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Interview with Laen from Dorkbot PDX/OSH Park PCB

(photo courtesey of natetherobot)

Many of you have probably used (or at least know about) the Dorkbot PDX PCB service. Recently, the service changed it’s name to OSH Park (Open Source Hardware Park, pronounced like ‘Osh Kosh’), with a new website (oshpark.com) and an automated submission system. The service, in both incarnations, is run by James Neal, more widely known as Laen.

Laen is a sysadmin by day, and an open-source hardware superhero by night. Why do I call him an OSH superhero? Well, I happen to believe that by running his PCB service, he’s enabled more people to make and thus share more things than almost anybody else.

Building open source hardware is fun, but it’s also a lot of work! In any project (open or closed) there are developmental iterations — designs rarely work perfectly in their first incarnation. There are functional and UX improvements that always need to be made. For hardware, this can become prohibitively expensive very quickly — quality fabrication costs money, especially for small runs.

For PCBs, combining designs together (“batching”) can help lower the cost, but just organizing and panelizing the batch requires significant effort. Laen took it upon himself to do this, first for the Dorkbot PDX community and then for the world, and in so doing he’s helped a lot of people build a lot of hardware that otherwise wouldn’t get built. Further, for beginners, the ability to test and learn from your mistakes is critical, and it’s difficult to do that when each mistake costs a lot of money or takes a long time to turn over.

The low cost and fast turnaround has enabled people to vet, test, and refine their designs before releasing them, and so we all benefit. I’ve been using his service for about 2 years, and I know that in my case the above holds true — I suspect there are many others who could say the same.

Phil and I recently sat down (over email) with Laen to ask him some questions about his PCB service: the history and the philosophy behind it, what the future holds and, most importantly, why he decided to use purple soldermask.

Many thanks to him for answering our questions and providing some insight into a service that’s become a keystone for the open-source hardware community. You can learn more about the PCB service and submit designs at the OSH Park website: www.oshpark.com. Also be sure to check out the OSH Park Flickr pool to browse through some of the great projects people have built using the service!

Read the full interview over at MAKE!


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