We sent off a list of questions, just like every week, and [Ladyada] offered to do a video response. How awesome is that? Not only did she answer our questions, but she talked at length for several of them. We’re biased, but her explanation about Adafruit’s manufacturing processes and options for home hackers to get boards spun was a real treat.
The video has closed captions and here is the full text of the video (transcribed, lets us know if there are any errors).
[RADIO BEEPS AND STATIC] Beaming to you from space. It’s me, Ladyada. I am one of the judges for the Hackaday Prize. And Hackaday has sent over a fine list of quality questions that they would like me to answer so that you know the kind of person that’s judging you when you want to go to space. So let’s begin.
First up, where did the name Ladyada come from? Good question, Hackaday. Ladyada was my hacker handle when I was on IRC a lot, wasting my time and also breaking into computers in the ’90s. And since then, I’ve kept that handle. It comes from Lady Ada Lovelace, who was the first programmer and also loved to gamble on horse racing.
Next question. We imagine studying engineering at MIT to be as close to an educational playground as you can get. Are there any crazy projects, hackathon pranks from the time that you were there that you’d be willing to share? Another good question.
Well, my favorite prank that I think that I pulled off personally was getting a Media Lab master’s thesis in engineering by making a cellphone jammer. That was my thesis project. I basically did a thesis about design noir, and personal space, and technologies that help us reclaim personal space.
And I really, really wanted to just build a cellphone jammer. It was a fun little project where you annoy stores into a VCO, and really big RF antennas. You can see them over there on that side.
And I made it so it would fit into a cigarette pack. And this was a project that I personally wanted. I just really wanted a cellphone jammer. And I got a degree out of it. So I think that that was a pretty good hack.
Next question. Adafruit Industries has made a real splash as far as publishing educational content. First of all, thank you. You’re welcome. Secondly, how does this play into your business model, and why do you think it’s important?
That’s true. Adafruit Industries has a lot of tutorials. We have all them right now in the Adafruit Learning System. It used to be in a wiki, which totally sucked.
And then we designed our own content management system that was designed, basically, for me and the people that I hire to write tutorials. And we have like 500 tutorials. We might even be up to 512 tutorials. So we need another bit to store all those tutorials. That’s how many we’ve got.
And they range from every kind of project, from how to blink an LED, to how to make a cellphone jammer– all these ranges of projects from beginner, to intermediate, to advanced. And many of them use Adafruit products. And the way we do it is I basically stock the store with the stuff that I want to build projects with– all kinds of sensors, and amplifiers, and DEV boards, and LEDs, and blinkies, and whatever. And then we do projects that help demonstrate what those components can do.
And we published them on the learning system so our customers have good documentation on how to get started. I think of that as the quick-start guide. Also, what it can do, how to hack it mods, any kind of modification that they want to make to use the project that we’ve designed to make the project that they want.
So I think of it as giving them a leg up on the kind of maker and hacker projects that people want to build. So yeah, I think of Adafruit as basically a tutorial company. And we have this gift shop, which is all the cool electronic components that you can use to build all the tutorials.
Next up. The Hackaday Prize has a judging preference for Open Design. Obviously, Adafruit shares this virtue, as your products are all open. Can you tell us why you think there are more benefits to being open than not?
Yeah, I am really a big proponent of open-source hardware. Also a big proponent of open-source software. I used to do more computer science in software and coding beforehand. Then I moved into hardware, because my wrist started hurting. And now I just have solder teams everywhere.
And open-source hardware is really cool. Because it allows people to share their designs, and firmware, and hardware, and schematic layout with a really big community. And I think that the Adafruit community is so awesome.
And I spent a lot of time engineering stuff. And I have a team including KTOWN and Tony DiCola and others who design really, really great hardware and firmware and software. But there’s nothing better than having a big community to come in and suggest even more stuff.
We get pull requests on our GitHub repos like four or five times a day. And we’ve tried to integrate all these great upgrades, and changes, and bug fixes. We have such a good community in open-source hardware that I think there’s a lot of benefit to joining it. And it’s easy to join. All you have to do is open source something that you made.
OK, next up– making the transition from using DEV boards and break-out boards to engineering and populating a single board project is a huge leap. What advice can you give for people interested in moving their skills up a level?
That’s right. Most makers start with getting off-the-shelf modules, break-out boards, and DEV boards like an Arduino or Arduino Shields. And they cobble together their project. And they get it working. And that’s really cool.
But then they’re like, well, I want something that maybe isn’t available. I want a break-out for a chip that’s not got a break-out already. Or maybe I want to have a custom board that’s extra low power, extra small. And that’s where designing your own circuit board is totally awesome and is a skill that I think everyone should eventually try to get, especially if you’re really interested in electronics.
Well, I always do suggest that people start with break-out boards. And not just like, oh hey, you buy it from Adafruit. You can get break-out boards from all over the place with a range of different sensors, and outputs, and inputs, and displays, and everything.
