Interview With SparkFun's Director Of Engineering

Feb. 7, 2013
Technology Editor Bill Wong talks with Pete Dokter, Director of Engineering at SparkFun Electronics, about prototyping and open source hardware.

Creating prototypes is the norm for embedded developers and the latest tools make it easier than ever (see Tap New Technologies To Produce Practically Perfect Prototypes). One place to go for parts and ideas is SparkFun Electronics. It is a very interesting and fun place to work (see Fun at SparkFun) and definitely fun to visit.

SparkFun is one of the major suppliers of open source hardware. Yes, hardware.

Most are familiar with open source software but the same approach holds true for hardware. It is a challenge to stay ahead of the pack that can just copy what you sell but they are always turning out new technology.

SparkFun also holds many competitions like their soldering competition (see Soldering And Beer—What A Mix!).

I talked with SparkFun's Director of Engineering, Peter Dokter, about SparkFun and how it is supporting developers.

Wong: Who are SparkFun's customers? Is SparkFun only for hobbyists and prototypers?

Dokter: We've come to discover that our customers come from all walks of life. Our original assumption was that we were catering to hobbyists and engineering students, but when we actually looked at the demographics we found an amazing cross-section of humanity. Men, women, old, young, republican, democrat, engineers with 40 years of experience to the rank noob with nothing more than a crazy idea. In short, anyone with a passing curiosity about electricity will find something cool going on at SparkFun.

Wong: What kind of hardware does SparkFun provide?

Dokter: The short answer is that "we specialize in embedded electronic components", but that's pretty dry compared to the excitement our stuff generates within us. We've got sensors, cellular modules, many flavors of microcontroller boards, Bluetooth, GPS, Wi-Fi, LCD displays, e-textiles components, robots and robotic parts, motors, motor drivers, buttons and switches, tools, books... the list goes on and on. But it's also a list of things that we think are most useful and interesting to the aspiring electronics tinkerer, the sorts of things that inspire people to create all manner of wacky projects.

And, of course, we endeavor to make all of these things more accessible to our customers, so you'll find not just bare components, but also breakout boards and example code to help people get to success more quickly than they might otherwise.

Wong: What is open source hardware and how does it work?

Dokter: The gist of open source anything is that instead of keeping secrets of how you did something, you let everybody know and let them see your work. In the case of us and open source hardware, we make everything that went into producing something available for everyone to see. All schematics, all board files, everything about a given product is there. This idea is, of course, counter to what most electronics companies believe what will make them money, relying instead on keeping their secrets to slow down their competition.

In practice, once we release a product as being open source, any other company or individual can take our work and create their own such product, even start up a company and sell them. But in doing so, they have to give us attribution for the original work. Many have done this now...

Wong: What are the benefits of open source hardware and software to developers?

Dokter: So why do it at all? Well, if you're setting out to make a zillion dollars, it might not be the best plan to share everything (although it doesn't seem to have hurt us any). But as a developer, you can get critical feedback on your work and even help to make it better through the practice of open source. Development time can be greatly reduced with the result of a much improved design.

In our case, we rely on being agile enough to improve designs over our competition. For example, company X takes something from us, tweaks the design a little bit to make it better and starts selling to the public while giving us attribution (they usually drop the price a buck or two under us, too). We then check out their work, and if it's a good improvement we roll it into our own design and maybe tweak it a bit more, now giving them attribution for what they've changed. Lastly, we might match their price, or set it lower. In the end what we have is a better product for customers at a lower price. It also forces us to compete in areas like customer service and tech support instead of taking competitors to court, something we're pretty sure our customers will appreciate more than watching us defend our turf.

Wong: When a designer is turning a project into a product how can SparkFun help?

Dokter: A fair amount of our energy goes into educating people on how to use the tools of the trade. We've got a lot of tutorials on topics like PCB design, embedded programming, hardware hook up and usage, etc. Plus, our tech support team is on hand for specific questions about how to use all of our products. And if somehow we don't have the answer you're looking for, we can point you in the right direction for more information, be it on our user forum or even one of our competitors.

If someone is building a product using some of our hardware, we do have quantity discounts available for higher volumes - but at some point the new creator has to weigh the costs of getting large quantities from us vs. just making the items in question themselves.

For the coolest new ideas we will actually collaborate with the idea originator to bring the product to market more quickly. One of our engineers takes on the project and works with the collaborator on hardware and firmware design, and the product gets listed on the SparkFun website when all parties are happy with the work. Collaborators get a percentage of retail sales and don't have to worry about all the difficulties of running a business.

Wong: What are some of the popular platforms that SparkFun supports?

Dokter: First and foremost is Arduino (Fig. 1). Those guys are awesome and do good work, especially with regard to their IDE. The Arduino platform has become the de facto standard for beginning embedded programming, and now they're expanding into ARM development with their new Due board. We also have the very popular IOIO platform for Android developers, Beagleboards and Beaglebones, Raspberry Pi's, and LeafLabs and mbed boards for more ARM development, just to name a few. Or if a simple microcontroller is too pedestrian for you, we also carry the Papilio One board that features a Xilinx Spartan 3E FPGA, and we're also working with Parallax to bring a couple of new Propeller boards to our customers. And all of these platforms are well suited to beginners in that they are very well documented and have large community-based support groups.

Figure 1. Sparkfun's Arduino Mega 2560 R3 bumps the performance of the basic Arduio platform

While that might seem like a long list, it's worth knowing that there are plenty of platforms that we don't carry. The ones that don't make the cut are usually weeded out because they're expensive or there's a large cost up front for the associated IDE, or they're just not that easy to use. We try very hard to prune our list to the sorts of things that get our customers the most bang for the buck.

Wong: SparkFun does a lot of special events as well. Can you tell us about some?

Dokter: Some events we host and some we attend. But what might be our signature hosted event is our AVC (Autonomous Vehicle Competition). This event is primarily robotics based, coupled with a simple navigation challenge: to get your bot to get itself around our building in the best time. To that end, we encourage participants to try to do the most with the least, which is to say that the cheaper and simpler solutions get more respect than the all-out entries (even if they don't win). The event has both ground and air classes, although last year we had to ban quad copters for safety reasons. But this year we're taking the event to a new venue and reinstating quads, plus we're looking to partner with some of our friends to expand the event and make it the best AVC yet.

SparkFun AVC 2012 (Autonomous Vehicle Competition)

Besides that, we host a lot of classes and workshops at our location in Boulder, CO, we usually attend Maker Faires in San Mateo, Detroit and NYC, and our education department is often touring the country spreading the good word. We have been to a number of educational conferences, most notable USASEF which targets students interested in science, engineering and mathematics. Also last year, we attended the Small Satellites Conference at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. New for this year, we're talking about attending the National Robotics Challenge with a small group people, maybe running a workshop - but that one's still in the works. So we're keeping ourselves fairly busy with community engagement.

Wong: Check out some more of our SparkFun coverage on Engineering TV like the following video.

SparkFun Electronics - Let Your Geek Shine

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