Author Archives: Brendan Hamilton

Enginursday: The Healing Power of Light

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

Note: This post was written for the purpose of entertainment and idle speculation only. SparkFun products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease or affliction.


My wife and I recently welcomed an adorable new baby into our lives. He started out, as many infants do, with a case of jaundice. Among the remedies the doctors recommended was a fiber optic LED blanket, one that enabled us to facilitate phototherapy on our kiddo, reducing the level of bilirubin in his blood by blasting his skin with blue light. It was simple and easy - we just wrapped him up like a little human burrito in a tortilla of light. It sure seemed to do the trick.

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He was, however, unimpressed.

I'll admit, I previously had no idea such a treatment existed, nor even that light of a specific wavelength range could have such remarkable curative powers. I see my child as a member of a bold new generation, one that will deliver mindblowing discoveries and innovations while facing down unprecedented challenges in the century to come. The thought that he entered this world looking like some bionic gloworm was fascinating to me as an artist, a nerd, a parent and, well, just generally someone who likes to fixate on weird things. What can I say, a new rabbit hole had opened up and I gleefully tumbled down, scouring the web to learn about various forms of phototherapy - proven, experimental and otherwise.

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This led me to red LED phototherapy. I’ve dealt with severe rosacea most of my life, and while it’s more controlled now than it has been in two decades, it’s still far from perfect. I’ve tried a ton of remedies through the years, but never before had I been nudged in the direction of phototherapy. While blue light therapy has been demonstrated to be very effective in the treatment of jaundice, the effectiveness of red light in treating a variety of ailments seems to be a far more complex - but certainly compelling - subject.

Naturally, a great deal depends on what you’re attempting to treat and what technology and methods you’re employing. NASA in particular has conducted pioneering studies into the use of LEDs for biostimulation. I’m no astronaut, but figured I’d give it a shot all the same. Some dermatologists have tanning-booth style boxes you close yourself into, or for upwards of $500 you can buy a special mask, but those options seemed like far too much hassle and expense. I work at SparkFun - surely, I thought, I can DIY this business.

I started by combing our website to compare the various red LED products we offer and see what might the best match for my face. EL is bright and flexible, sure, but it seemed uncomfortable and a bit too high-power for my personal tastes. I didn’t want to zap my nose from a short. I was also concerned about too much heat. LEDs strips were intriguing, but these LED ribbons seemed just what the doctor (that doctor being me, who is not actually a doctor) ordered:

Sewable LED Ribbon - 1m, 50 LEDs (Red)

Sewable LED Ribbon - 1m, 50 LEDs (Red)

COM-14136
$14.95

Covered in cloth, they’re soft and cozy, and all you need to power them is a few coin cell batteries. Target wavelengths in many commercially available red LED therapy devices tend to be in the 630 to 680 nm range. Inolux says the red LEDs on their ribbons have a dominant wavelength (Wd) of 624nm and a peak wavelength (Wp) of 632nm. Good enough?

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My initial solution is, let’s say, inelegant. Now, I know what you're thinking - it looks like all I did was wrap my face in LED ribbons like a mummy. In fact, there’s a lot more to it than that. You see, first I hastily soldered coin cell battery holders to said LED ribbons. Then I wrapped my face in them.

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Okay, sure, it’s not technologically sophisticated, but that’s a nice thing about these LED ribbons - they’re super easy to use. They're also extremely flexible; I double knotted them in the back of my head and they stayed on great. I recommend looking at our Product Showcase video for more tips and tricks. You may also find our Working with Wire tutorial helpful when it comes to soldering the little stranded core wires on these things. There’s a lot of great advice there that I probably should have heeded (and some that I did).

Did I alleviate my rosacea? Probably not. Did I freak out my coworkers? Maybe a little. This was no easy task - SparkFun employees tend to have a pretty high threshold for weird.

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Enginursday: A Beginner’s Guide to Sourcing from Alibaba

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

Alibaba is the Wild West of product sourcing - a freewheeling, international bazaar offering low-cost bulk parts and products that range from the mundane to the, well, bizarre. Here, the risks are high but the potential benefits manifold. You may seek your fortune reselling low-cost goods (or finding low-cost parts for your widget), but you may find yourself flim-flammed, hoodwinked and yes, even bamboozled. But oh, the rush when your diligence pays off!

