Fun at SparkFun

May 2, 2012
Technology Editor Bill Wong visits SparkFun. Electronics heaven for hardware hackers.

I visited SparkFun Electronics recently in Boulder, CO along with Curtis Ellzey of Engineering TV. I got to speak with a number of people there including Nate Seidle, founder and CEO of SparkFun Electronics (Video. 1). The videos have all the details but I'll add a couple of tidbits here as well.

SparkFun Electronics is aptly named. The production and inventory facility is chock full of boards, components and modules. There are enough dogs and skateboarders roaming around to give the impression of Venice Beach rather than being next to the mile high city. The number of lab benches with projects strewn all around attests to someone having too much fun.

Often the projects are to test out or develop new projects. SparkFun sells components but also kits. They have parts for all sorts of things from robots to Arduino boards and shields.

Video 1. SparkFun Electronics - Let Your Geek Shine with Nate Seidle, founder and CEO of SparkFun Electronics.

Open Source Hardware

Still, SparkFun is a business and it is doing rather well. One of the challenges they made for themselves is using open source hardware (OSHW) in many of their products (Video. 2).

OSHW is used by a number of open source projects as well as vendors that have dev kits and reference designs. The big difference between the latter and SparkFun is that OSHW designs are the products they sell. The other vendors want to sell chips, modules or design services. The actual OSHW design is inconsequential to them. It is a tool to sell more of their primary product.

This means SparkFun needs to be quick to market in addition to being innovative. On the other hand, it also makes for very good customer interaction allowing ideas to percolate quickly.

Not all of SparkFun's products are OSHW. They sell lots of components and third party products as well. The SparkFun catalog is quite extensive although the experienced developer/bargain hunter might want to check out the Ding and Dent section.

You can pick up SparkFun's scrap for next to nothing. "These boards are a great way to encourage hot-air rework, scoring usable parts, and not having to fret if the rework goes poorly." Then again, it might be nothing.

Video 2. SparkFun Electronics and Open Source Hardware with Nate Seidle, founder and CEO of SparkFun Electronics.

SparkFun Soldering Competition

Many of SparkFun's products are kits you can build which usually means soldering. Soldering tends to be a dying art from a manual standpoint with the rise of surface mount hardware. It is possible to solder some surface mount components by hand and I have done it. I don't recommend it unless you are very patient or want to practice a lot. It is definitely not for production work but then again hand soldering never was, at least in recent memory.

Still, soldering is a craft that can be useful and fun hence the SparkFun Soldering Competition (Video. 3). Now what could they come up with for a soldering project? Why SparkFun kits, of course. They have lots to choose from, and they had lots of entries at the first annual competition that was held at Oskar Blues Homemade Liquids and Solids. This is a beer and BBQ joint, so the suds were flowing along with the solder.

Video 3. SparkFun Soldering Competition with Matt Bolton, Director of Production for SparkFun Electronics.

The soldering competition used a number of SparkFun kits of progressively more complex boards including the Simon PTH Kit, the Big Time Watch Kit and the Mr. Roboto Kit. The first place winner was Thad Larson with a total time of 23:20. John Sherohman was second with a time of 24:16 and third place went to Matthew Capron (31:45). There were a couple of fun awards as well including the Quality Award - Amie Paxton, Safety 3rd - Jessica Campbell, Style Award - Andrew Zirger, Best BYO Equipment - Aaron Rogers and Ugliest Solder Joints - Eileen Egger. I need to get a photo of the last one. The Kids Race winners were Rebecca Brunner, Andrew Zirger and then Alice Rowe.

Another competition to watch out for is SparkFun's annual Autonomous Vehicle Competition (AVC) that is coming up soon. It is divided into two parts. There is an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) group and an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) group. Sorry, no quadcopters allowed in the UAV group, only planes.

You actually have to buy your slot in the competition because there are a limited number. At this point the slots are filled, but if you are in the area you can watch the competition. We will have it on Engineering TV after the competition is completed this year so stay tuned.

So if you have a project on the back burner or are just looking for some electronics fun then check out SparkFun's website.


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