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.


2013 December 1

Low-cost Arduino-compatible electronics kit

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:14
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There is an Indiegogo campaign to sell a kit for learning electronics that seems to have better pricing than most of the similar kits I’ve seen: BE MAKER! KIT plus FREE lessons on electronics, from Zero to Internet of Things | Indiegogo.

The most popular product they are selling seems to be a $69 kit with a microprocessor board (a clone of the Arduino Leonardo); a “shield” with an LCD display driver, pushbuttons, microSD card reader, 2 servo connections, RGB LED strip driver, and Ethernet adapter; a bunch of useful electronics parts (including an LCD display for the shield and an RGB LED strip); “lessons” (which are probably just assembly instructions for different projects, but may be more tutorial) and a box to keep all the tiny parts in.

As Arduino and Arduino-compatible kits go, this one looks pretty good.  Forget about it for holiday gift-giving though, as they don’t expect to deliver until February 2014.  If you want something similar for this year, look at the somewhat more expensive kits from AdaFruit or SparkFun.

2012 July 3

Nerf gun prototype 1

Filed under: Robotics — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:12
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Santa Cruz Robotics Club met again today, for the first time in over a month.  The current project is not the underwater ROV (we’re all getting very tired of waterproofing problems), but an automated Nerf gun.

The club members came up with some very ambitious plans for the Nerf gun (which included getting a Raspberry Pi and doing image processing to have a self-aiming gun), but I’m making them build quick-and-easy prototypes to try out their ideas one step at a time.  I don’t think I can get an Raspberry Pi this summer—the companies doing the distribution aren’t taking more orders (just expressions of interest) and they don’t expect to clear the current backlog until September at the soonest.  They are doing batches of 100,000 units, and that doesn’t seem to be enough to shrink the lead time—if anything, the lead time is growing.

So, giving up on image processing for this summer, there are still a lot of things to build.  For today’s four-hour meeting (which included a 1-hour trip to the hardware store and a fifteen-minute snack break), the goal was simply to test out the basic launcher concept: an air reservoir pressurized by a bike pump, a solenoid valve, and a barrel.

The first prototype. The air reservoir is about 18″ of 1-½” PVC pipe on the left, and the barrel is about 24″ of ½” PVC pipe on the right.

The biggest problem was that the valve has ¾” male pipe threads, but we wanted 1-½” PVC pipe for the reservoir (because we had a piece handy—we may build a bigger reservoir later) and ½” PVC pipe for the barrel (because Nerf darts just fit inside—probably Nerf guns were prototyped with PVC barrels).  Our hardware store run was to get threaded adapters to make things fit.We wanted everything to be joined with screw threads, so that we could disassemble the components and replace them or add elbows as needed.

Note that the ½” PVC pipe is also a good size for compressed-air paper “rockets”.  The term “rocket” is a misnomer here, as all the acceleration occurs while the rocket is on the launcher—it is modeled more like a gun than like a rocket. (But my soda-bottle rocket simulator can model these paper bullets also.)  It would probably best to have a shorter barrel for doing rocket launching—just the length of the rocket and no more, since the longer barrel results in more pressure loss with no gain in launch speed.

The bicycle valve glued into a ½” female-threaded end cap was one I’ve had for a long time, as part of a soda-bottle rocket launcher. I had two of them, and both failed in testing today (the Barge cement holding the valve stem in failed—we’ve now reglued them with a different cement), though we managed some testing before the failure.

The solenoid valve we used was the same model (sold by Sparkfun) as the one used for the vacuum bottle on the ROV.  It has ¾” male pipe threads on each side.  To make it air-tight we had to disassemble it and grease the rubber membrane thoroughly with vaseline or faucet grease, but we had done that months ago, so it did not need to be done today.  The valve only works in one direction, but the high-pressure side is clearly marked by a metal intake screen, so assembling it the right way around is easy.

I was not sure that the solenoid valve would work in this application. It is not the model of valve that the compressed-air “rocket” people have used—those valves cost about twice as much and have female threaded ends rather than male threaded ends. I think that the mechanism they use may open up a bigger channel for air or water than the cheap solenoid valve sold by Sparkfun.

