Electronic Design

Soldering And Beer—What A Mix!

I recently visited SparkFun in Boulder, Colo. This is one company that has too much fun (see “Fun At SparkFun”). It could be the plethora of dogs and puppies or the occasional skateboarder rolling down the hall. It might also be all the electronic projects going on in addition to fulfilling all the orders from customers.

SparkFun Electronics is a purveyor of “bits and pieces to make your electronics projects possible.” It has hordes of hobbyists but plenty of prototypers too. It runs classes and has a host of online tutorials and videos. You can go there if you want something for your five-year-old or that lab bench project that needs to be done this week.

The SparkFun attitiude is infectious. I’m already a gadget freak who loves to play with dev kits and programming projects, and wandering the hallways there was great. I’m not local, so I wasn’t able to make it to two of its big competitions. Fortunately, Engineering TV was on the scene.

Sparkfun Solder Competition

The first annual Sparkfun Soldering Competition (Fig. 1) was held at Oskar Blues Homemade Liquids and Solids, a down-home beer and Southern-inspired BBQ joint in Boulder, Colo. It was open to young and old, and the overall winner had to contend with SparkFun’s best (see “SparkFun Soldering Competition”).

1. The Sparkfun soldering competition was held at Oskar Blues Homemade Liquids and Solids, a down-home beer and Southern-inspired BBQ joint.

There were three rounds with a new kit in each including the Simon PTH Kit, Big Time Watch Kit, and Mr. Roboto Kit. Thad Larson took first place with a total time of 23:20. The next two places were taken by John Sherohman (24:16) and Matthew Capron (31:45). The spread was even bigger when you take a look at the rest of the pack.

Soldering is an art and a science. Most electronics designers know how to solder and possibly wire wrap. Many repairs used to be possible with a trusty soldering iron, but these days surface-mount technology has pushed the soldering iron to the corner, and only occasional fixes are possible. For example, I recently replaced four caps in a discarded Samsung LCD monitor. I can always use a $5 display. But such repairs tend to be the exception lately.

Autonomous Vehicle Competition

The annual Autonomous Vehicle Competition (AVC) is held at SparkFun’s office, or rather around it, literally (Fig. 2). The next event will be on June 16. The course is through the parking lot that surrounds the SparkFun building. There are two sets of unmanned vehicles in the AVC: ground and air. The UAVs are limited to planes, since quadcopters are considered too dangersous.

2. SparkFun’s annual Autonomous Vehicle Competition runs cars and flies UAVs around the company’s building.

The rules are pretty simple. The race is a single lap, and the shortest time wins. Each entry gets three tries, but not everyone makes it around. No basestations are allowed, so the robots are self-contained. The robots normally run individually, but this year an exhibition run will have a mass start. I expect mass chaos. Spectators beware.

Open-Source Hardware

Another revelation I had during my visit was SparkFun’s support of open source hardware (OSHW). This is analagous to free and open source software (FOSS), but on the hardware side. Most hardware vendors use something like OSHW with dev kits and reference designs, yet there’s a big difference in the financial model. Those vendors want to sell chips (or other services), but not the hardware per se.

On the other hand, SparkFun is selling the hardware. If you want to sell the same thing, then you have a design ready made. Of course, you better be nimble because SparkFun turns on a dime and cranks out new designs almost daily—or at least it seems that way. In any case, it is an example of how open designs can be very successful.

So as they say at SparkFun, let your geek light shine (see “Let Your Geek Light Shine”).

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