It just really helps. Because oftentimes, it comes with tutorials or example code. And you can breadboard it and get the layout, at least, of your project right. Because a lot of people have a lot of assumptions about how many pins they’ll need, and how much power it’s going to draw, and how much space it’s going to take, and if there’s going to be interference, or collisions. Or does that sensor even really measure what you think you want to measure?
So getting a break-out is just a good way to prototype your design. And then if the company that you bought your stuff from uses open-source hardware, like Adafruit and others, you can often download the files for those break-out boards, like [? Eagle ?] Cat, or [? Kai ?] Cat, or PCB123, or whatever. And then just copy and paste those designs into your own circuit-board layout using whatever layout software that you use. Or trace it out into your own software.
And by having those files available, it makes it very easy to grab all the pieces that you need to make the custom design you want. So I think just start with something basic– maybe 20 components– and try spinning up your board. We’ll talk about– in a little bit– some suggestions on where to get your PCBs made, as well.
OK, next up. We’ve noticed a few posts on the Adafruit blog about new assembly equipment you’ve been acquiring. Why is local manufacturing important to you? Where are your boards fabricated? And do you have any plans to produce them on site in the future?
Yes, that’s right. I have been acquiring much equipment. Last year around this time, we took a delivery of advanced high-speed flex mounters. It’s a pick-and-place machine from Samsung called the SM481. We had a pick-and-place beforehand. But it was like a pocket pick-and-place– a little mini one, a little apartment-sized one.
This one is much bigger, as you can see me here measuring how big it is with my calipers. It’s very big. It’s more than 6 inches on each side. Comes on a freight truck.
And we put big googly eyes on him. Because well, you’ve got these big googly eyes. What else you going to put them on? And it looks cute, I guess. It’s got these little teeth and tongue sticking out.
And these are the feeders that come in it. And components that you buy on cut tape or reel get loaded into the feeder. And then it gets automatically placed by the machine. The machine’s very, very fast. It places like 30,000 components per hour.
This is a little bit sped up. It’s a little Vine loop thingy like you kids always use. But if does place components very fast and very, very accurately.
And what this means is that I can manufacture more stuff, with finer pitch components, and much higher yields. All this means I can do more stuff, more parts at a lower cost. So we’re actually going to get another one installed this week. This is an SM481, which even though is one digit less than the 42, is actually the upgrade. Yeah, whatever, Samsung. Get with it.
But this machine– same size, but has 10 nozzles to pick up parts instead of 6. That’s about like 25-30% faster. And this will be in line. In our fabrication line there will be a stenciler. We have a Speedline stenciler here. And that’s the machine that squeegees the paste on. So instead of soldering each part, it actually squishes a paste on like a stencil– you can see the stencil there, like a screen print– and puts the paste perfectly onto the circuit board so that every single pad has a little bit of paste on it.
And then the components go into the pick-and-places. And they get all the parts placed on top of the different parts. And then they go in to the oven to be reflowed.
So yeah, it’s a lot of equipment. And it’s really expensive. These cost like $100,000 to $200,000 easily, depending on what extras you get. If you get it used or a demo model, it’s something that would be a little bit cheaper.
But you want to get a really good machine with good training. I think I got a really strong amount of equipment. And we don’t manufacture our own PCBs. Because PCB manufacturers actually requires very, very specialized equipment.
And you have to do 24-hour manufacturing for it to make sense because of the way they would claim the metal. If you don’t have it running 24 hours, it’s very energy consuming. So instead, we get our PCBs made elsewhere.
I don’t know of any electronics in-house manufacturer that also makes their own PCBs. Usually, it’s not unusual to do your own stenciling, pick-and-placing, reflowing, rework, and maybe even do a little soldering and packaging. But it’s unusual to actually make PCBs in house, just because of the chemistry and the metal reclamation– kind of a pain to get all that equipment in.
OK. And next up. Oh sorry, the next question was where do you suggest you get PCBs made? Well, I suggest if you’re in the US to get PCBs made by Advanced Circuits. They actually have a pretty good proto panel thing for like $33 each. And they have a couple deals. And they make really, really excellent-quality circuit boards.
And I think especially if you’re starting out, you want really good-quality PCBs that don’t delaminate easily, that have test, that have really good silk screen. And their silk screen is totally gorgeous. And solder mask– and it’s always perfectly aligned. They do up to mill spec, and 10-layer boards. But they can also do your two-layer boards really easily.
And if you’re starting out, and you want small production quantities, or prototype quantities, also check out OSH Park. They also have a large ecosystem and a website where you can share designs. And they’re also super into open-source hardware, and sharing layouts. And they make those purple PCBs that probably you’ve used or seen somewhere. So check out Laen. He’s got some awesome stuff going on there.
Next up. OK, do you still have time for hobby electronics? Do you have any non-engineering-related hobbies?