My first concern was that I did not know whether the valve would open up wide enough and fast enough to let a blast of air through to get a clean launch.  Second, I did not know whether we could open and close the valve fast enough to retain pressure in the reservoir for doing multiple shots.

We controlled the solenoid valve with an Arduino and the Hexmotor motor-control board (which is really overkill for one solenoid—a single power transistor would be enough to interface the Arduino to a solenoid, but I did not have one handy).  My son wrote an Arduino program to allow us to experiment with the duration of the solenoid pulse.  If it were too short, the Nerf dart would not leave the barrel.  If it were too long, air pressure would be wasted.  He allowed for 100 µsec increments in pulse duration, under control from commands on the USB serial line.

Because the glue they used takes 24 hours to set properly, we only tested at low pressure today (20–30 psi).  At those pressures, a 16 msec pulse was not long enough for the dart to clear the barrel, but a 19.2 msec pulse was easily long enough. We were also able to launch a 14g paper “rocket” left over from Maker Faire, though it did not go as high as the approximately 1.6g “Nerf” darts (I think several of the foam darts we have a different brand). We would not have expected it to go as high, since it was only accelerated for its 11″ length, not the 24″ length of the barrel for the darts, and it weighed a lot more.

One thing I thought about was monitoring the air pressure in the reservoir electronically. I doubt that we’ll put a pressure sensor in the reservoir, though, as the sensors I have only go up to 250 kPa absolute (about 21 psi above atmospheric pressure—about as low as we could fire with).  Freescale makes a 145psi (1000 kPa) sensor, the MPX5999D, but it is a differential sensor without port tubes (so would be difficult to mount) and it costs $13.

Perhaps the other thing worth doing today is to analyze how fast the Nerf dart should be going as it leaves the barrel, and how high it should fly if we shoot it straight up.  The physics here is fairly simple, if we assume that opening the solenoid valves connects us to a constant-pressure source. (In practice, we saw about a 10psi or 70kPa drop in pressure after one shot. If the pressure is P, then the force on the dart is P*area.  The cross-sectional area of the foam dart is a little hard to measure, because of the squishiness of the foam, but the inside diameter of the barrel is 1.45cm, for a cross-sectional area of 1.65 cm^2. At 140 kPa (about 20 psi), the force on the dart would be 23 Newtons.  That force is applied for about 60 cm (the length of the barrel), for a total energy of about 14 Joules.

We can use the kinetic energy of the dart to get its speed (E = ½ m v2), so for 140 kPa, the dart should leave the barrel at about 130 m/s or 290 mph. I suspect that we are not getting anywhere near that speed, for several reasons, including leakage of air around the dart, limited speed of air moving through the valve, and friction of the dart in the barrel (mainly from the pressure wave in front of it, but also from rubbing on the sides of the barrel).

We can also use the kinetic energy of the dart to estimate how high it would fly (ignoring air resistance, which is obviously hugely important for a low density object like a foam dart). The potential energy of a mass at height h is mgh, so the height it would go without air resistance is E/(mg). For 14 Joules and 1.6 grams, that would be almost 900m. I think that 20m is a more reasonable estimate for the height the dart went, though I never could see it near the top of its trajectory.

I tried adding the specs for the Nerf dart and a 60cm barrel to my rocket simulator (to get a crude estimate of the effect of air drag), and for 140 kPa I got an estimated max speed of 132m/s and an estimated max height of 52.6m. I don’t know if that height is reasonable—certainly it is better than the no-air-resistance estimate. The 6.78 second estimated time of flight seems to be fairly reasonable, though we never timed it.

Doubling the pressure increases the maximum velocity by a factor of 1.414, but only increases the maximum height to 60.8 m, a 16% increase. Doubling the barrel length has about the same effect. Air drag is what determines the speed of the dart, and that is the least well-modeled part of my simulation.

On Thursday, when they club meets again, they’ll try experimenting with higher pressures, and see whether 17 or 18 msec pulses are long enough—the shorter the pulse the less air will be wasted, and the more shots they can make from the reservoir.  It may be necessary to design a bigger reservoir or add a compressor to the design, since they eventually want a fully automatic Nerf gun, not the one-shot muzzle-loader that they made as the prototype today.  They’ll also start designing a pan-tilt mechanism for the Nerf gun, probably prototyping it out of Lego Technic components.

