience comment: I hear the U.S. government is even having trouble finding good stuff.
Microcontroller: The brain of your project--a little chip that you can program with a number of different languages. A very cheap computer: $3.
Motion sensor: A $10 input.
Servo motor: Output that gets activated. Very simple combination of stuff. Check out Blender Defender. That product uses a motion sensor to determine when the cat has jumped on the counter and it turns on the blender to scare it away.
Widgets: A generic little board that you combine with other stuff. Arduino: a tiny development platform that’s very popular, taking over the world.
EPROM: It remembers like flash.
Solder: To make an electrical connection
Surface mount: A chip that can sense motion. We solder it to a board so that you can get access to the tiny chip through the board.
We’re a basically a hardware store. We sell the bits and pieces, not the finished product. You can’t buy a new bathroom at a hardware store, but you can get all the parts.
We have demos, and we show people how to do it. We do some soldering and programming classes, but not for profit.
We are a facilitator. The engineer’s curse: Gee, I could make one of those, can’t I? Well, it took a lot longer than you thought but you get exactly what you want and it becomes addictive.
We started in a basement and now we ship about 10,000 orders per month. We’ve got barometric pressure sensors, gyros, etc. Nice red buttons. You know someday you’re gonna need a nice red button for something.
We enable people through soldering classes. We show people how to build. We host events, we try to share what we’re doing. We have tutorials on how to design PC boards.
Someone made a device that senses when your plants need watering: you stick it in the soil and when it senses that the soil is dry, it e-mails you.
Our stuff is used in everyday things. We made stairs like a musical keyboard that encouraged people to take the stairs instead of the escalator. A group made wearable circuits that are part of your clothing and was used in performances.
Some projects are silly. We have a beer tap that Twitters whenever someone fills a beer. It’s just fun. We had an autonomous vehicle competition. DARPA tried it and none of their cars worked. So we did it with a miniature car that drives around our building.
Canada got mad at us once. A grocery store pulled apart one of its credit card readers and found a SparkFun antenna inside it. Someone had secretly installed a transmitter that was sending credit card numbers to his cell phone. This kind of thing is rare, but it happens.
In Fort Collins, a pumpkin grower had built a giant trebuchet to hurl pumpkins. We wanted to find out what was happening to the pumpkins, so we installed accelerometers in the pumpkins. We discovered hurled pumpkins rotate at 7 Hertz. What can we do with that information? I don’t know, but it’s cool.
Your rules:
Build it and plug it in.
Look for sparks, smoke, and heat.
Don’t be afraid.
You’re having the most fun when you’re trying something new and the sparks are flying.
We did something fun with GPS. It occurred to us that GPS gives you very accurate time. So let’s use a GPS module to build an enormous GPS clock. We don’t sell you the clock, but we show you how to build it.
Once we built a big annoying phone. I took an old rotary tabletop phone and turned it into a cell phone. The rotary works and everything. When the New York Times picked it up our site went down. It’s a wacky application of electronics and probably not a consumer product, but we’re actually selling them for $400 apiece. And it’s got tremendous battery life because there’s so much room inside. The hardest part was getting the 100-volt AC bells to ring.
Q: How did you make money? How do you know what will sell?
A: I found I could hand solder a chip to a board and I sold a few of those. You normally need $ millions to manufacture electronics, and the way we do it is very unorthodox. We use tweezers and hot plates instead of robots and ovens. So we sell corner-cutting. We buy the chip and sell it on a board. Once we got a supply of chips that were counterfeit, with no circuits inside. So we buy from known, good vendors.
Q: What about those Japanese family electronics shops that do prototypes for corporations base on specs that the corporations provide? How do you compare?
A: We’re at the beginning of something new and different. We’re getting close by creating what we call fab labs.
Q: Who orders from you?
A: Some go to a PO box in Langley, which makes you wonder. Other stuff goes to places like Georgia (in Europe). Our stuff goes to lots of different countries, and we generally have no idea who is ordering.
Q: What about security?
A: We do have a no-ship list that we get from the government and we screen every order.
Q: Are you going to go retail, like Fry’s Electronics?
A: We probably won’t be a big retail outlet. But you never know. See, you need the tech info that’s accessible from the web site, and it’s hard to make that available in a store setting.
Q: Do you design and manufacture in-house?
A: Yes, we do all that stuff in Gunbarrel. Mostly PC boards. The switches we get from a great maker of switches.
Q: How do you test the stuff?
A: We check for core functionality.
Q: How did you develop the e-commerce system?
A: First I designed the web site and it was horrible, but better than the Bulgarians. We used OS Commerce. Then we designed our own PHP e-commerce system. We started with just paypal and money orders. Then I signed up for a merchant account--that was odd because they sent me a camera to photograph my inventory and place of business. That was my bedroom at the time so I took some photos of my bedroom and I got approved! Now we use authorize.net.
Q: What about communities for makers--how do you use and nurture them? How do you integrate with businesses?
A: That’s a weird fuzzy world. O’Rielly owns Make Magazine. They tried to sell stuff and it blew up. I’d say there’s no real community any more.
Q: Is there a software analog?
A: Not that I can think of.
Q: Would you do monthly workshops?
A: Difficult. We should, but we’re doubling every year. Instructables.com is a great site. We’re not experts at media and instruction yet, but we’re trying. I’m really good at laying out circuit boards, but terrible with microphones!
Audience comment: People in the electronics community are pretty specialized. So if I’m building something in particular, I can usually find people who are also interested in that particular thing.
Q: I organize Make Denver. Can you come talk to us? It’s a developing maker space, kind of shop-oriented.
A: Oh, like a hacker space. A hacker space is common in cities where groups rent a space with tools and everybody shares. I don’t know if it will get popular around here, where everyone has garages. I know a guy who’s working with amateur ballooning (in his garage)--so I’m building sensors and he’s doing cameras.
Q: What do you see in the next 5 years?
A: I sense major changes coming as it gets more mainstream. Who knows?
Q: What if you got too big? Could you still do this?
A: It’s important to be transparent about your image. If we can maintain our culture I think we’ll be okay. Customers are certainly beginning to expect more from us as we grow.
Q: Would becoming a big company wreck the culture?
A: That’s a concern, and we’ll have to see as we cross that bridge.
Audience comment: I don’t think it matters how big you get--as long as you keep proving yourselves to your customers.
Q: Any cool gadgets coming down the pike?
A: Sensors! I’m into combination accelerometer gyros with six axes. Lets you do augmented reality stuff. They are getting really cheap and you can combine them with GPS. I also think batteries are getting interesting.
Q: What other sensors are interesting?
A: Biometric ID, RFID in your pets. I want to get rid of my keys and use biometric sensors instead. Gas sensors are big. We’ve got tons of all kinds of sensors.
Q: Are you self funded?
A: Completely bootstrapped. I never have any cash, but lots of inventory. We are privately held.
Q: Do your products support smart grid, disabilities, and kid safety applications (like GPS sensors in your kid’s shoe)?
A: Sure. We can put sensors in people and animals (like horses) to monitor their health. We’ve got some smart grid stuff that monitors energy use. There’s an open-source movement for prosthetics too. It’s all out there. You have find your own community, but people are definitely working on this stuff.

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