That’s right. I do have many non-engineering hobbies, such as engineering, layout, soldering prototypes, testing, writing firmware, reading electronics blogs– all these non-engineering-related hobbies. I actually do spend a lot of my time doing engineering still at Adafruit. But I love it. So it’s cool.
And one of the nice things about having your own company is I actually get to have my personal projects be company projects. Like for example, I really wanted a color Mini Pop project. And here’s Angel demoing the Mini Pop 4, which is a new version of our little Mini Pop kit– a beginning soldering kit for learning how to solder components.
These really popular with people. This one, you can upload images over USB. And it’s color. And it’s cool.
Another project I really wanted– I always wanted when I was a kid, one of those little arcade Froggers. I don’t know if you’re around my age, if you remember those little mini arcade games. But I never got one. But I really wanted one.
So now I got one. And it runs on Raspberry Pi. And it came in all the games. So I can play Pac-Man on it. Yes.
I also love to do weird synthesizer-type music. And I always wanted an open source [? group ?] controller. So now I can make custom ones, like this gigantic 8 by 16 with white LEDs.
And I have a laser cutter that I can play with. And it’s the company’s laser cutter. And I make cool projects on it. And then I’m like, I’ll sell it.
I also have this cool Game Girl Raspberry Pi edition. Let’s see what this is playing. This is playing Zelda right now. But I finally finished Zelda. And I might play Final Fantasy 1 again, or something.
Let’s see. What else do I got here?
Yeah. And basically, like any other kind of project that you see. I just love building stuff. And now I get Adafruit to do it for me.
OK, next up. Can you tell us a little bit about the hardware scene in New York City is like? Yeah, New York City is like– when I moved here, it was not considered a super hardwarey place– a lot of finance, and even a little bit of software going on here. But now I actually have a really wide range of hardware start-ups and hardware interests.
We’ve got littleBits. It’s actually only a couple blocks away in SoHo, that’s Ayah Bdeir’s open hardware, like learning electronics company. Check that out. They’ve got this awesome Korg synth project, and a NASA synth project– [? NESSA ?] science projects that you can build with littleBits.
We also have NYC Resistor, which was really big and very early hacker space in the new round of maker hacker spaces, as well as many other Brooklyn, and Manhattan, and Long Island hacker spaces, as well. There’s like four or five of those.
And you also have a really large number of 3D printing stores and companies, as well. There’s actually another 3D printing store that just opened in Midtown this weekend. So I’m going to go check that out. But if you’re into any of this stuff– open hardware, or making, or 3D printing– New York City is the place to be.
OK. Finally, last question. What else is going on in your life? Well, all sorts of things.
Well, I’m working on Circuit Playground, which is the kids half animated, half Muppet show that we’re doing. I actually had my friend, Amanda the Woz Wozniak– no relation– in to do “D is for Diode,” in which she dressed up as a diode and talked about diodes. And it was totally cool. We had some great animations. And it’s a great show.
So we’re up to D. And we’re going to be doing “E for Electronics” next. So check that out.
I’m also, this month, doing a lot of promotion with Made with Code. This is a Google effort. You can see this is me wearing the LED scrolly hat– there’s another project that I always really wanted; I wanted an LED scrolling hat– and an LED umbrella, and talking to some awesome girls at the Made with Code event.
And this is an effort to get young girls– or actually anyone, like you can be a cat– and be interested in making stuff with code. And check out the Made with Code website for more info about that. And share it with someone you love who is interested in maybe learning how to code– a lot of great tutorials and projects.
We also do, every week, a show and tell. You can show up even if you’re not an Adafruit customer. It’s cool. As long as you can get onto the Google+, check out the Hangout at our Google+ page at plus.google.com/+adafruit.
And look for the plus. We say, comment here to get added to our show and tell circle. We do that 7:30 PM every week on Wednesday.
And then right afterwards at 8:00 PM on Wednesday, we do Ask An Engineer, which is a one-hour show about electronics, open-source hardware, all the cool gossip, all the cool products, data sheets, components, you name it. Sometimes we show off a cat photo– all sorts of good stuff. We give away a prize at the end. And that’s on Ustream and YouTube. So there’s a lot of stuff going on here at the Adafruit factory.
Personally, I am working on some cellphone stuff. I want to make really teeny cute little cellphones– those little mini cellphone– using these great all-in-one cell phone chips that are getting onto the market now for wearables, and such. And so I’m going to be doing a lot more cellphone stuff, and remote data access, and actuation. And I think that’s kind of like the internet of things. But I want to make it so it’s super easy, and fun, and useful for makers to do.
So yeah, a lot of stuff coming out from Adafruit. So check in with what we’re doing. And of course, enter the Hackaday Prize, which is why we are watching this, of course. The Hackaday Prize will send you to space or many other fabulous prizes. All you have to do is enter on hackaday.com. And I will judge you and maybe shoot you to the moon.