Gas station without pumps

2014 July 18

How to sell a widget

SparkFun has a tutorial on how to sell “widgets” through them at How to Sell Your Widget on SparkFun – Learn.SFE:

Have an awesome electronic widget that you want to get to market? Great! We are always listening for new ideas from our customers and the community. We get many inquires on this topic, so read this tutorial carefully to keep your product pitch from getting lost in the shuffle.

We’re lucky, here at SparkFun, to have an amazingly creative and talented group of customers. Not only can they identify gaps in the catalogs of electronics suppliers, they can create a gizmo that fills that hole. But, going beyond a prototype or even a limited-quantity production run, often the hardest task in getting your world-altering product out there is producing, marketing, and/or selling it to the masses. That’s where we come into the picture.

The advice there is seems fairly reasonable.  They offer a choice of two models: make it yourself and have them sell for you, or have them make it and pay you royalties.  They tell you how to pitch products to them and how to design for them to be able to manufacture stuff.  Most of the stuff they sell is PCB boards, so they give quite a bit of advice about PCB design to fit their pipeline—they use Eagle, but ‘All parts are placed on a 0.005″ grid. If possible, use a .05″ grid.’ That must get irritating with modern parts that are convenient round metric numbers, not mils.   They also want version numbers in the bottom copper, which is reasonable for some designs, but not all.  They also encourage people to use their Eagle libraries, but my son and I have found their pad layouts to be very sloppy (putting silkscreen over SMD layers, getting the keep-out areas off by a little bit, not fixing the fonts on the “>NAME” and “>VALUE” labels to meet their own requirements, and so forth).

Still, it is good that they put out their design rules and provide clear guidelines to new designers.

I’ve thought a few times about putting out some of my designs through SparkFun or Adafruit Industries—perhaps an improved version of the blinky EKG as a kit.  SparkFun now sells EKG electrodes and snap leads for them, and even have a heart-rate monitor board (based on the AD8232 chip) and the “BITalino” biomedical board, so I suspect that they are interested in the market.

The BITalino is outrageously expensive and their EKG electrodes are about 3 times the price of buying them at Amazon, but the AD8232 chip actually looks like a nice one for building an EKG front-end and reasonably priced, so I’m not sure they’d have much interest in a through-hole part kit for do-it-yourself EKG that isn’t quite as good, unless it could be sold very cheaply or as an educational product (which is what the blinky EKG is aimed at, anyway).

I have some other ideas for products that I might be marketable, but I don’t know whether I have the time to refine them to the point of pitching them to SparkFun.  I can justify some time spent on doing electronics as a hobby, some as necessary learning for teaching my applied electronics course for bioengineers, and some as engineering-for-manufacture experience (something I never had any instruction in, despite my years as an engineering professor). But when the electronics work starts cutting into the time I need to spend on writing my book, teaching my classes, or doing collaborative research with other faculty, then I have to draw the line.  I’ve also got a lot of administrative responsibilities now (undergrad director and faculty adviser for two BS degrees, Program Chair for bioengineering, and Vice Chair for the Biomolecular Engineering Department), so writing time and research time have gotten doubly precious.

I do have one project this summer that I’m going to try to get fabricated for me—it is all SMD parts, including some that are hard to solder by hand (pads under the chips), so I don’t want to do it myself.  The project also calls for a lot of identical boards (20 to 50 of them), so a prototyping house seems like the way to go.

I’m looking currently at Smart Prototyping to do the PC board fabrication and assembly—they may not be the cheapest, but they have a comprehensible pricing scheme on their website, and they replied within 12 hours of my request for a quote. They also have a nearly turnkey system—I send them the Gerber files and the Bill of Materials (BOM), and they’ll make the boards, buy the parts, and assemble the boards.  They’ll even test them for an additional charge, though these boards are simple enough that I can test them myself at about 5 seconds a board, so their testing would not be worthwhile unless they guaranteed their assembly (which none of the prototype houses can afford to do with untested designs).

I also considered Elecrow, which has a similar service, but their pricing information on the web page is rather vague: “For BGA or IC with pads under IC, The quotation will be a little higher.” and “We will give a discount for the PCB assembly service according the some factors (assembly time,Hard or Easy to assemble or requirements etc.).” I prefer sites that have clear pricing even if it is slightly higher, so that there are no surprises. I suppose I could ask Elecrow for a quote and see if they respond as promptly as Smart Prototyping did.