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It seems excited.

I will begin with an important disclaimer: at this stage in my procurement career (and in SparkFun’s history), sourcing from Alibaba is basically the last resort. SparkFun has worked hard over the years to develop a list of trusted vendors. Many of these companies have locally-based representatives, knowledgeable sales contacts and field application engineers we can meet with face-to-face to discuss all our latest needs and quirks. Others are vendors in China, Taiwan and other countries whom we discovered via Alibaba eons ago, and have since built long-standing relationships with.

If you already have a supplier with whom you have an established, trusting relationship, love and cherish them all the days of your life. Understand also that their capabilities may extend far beyond what’s reflected in their catalog or line card. If there’s something specific you need, ask your existing contacts. At the very least, they may be able to provide you with a referral. I also highly recommend ThomasNet as an alternative starting point for finding reliable, quality sources for components, hardware, equipment, you-name-it.

That said, onto the fun. If you’re starting from scratch as we once did, or you simply like to walk on the wild side, you may be ready to plunge into the wacky world of Alibaba. Let’s begin with the search bar.

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Don't look at my search history.

This part is pretty straightforward. Here, you can search for parts by keyword or toggle the little arrow to search for particular suppliers. As with any search, you’ll want to find that sweet spot between specificity and generality. It’s also important to know what that thing you’re looking for is called! That seems obvious enough, but keep in mind that there are different synonyms out there for the same type of product (e.g. “coin cell” vs. “button cell”), and businesses in other countries might have different naming conventions than you’re used to.

You can also browse items by market (at left) if you have a vague idea of the type of things you’re looking for and just want to peruse the marketplace. There’s also a new image search feature (the camera icon at the right). As it turns out, you can even search for products based on the current status of your life:

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Time to hit the gym!

Once you’ve honed in on a thing you might want to buy in quantity, you’ll see on the product page a handy little pricing scale, info about shipping charges and lead time.

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How many horse masks will you require today?

Great, right? Well, ignore it. IGNORE IT ALL. It could be accurate, sure, or it could be that the supplier just put random information in there because honestly-who-really-knows. If you want to know how much the thing costs, ask.

But first, try to learn a little about the supplier by clicking on the supplier name at right and perusing their company page. Alibaba is far less Mos Eisley Cantina-ish than it once was. They have a variety of verifications and certifications to help you sort out the legit from the sketchy, although there’s always some risk regardless. I like to see a high customer satisfaction rate, “Gold Supplier” status (multiple years is always a plus) and a decent rate of response.

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Lookin' good.

Once you’ve achieved that nice, warm, fuzzy feeling, feel free to message away. At the bottom of the page you’ll see the box you can use to send a message to the supplier. I cannot stress enough how important it is to keep this first message as simple as possible. I’ve found that I’m far less likely to get a response if I include multiple questions, customization requests, lists of products, sample inquiries, etc. I know, it’s hard to imagine that somewhere a sales rep is perusing their inbox and smashing that delete button every time a message is more than three sentences long, but there it is. Here is the basic template of what I send:

Dear Mr/Ms [rep name],

Hello, this is [name] with [company name]. Please quote me for [quantity] pcs of your [product name or part number].

Thanks and kind regards,
[name]
[email address]

That’s it! This is not to imply that Alibaba suppliers won’t send you samples, customize their product, give you quotes for multiple pricing tiers and multiple products, discuss terms, etc. This simple first email jus gets the conversation going, and you can feel free to move on to all those subjects and more once the wheel has begun turning. Alibaba has a messenger feature, but I always include my email in the signature of the first message to emphasize that I’m okay with them emailing me directly. Personally, I prefer to communicate this way, but to each their own. If you do include your email, you will eventually get spammed, so be ready. You can also make a “business card” on Alibaba, which includes your contact information, and you can choose whether to share it or not with each message you send.

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Yes, there is such a thing as too much squid.

You may find you’re not satisfied with a quote or minimum order quantity (MOQ). $1,400 per ton of giant squid tentacles may be more than you are willing to pay, or perhaps you only require 10 tons of them instead of 25. Again, ask away. Alibaba reps often have room to haggle. If you have other quotes or retail pricing to show them for comparison, go for it. Just don’t be a jerk about it. Consider what you might be able to offer them to make it worth their while.

