I recently drove to Boulder, CO to attend SparkFun Electronics’ inaugural Introduction to Arduino Class. I have been interested in Arduino development for a while, and jumped at the opportunity to participate in this great learning experience run by one of the best known companies in the hobby electronics field. Besides proving a thorough introduction to te Arduino development platform, the class provided a great starter kit of components, and an in depth tour of SparkFun’s facilities. The experience was fantastic, and very worth the long drive through Kansas.
The class was run for most of the day Saturday, and covered all of the basics of working with the Arduino platform. SparkFun provided a good array of materials to go with the class, including a binder full of information, tutorials, documentation, and background information to keep us going after the class. We were all also provided with their Arduino inventors kit: one of their famous red boxes containing an Arduino Uno, a nice holder and breadboard station to work on, and a host of sensors, buttons, LEDs and other components to experiment with.
We started the class by installing the software needed to our laptops, and connecting a few components to complete our first working prototype: a singe red LED that would blink in any pattern we programmed it for. It was a simple beginning, but impressive nonetheless. It took only a few minutes, and was a great demonstration of how easy the Arduino platform is to work with. From there, we moved on to more complex circuits. We learned how to read both analog and digital input from sensors and buttons. We explored outputs though digital, analog (well PWM, or pulse width modulation), and serial communicatons. We worked with servos, speakers, and motors. We learned the basics of ICs by building a circuit using a shift register to control many outputs with only few inputs. It was a whirlwind class, and by the time it was over I felt I had solid grasp of the platform and those few topics I had not yet learned I now know where to look to figure them out on my own.
After the class, SparkFun invited those students who were interested in a tour of their offices and facilities. They recently expanded to fill the entire two story office building they occupied, and despite some construction, it was an impressive and inspiring workspace. Obviously populated by a diverse group of hackers and makers, projects in various states of completion were scattered throughout the offices and work areas. SparkFun encourages its employees to experiment and build personal projects, and the results are a host of varied, inventive and interesting creations filling any available workspace in the building. Those projects did more to demonstrate the culture of sparkfun and the personalities of the employees than any of the kitsch, posters, and expensively designed offices I have seen anywhere else.
The tour continued downstairs into the warehouse and assembly rooms. SparkFun assembles many of their own boards and components, and does most of the work by hand. They use solder stenciling stations to prepare pre-printed boards for the pick and place machines, after which they put the assembled though massive ovens which dry the components and flow the solder into place. Finished components are individually tested using custom test boards that run each completed component through a series of tests to ensure proper assembly and programming. SparkFun claims to be the only company to use such an extensive quality control process. For a small company, it is an impressive operation.