Incidentally, my design does not follow all SparkFun’s guidelines—for one thing, I placed parts on a 0.5mm grid, not a 0.005″ gird, and the board is not rectangular.  Still, if the design I’m working on turns out well, I might pitch it to them, as I see some potential for it appealing to the open-source hardware market, and the violations of their design guidelines made good sense for this application.  Note: I’m deliberately not saying what the design is—I’ll reveal it once I’ve gotten a working prototype, when I’ve decided whether I want to commercialize it or not.

2014 July 14

Need new mesh seat for recumbent

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:28
Tags: , , ,

I need to replace the mesh seat on my recumbent bicycle, because one of the buckles snapped yesterday. The mesh itself is badly stretched and abraded, and a few of the webbing straps are badly worn, so it is not worth repairing the seat—it’s replacement time. I can still ride the bike, but it isn’t as comfortable with the front strap no longer functional.

Now I’m trying to figure out exactly what fabric and parts to get.  One person on the Ryan owner’s club mailing list conveniently provided a parts list recently, though the seat I have currently does not exactly match his list (for example, I have all 1″ webbing, no 3/4″ webbing).  Here are some things I’m trying to decide:

  • What type of mesh should I get?  He recommended black Leno Lock mesh from Outdoor Wilderness Fabrics MESHBLK at $14.03/yard, but I’m also considering Phifertex Vinyl Mesh at $12.95/yard, which is available in many colors, or Phifertex Plus at $17.95/yard, which would provide less stretch, but also less ventilation. The Phifertex Plus is sold as a sling mesh (capable of supporting a person’s weight), but the others are not.  I suspect that any fabric rated for seats will have too little ventilation for the recumbent. The leno weave fabrics are likely to provide more stability in an open mesh, because the warp threads twist around each other, rather than running straight, locking the weft threads in place. The bentrideronline forum posts generally recommend the Leno lock mesh from Outdoor Wilderness Fabrics, so I’ll probably go with that, even though it is a bit too stretchy.
  • What sort of webbing should I get?  The edges of the seat use 2″ webbing to stabilize the seat and attach the straps, plus a couple of diagonals from the center front to part way up the sides, to support the weight of the rider.  The rest of the straps are 1″ wide.  But should they be nylon, polypropylene, or polyester straps?  Nylon has high strength, but is rather stretchy. Polypropylene has less stretch, but poor abrasion resistance and UV resistance, and polyester has the best UV resistance and the least stretch (about half as much as nylon webbing of the same weight under the same stress).  It also doesn’t absorb water, and is more resistant to mildew and rot.
    I can get black polyester 1″ webbing for about 35¢/foot, and 2″ black polyester webbing for about 75¢/foot, but colors are a little more expensive: I can get 10 yards of red 1″ with reflective stripes for $18.90, or plain red for $1.48/yard. For a bicycle application, the reflective stripes may be a useful safety feature. Red 2″ seatbelt webbing would be about $10 for 5 yards.
  • I also need to get buckles for the 7 cross straps and the two straps that go over the top of the seat.  I’m undecided between simple side-release buckles (Fastex FSR1 59¢), and dual-pull side release buckles (generic GTSRD1 47¢) from Outdoor Wilderness Fabrics. Cam lock buckles (generic GCB1 46¢) are also a possibility. I’ll also want a a tri-glide for each loose strap end (generic GTG1 12¢).

So, unless I can get a new seat from the manufacturer of my bike (Longbikes in Colorado), even though they discontinued this model about 10 years ago, I’ll probably be making my own seat soon.  It’ll cost me about $50–60 for materials, but I suspect that an already sewn seat would cost more like $150, and I wouldn’t have the option of red straps with reflective stripes.


End of an era

My son has his last performances at West End Studio Theatre this summer—his last summer before college.  He has had theater classes with Terri Steinmann and various of her staff members since the Wizard of Oz class in July 2004, and he has been performing on the WEST stage since they opened in 2007.  Between Pisces Moon (where Terri taught before founding WEST) and West Performing Arts, he has done at least 42 classes with them (I’m not sure how to count the Dinosaur Prom Improv troupe, which he performed with for two years—I counted that as only one class, though it probably should count as more, as there were weekly practice sessions for the two years).  Adding up all the course tuition over the 10 years he’s worked with them, I think we’ve paid around $20,000, averaging $2k a year—well worth it for the pleasure and the learning he has gotten from it.

This past weekend he performed as Otho (the interior designer) in Betelgeuse. After seeing the movie, I did not know how they would pull it off as a stage play, but they did quite a good job of it—particularly since they did not have the complete script until a few days before they performed (a long-standing WEST tradition of writing the script after rehearsals have started).  There were two casts (the morning class and the afternoon class), but I only saw the afternoon cast’s production—I understand that the interpretations of essentially the same script and set were quite different for the two casts (costumes had to be different, because the actors were very different sizes).