If an MOQ is higher than you’re willing to commit to, it doesn’t hurt to see if the supplier has some flexibility there, too. Maybe they can lower it if you commit to purchasing multiple different products (giant squid eyeballs?). You might also consider committing to multiple smaller orders spaced out over the course of a year, assuming you’re confident in your volume projections. If you have a slew of questions, I recommend putting them in a numbered list to avoid important details getting lost in a big block of text.

I always request at least one sample before agreeing to purchase an item in quantity. Usually, suppliers with whom you do not have an existing relationship will expect you to pay for the sample, and that’s quite understandable. Sometimes they’ll just request that you cover the shipping. I usually ask them to send an invoice with a PayPal ID/email, but you can also pay directly via Alibaba. It’s important when requesting a sample (as with a full order quantity) to confirm what it is you’ll be receiving before committing to it. Some product pages display multiple products, or have multiple versions of a single product available with varying specs. Requesting a datasheet, manual, or any other supporting documentation is crucial.

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This may require some vetting.

Once you’ve received, evaluated and approved a sample, you may be ready to commit to a full order. I won’t dive too far down the rabbit hole of payment terms, but most Alibaba suppliers will expect money up front, often via bank wire transfer (“T/T”) or PayPal, at least for your first order. Be wary of Western Union, as it offers relatively little protection against scams.

Alibaba also offers its own Alibaba Secure Payment platform. I haven’t personally used it for more than small dollar (usually sample) transactions, but it does offer a path for disputing transactions. You will also want to work out your shipping method and terms with the supplier. That is yet another topic that could be a post unto itself.

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No, we don't make scooters.

A final word of caution: be wary of copyright, trademark and patent infringement. Even companies that are generally open source still aren’t exactly thrilled with companies impersonating their brand. It’s one thing to build off an existing design, but it’s another thing entirely to copy it and slap another’s logo on there. Knockoffs tend to hide quality and reliability problems behind the mask of others’ hard work and diligence. And they leave the real companies’ support personnel scrambling to field questions about products that end up having nothing to do with them. So once again, don’t be a jerk.

Moreover, should you choose to be a jerk nonetheless (or inadvertently stumble into jerkhood), customs often stops shipments of knocked off products, and you as a reseller are potentially liable for the things you choose to put on the market. Some violations are harder to spot than others. Did you know you can trademark a vague color combination? Well, neither did we!

Which leads me to another thing: educate yourself on product compliance issues (RoHS, CE, FCC, Prop 65, etc.), export restrictions, etc., or consult with someone who can get you on track in that vein. There’s a whole prairie full of rabbit holes there.

Anyway, if you want to source on Alibaba, just remember the five Ds:

1) Don’t take anything for granted
2) Documentation, documentation, documentation
3) Don’t be a jerk
4) Do do do due diligence
5) Dkeep it simple

And here is my Comprehensive List of Things Not to Buy on Alibaba:

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This cannot be unseen.

Be careful out there, folks. Take my timeless wisdom into consideration, trust your instincts and you will (probably?) do just fine. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment and I will emerge from my meditation cave to reply as soon as the Alibaba oracle bestows her answers upon me. Happy hunting!

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Enginursday: Supplier Spotlight on Consolidated Wire

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

SparkFun has been doing its thing for about sixteen years now. Impressive, right? I’ve been here for a whole nine years of it and I often feel like some sort of ancient sage (maybe more ancient than sage, but let’s not go there). The point is, I recently learned that one of our suppliers is celebrating its ONE HUNDREDTH birthday. Now there’s a number. Consolidated Electronic Wire and Cable has been in business since 1919!

photo of Hook-up Wire Assortment

You may already have one of their handy Hook-up Wire Assortment dispenser boxes on your workbench, or some spools of their stranded or solid-core wire rigged up on a rod, hanging from a wall peg, or simply floating about your desk drawer. They also supply us with a nifty Magnet Wire Kit if electromagnetism is your bag.

photos of engineer's workbench with hook-up wire dispenser

See if you can spot the Hook-up Wire Assortment from Andrew’s “Desk of an Engineer” post.