2012 March 1

Sensor board for underwater ROV

Since I had bought the robotics club an I2C accelerometer and magnetometer, I decided to make a new PC board for them to mount the accelerometer, the magnetometer, and the pressure gauge on the same board.  I don’t have the SMD soldering skills to solder all the chips onto one board, and I already had breakout boards for the accelerometer and magnetometer from Sparkfun, so I decided just to put connectors for those breakout boards onto the back of the pressure sensor board.  (The back, because the pressure sensor on the front has to be stuck through a hole in the dry box and glued in place.

The new boards are tiny (1.05″ × 1.425″), so I decided to try BatchPCB (which has pricing by the square inch) rather than (which has fixed pricing per board, up to a fairly large size).  The price from BatchPCB was $10 per order plus $2.50/square inch plus $0.90 for shipping, so ordering 3 copies of the board (though I only needed one), cost me $22.12, substantially less than a single board from, which is $33 plus $17.30 shipping and handling per board (plus an extra $50 if your board has multiple boards on it).  The 4pcb price is lower if your board is bigger than about 15.76 square inches, so even my HexMotor boards (at 12.44 square inches) would be cheaper from BatchPCB.  If you get multiple boards from on a single panel and cut them apart yourself, the breakeven point is about 35.76 square inches for a single design (so three HexMotor boards from a single panel is cheaper than from BatchPCB). For multiple designs on a single panel, the deal is better: for 3 different designs, a total of 27.04 square inches would make the cheaper way to go.

If you want a copy of the board, you can order it from BatchPCB, or pick up the Eagle files from my web site and order copies from elsewhere.  I’ve put the HexMotor Eagle files on line also, but not put them on the BatchPCB site.  I should probably upload them there sometime.

Bottom line: BatchPCB is better for small numbers of tiny boards, but is better for larger boards and multiple designs.

The BatchPCB orders came back quite quickly (12 days from order to delivery by mail), though I had been worried because their design-rule check, which they say takes minutes had taken about 8 hours.  The problem was that each check takes a few minutes, but they had hundreds in the queue over the weekend, and it took a full day to clear the queue.

I had less trouble soldering the pressure gauge this time (this was my second attempt at soldering surface mount devices).  You can see in the pictures above that the results are much cleaner than in my first attempt.

The robotics club has tested the pressure sensor on the new board (using their own code on the Arduino) and it seems to work ok,  have drilled the hole in the dry box for the port, and glued the sensor board in place using superglue.  It seems to be waterproof (at least down to 1 foot—we’ve not tested in deep water yet).

2012 January 30

Magnetometer and accelerometer read simultaneously

In Learning to Use I2C and Magnetometer not fried, I talked about interfacing the MAG3110 magnetometer and MQA8452Q accelerometer to an Arduino.  For both, I’m using breakout boards from Sparkfun Electronics.

I  checked today that there are no problems when I connect both devices to the same I2C bus.

The first test was very simple: I put both the breakout boards into a breadboard and wired them together, then tried running each of the programs I’d written for the chips separately. Result: no problems—worked first time.

I then tried merging the programs (cleaning up any naming conflicts) so that both could be run from the same code.  After a few typo fixes, this also worked fine

I think I’m now ready to hand over the software to the students to use for their robot.

I still need to put the i2c.h, i2c.cpp, and accel_magnet code in some public place for others to use (perhaps on github? maybe on my web pages at work?) [UPDATE 2012-jan-31: I have put the libraries and the sample code for the accelerometer and magnetometer at]

One thing that is still missing is doing tilt correction for the compass heading.  Since the ROV is not expected to remain level (the accelerometer is intended to be used in a feedback loop to adjust the pitch, with anything from -90° to +90° being reasonable), getting a good compass heading requires rotating the magnetometer readings into the horizontal plane.  Only one of the students in the robotics club has had trigonometry or matrix math, so I’ll have to work with him to get him to figure out how to do the tilt correction. It may be simplest conceptually  to compute pitch and roll angles first, then rotate twice, rather than trying to do the whole tilt correction in one step (especially since the Arduino does not have matrix libraries).

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