He has one more class with them this summer—the summer teen conservatory with Santa Cruz Shakespeare, which I believe still has room for another student or two (the conservatory is limited to about 12 students).  He’s done their Shakespeare teen conservatory for the past four years—it is quite different each time. The conservatory is probably West Performing Art’s most advanced theater class.

After this summer, not only will he be finished with West Performing Arts, but the West End Studio Theatre, where about half his performances have been, will be closed. We joke that they can’t go on without him, but the truth is that they are losing their lease.  They’ve been renting on a year-to-year contract for eight years, and the landlord has found a tenant (a beer brewer) willing to lease the space on a longer term lease.  The parting is amicable, but everyone will miss the W.E.S.T. space, which has been much more flexible and functional than any of the other spaces children’s theater has used around the city.

West Performing Arts will continue classes at the Broadway Playhouse and at schools, but they’ll need more space for classes than Broadway Playhouse can provide, especially for their popular summer classes, so they are looking for a new home. If anyone knows of spaces that might meet their needs (ideally, two large adjacent spaces that can be used for classes, one of which can be a flexible performance space, totaling about 10,000 sq ft, with storage, office space, and nearby parking and not needing a lot of renovation).  They don’t have a lot of money (they’ve been keeping the classes affordable), so the typical $15–20/sq.ft./year leases locally are probably beyond their means.  If anyone has any leads for them, their contact information is on their web site.

2014 July 12

Impostor syndrome

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:56

I know that many students feel at times like they aren’t capable of doing what they need to do to ace their classes, to graduate, to move on into the “real world” or higher up in academia. Sometimes they feel like they are just “faking” being smart, and that someone will catch them at it.

This is known as “impostor syndrome” and is quite common—Wikipedia even has a page explaining it.  People from underprivileged backgrounds or who have been socialized to think of themselves as somehow inferior suffer from it more than those who have been taught to be confident in what they do.  For example, women in physical and computational sciences often doubt themselves, even when the objective evidence is that they are quite capable.

Even tenured professors, who have passed through many tests of their resolve and ability, often suffer from impostor syndrome.  I suggest the following reading (all from a single author) for those who are wrestling with this problem (the author selected these posts herself from her larger body of work):

Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, has a good, short article on her own experiences with impostor syndrome in Slate.  For a somewhat younger perspective, Alicia Liu’s article Overcoming Imposter Syndrome is worth reading.

Incidentally, there is a flip side to the problem, of students (often, but not exclusively, male students from privileged backgrounds) having too much confidence and not being aware when they are out of their depth, failing to ask for help when they need it.

Both problems can be tackled with the same approach: seeking outside verification of your abilities and paying attention to the feedback. This is easiest while being a student, as there are many formal mechanisms in place for honest feedback—it gets harder when you have to rely on the more random mechanisms of journal paper reviews and grant proposals or pats on the back from co-workers.

As a community, we can all help with both problems by providing honest feedback (neither ego strokes nor unwarranted criticism) when asked for it, and by asking for feedback ourselves.

For my part, I tend to see the negative both in my own work and in others’ work, and I am working on trying to increase the amount of positive feedback I give people.

2014 July 7

Crowdfunding for UCSC iGEM project

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:34
Tags: , , , , ,

The UCSC undergraduate team for the iGEM synthetic biology competition have put up a crowd-funding web site to try to raise the money they need for their contest entry.

Their design project is to engineer a bacterial strain for cellulosic alcohol production—not ethanol, but butanol, whose energy density is more compatible with the existing gasoline infrastructure and that does not absorb so much water.  Conventional ways of creating butanol are too expensive, so recombinant bacteria are a promising approach.  Using cellulose as a feedstock avoids competing with food production, as waste paper and other non-food sources can be used.

They are not trying to do everything at once—they are working this summer on getting butanol production from glucose engineered into Haloferax volcanii, a halophile that their mentor has worked with a fair amount.  I’m not sure what their reasoning is for using a halophile—perhaps they just wanted to work in an archeon, and H. volcanii is one of the best-established model organisms for Archaea.

Their mentor for the project is donating his time, so all the costs are unavoidable reagent, equipment time, or registration fee costs.

The team description (including membership) is at, and the wiki where you can follow their progress is at (though they’ve nothing there yet but an introduction to the project).

I gave a token amount, and I urge others to do so also (or more if you are feeling generous).  They’re currently about halfway to their goal.

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