Next time you find yourself working with any of this ubiquitous wire, take a moment to appreciate the century of glorious American manufacturing that has led up to the present day, and the simple, yet critical object in your hand. I mean, really take it all in. Unfurl a whole rainbow of wire from that dispenser box, wrap it around your torso like a cummerbund, drape it over your shoulder like a sash – whatever it takes to get you fully immersed in the experience. Embrace that sheer polyvinyl chloride as you reflect upon the bond we thoroughly modern humans share with insulated strands of copper. From the era of telegraphy to the Space Age, Consolidated Wire has been cranking out solutions to help the world connect point A to point B.

photo of old wire twisting machine

Wire-twisting machinery from the 1910s.

A little historical context: in 1919, when Consolidated Wire got their start, the vast majority of American households still lacked electricity. The First World War had only just ended, Prohibition just begun, and women did not yet have voting rights in the US. Two-handed candlestick telephones were en vogue, commercial radio was but a nascent dream, and films were all silent. Seriously, when Consolidated’s ship set sail, Babe Ruth was still playing for the Boston Red Sox and Billy Murray made the Top 20 with a 78 RPM shellac pressing of a song called, “And He’d Say, ‘Oo-La-La! Wee-Wee!’”

Only 1910s kids will understand.

Lo, Consolidated Wire and Associated Corporations was born in Chicago, IL, as a successor to the Mann Electric Company, and cut their teeth manufacturing and selling wire, cable and radio accessories. During World War II, the company provided wire and cable for military communication, and in the post-war era, it expanded into the burgeoning consumer electronics realm, producing parts for radios, televisions and various household appliances.

photo of early Consolidate wire spools

Today’s Consolidated Electronic Wire & Cable is an 80 percent employee-owned (ESOP) company serving a wide array of markets. They manufacture our stranded and solid core hook-up wire varieties, including the aforementioned assortment packs in their lovely, custom-sourced dispenser boxes, as well as our magnet wire. It’s all proudly made right here in the U.S. of A.

Hook-Up Wire - Assortment (Solid Core, 22 AWG)

Hook-Up Wire - Assortment (Solid Core, 22 AWG)

PRT-11367
$16.95
29
Hook-Up Wire - Assortment (Stranded, 22 AWG)

Hook-Up Wire - Assortment (Stranded, 22 AWG)

PRT-11375
$16.95
18
Hook-up Wire - Black (22 AWG)

Hook-up Wire - Black (22 AWG)

PRT-08022
$2.50
1
Hook-up Wire - Red (22 AWG)

Hook-up Wire - Red (22 AWG)

PRT-08023
$2.50
1
Magnet Wire Kit

Magnet Wire Kit

PRT-11363
$11.95
4
Hook-up Wire - White (22 AWG)

Hook-up Wire - White (22 AWG)

PRT-08026
$2.50
1
Hook-up Wire - Yellow (22 AWG)

Hook-up Wire - Yellow (22 AWG)

PRT-08024
$2.50
Hook-up Stranded Wire - Red (22 AWG)

Hook-up Stranded Wire - Red (22 AWG)

PRT-08865
$2.95
Hook-up Stranded Wire - Black (22 AWG)

Hook-up Stranded Wire - Black (22 AWG)

PRT-08867
$2.95
Hook-up Stranded Wire - White (22 AWG)

Hook-up Stranded Wire - White (22 AWG)

PRT-08866
$2.95
Hook-up Wire - Brown (22 AWG)

Hook-up Wire - Brown (22 AWG)

PRT-08027
$2.95
Hook-up Wire - Gray (22 AWG)

Hook-up Wire - Gray (22 AWG)

PRT-08025
$2.95

In addition to their vast catalog of wire and cable, Consolidated Wire also keeps up a great blog with informative posts like (my personal favorite), The Ultimate Guide to USB Cables, which concisely lays out the various USB options with their basic specs and advantages.

What unconventional uses have you all found for our Consolidated Wire products? What were you up to back in 1919? I know some of you have stories. Please feel free to hit us up in the comments with your wire-related musings and anecdotes.

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Enginursday: Supplier Spotlight on Weller Tools

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

As “Parts Hunter” here at SparkFun, I have the privilege of interacting with a variety of suppliers, manufacturers and their representatives as a regular part of my job. Today, I’d like to highlight a particular company whose name may already familiar to many of you — Weller Tools.

photo of WLC100 Weller Soldering Station

Weller (part of Apex Tool Group) has been kicking out innovative soldering tool designs since the 1940s. An American radio repairman named Carl E. Weller, dissatisfied with the long periods spent twiddling his thumbs waiting for his old-timey soldering iron to heat up, first patented the “Weller Electrical Heating Apparatus” in 1941. It looked like a ray gun straight out of “Buck Rogers,” and it paved the way for so many of the soldering tools we’ve come to love and cherish in our modern age.

Just look at this bad boy:

soldering gun patent drawing

Today, Weller offers a wide array of tools for hobbyists and professionals alike, including the Erem and Xcelite brands of hand tools. I asked Pete Jenner, Field Application Manager for Apex, to outline some of the most unusual soldering applications he’s assisted customers with, and his answers did not disappoint. Number one on his list was—drum roll—SOLDERING IN SPACE!

“NASA,” Pete explained, “asked us for a soldering iron to conduct an experiment to solder on the International Space Station with one of our stick irons like the WP25.”

The video below shows the mesmerizing results of this experiment.

Other unexpected uses of Weller irons he’s encountered include cauterizing tissue around wires used to make pediatric aortic stents, and melting a composite material to fill seams and rivets on Air Force jets to help make them stealth. Pete also mentioned the artist market for soldering irons used to create stained glass and burn designs onto wood.

SparkFun currently offers the following items from their catalog, plus a variety of tips for the three irons included below:

Weller WE1010 Soldering Station

Weller WE1010 Soldering Station

TOL-14734
$129.00
Weller WLC100 Soldering Station

Weller WLC100 Soldering Station

TOL-14228
$44.95
Flush Cutters - Xcelite

Flush Cutters - Xcelite

TOL-14782
$7.95
Solder Tip Polishing Bar

Solder Tip Polishing Bar

TOL-14233
$12.95
Weller Portasol Butane Soldering Iron Kit

Weller Portasol Butane Soldering Iron Kit

TOL-14226
$59.95
1
SMD Tweezers - 45° Angle

SMD Tweezers - 45° Angle

TOL-14224
$24.95
1
Xcelite Ergonomic Screwdriver Set (6pcs)

Xcelite Ergonomic Screwdriver Set (6pcs)

TOL-14234
$49.95
Xcelite 8-in-1 Screwdriver Set

Xcelite 8-in-1 Screwdriver Set

TOL-14235
$27.95

Meet Mike Schock

photo of Mike's project "Snake in the Box"

Mike Schock (of Schock Enterprises) is our Johnny-on-the-spot for all things Apex. He hooks us up with demos and samples, and helps us find solutions to a wide variety of tool needs. Chatting with Mike is always a trip, because in addition to being a sales representative, he’s also a Maker, tinkerer and fellow history buff (Mike, I owe you a book!). He was kind enough to answer a few questions for me:

How long have you been repping for Apex/Weller?

I have been an Apex rep for nearly three years now. It has been a fun and rewarding experience. I get to see amazing processes and sell fun tools.

What are some of your favorite Weller tools for your own use?

I do have my “go-to” tools from Apex/Weller that I use all the time. I have two Erem cutters that I love, an older WD1 solder station for bigger jobs and a 12W rechargable soldering iron (my new favorite for small jobs).

Can you describe a favorite personal project for which you’ve used Weller tools and/or SparkFun products?

I am going to include my three most recent projects. Two of which have SparkFun products in them:

The most rewarding project this summer was a prototype product of my own design that I plan to release to market next year. I bulk purchased a number of parts for this project from SparkFun. Unfortunately I can not disclose what that project entails, but I now have enough parts to build 300 units thanks to SparkFun. All other parts are 3D printed.

The project I just finished this week is a Jack-in-the-box [pictured above] with several different LED bulbs purchased from SparkFun. This one can be seen on Instructables under Snake-in-the-Box.

Lastly I built an electric motorbike for my wife this summer that I am very proud of. This project can be found on Instructables under “Battery Powered Motorcycle” by Schockmade.

photo of Mike's battery powered motorcycle

That about wraps up our “Supplier Spotlight” look at Weller! Be sure to check out Mike’s projects above and have a gander at SparkFun’s Weller, Xcelite and Erem offerings.

I will close with a question for you, dear readers – what are YOUR go-to soldering tools?

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