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SparkFun AVC 2018 is wrap!

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

Thank you to everyone who came out to compete in and support our 10th Autonomous Vehicle Competition! We couldn’t have done it without you, especially our incredible sponsors, DigiKey and Garmin.

A great time was had by all – humans, robots and goats alike. You can relive the glory via the livestream below or on our official AVC page, check out all the photos from the event here and congrats to our winners!

Classic AVC Winners

Speed Demons:

K-12 = Finn Braun, Louisville Middle School, Lymon

Collegiate = Georgia Institute of Technology, SEDANI

Adult = Sky Chrastina, Team Other Barry

Logistics:

Collegiate = Cody Kronaizl, South Dakota State University

Adult = Jeanette Breton, Chaos Buster

Car Wars:

Collegiate = Georgia Institute of Technology, BIGOLI

Adult = Mike Hinkel, Techno Chaos

Combat Bots Bracket Winners

Plastic Ants:

1 - Ice Man (Silas Malers)

2 - Boomba (Cameron Hinkle)

Antweights:

1 - Arsenic (TomSpaulding)

2 - Ignatz (Tom Spaulding)

Beetleweights:

1 - Margin of Safety (Aaron Fan)

2 - Unknown Avenger (David Liaw)

HobbyWeights:

1 - Claw Viper (Kevin Milczewski)

2 - Footlong (Emmanuel Carrillo)

FeatherWeights:

1 - Crippling Depression (Robert Cowan)

2 - Lots Of Margin (Aaron Fan)

Lightweights:

1 - Rocket (Chad New)

2 - AVD (Luke Quintal)

Winners of the K-12 and University divisions for Combat Bots will be communicated with via email.

Thank you to everyone for another great event!

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You’re Invited to the SparkFun AVC Competitor Reception sponsored by Digi-Key

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

SparkFun AVC 2018 is only a month away and we’re starting to get antsy here at headquarters. To celebrate our tenth annual competition, SparkFun and Digi-Key are hosting a Competitor Reception on Friday, September 7, from 6-8 p.m. at the Boulder County Fairgrounds to recognize our competitors and kick off the weekend. We’d like to invite our local community to join us in the festivities. If you’re not a competitor, you can purchase advance tickets below.

Purchase tickets here

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Livestream

If you’re not exactly local, you can tune into our livestream on Saturday morning, which you can find at avc.sparkfun.com. We will be broadcasting the Combat Bots tournaments live and showing highlights from Classic AVC through the day on Saturday, September 8.

Spectators

All spectators are welcome to join us for SparkFun AVC 2018! We will not be selling tickets as the Boulder County Fairgrounds are a very open venue. The only limitation will be the occupancy restrictions for the Combat Bots building; we will be restricting access to that due to building capacity based on the number of competitors participating.

Schedule of events

Special Awards: Engineers’ Choice and Crowd Pleaser

Digi-Key is back this year with some excellent prizes for the winners of Engineers’ Choice in Classic AVC and Crowd Pleaser for Combat Bots.

Engineers’ Choice: UBTECH Alpha Intelligent Humanoid Robot

Crowd Pleaser: DJI Spark Drone

We’re excited to see what our competitors come up with this year!

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Summer of Tariffs

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

This is the first in a short series of blog posts about the impact of the July 6 tariffs on SparkFun’s business.


For SparkFun, the story of tariffs is a story about managing uncertainty, and doing everything we can to keep losses to a minimum as we transition from 1-5 percent to 25 percent tariffs on a significant number of our components. For us, it’s not a story about manufacturing in America, or the threat of recession, our current president or China’s increasing global influence.

Today, this story is about the short term: the three or six or nine months it will take for our business to fully transition to a massive increase on our cost of goods. Ultimately, we will have to pass the cost on to our customers in some way, shape or form, but the challenge we face is how much, when and who.

Getting an answer to the question of how much we should raise prices in response to the increase in our cost of goods is a big, hairy, intricate problem to solve with seemingly infinite dependencies. This blog post is about how SparkFun’s business works within an incredibly complex global market, and the huge task of managing the chain of uncertainty imposed by these new tariffs.

How Tariffs Work

Tariffs are applied by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at the ports where a shipment enters the United States. For us, that’s Denver International Airport. We get most of our shipments by air, since our orders are rarely the size and weight that would make ocean transport more cost efficient (thanks to all the small parts and pieces we order in small quantities). Each item falls into a certain classification as published in the U.S. International Trade Commission’s Harmonized Tariff Schedule, and their handy little search tool helps businesses like ours look up those classifications and determine the tariffs imposed on those goods.

When goods from suppliers arrive in port, the customs agent applies tariffs through our international shipper based on the classifications our suppliers list on the commercial invoice for that shipment. Our suppliers include the U.S. classification in the bill of lading based on their knowledge of U.S. tariff schedules. We pay tariffs through our international shipper when we are billed by them.

Occasionally, our suppliers don’t include the right classification for the goods they ship to us. When that happens, a customs agent calls our shipper, who then calls us at SparkFun to either verify the classification or provide a new one.

In an era when discrepancies in tariff charges between classifications amount to only 1 or 2 percent difference, we can afford to rely on our supplier’s judgment to classify goods properly. Now that the tariffs represent 25 percent on some goods, proper classification becomes a larger compliance and due diligence issue, as U.S. Customs and Border Protection increases the level of scrutiny to prevent companies from evading new tariff costs. For SparkFun, this means a significant increase in the time spent checking supplier classification of goods.

An additional uncertainty also lies in any discrepancies between how SparkFun anticipates its products will be classified and how our suppliers, shippers and customs agents classify them. This is more of a planning problem as we start to assess and project costs as a result of tariffs into the future.

Tariffs, International Shipping Chains and the three Salmon of Doubt

Journey of the SparkFun Essential Sensor Kit

To illustrate the complexities of price increases based on an increase in our cost of goods, we’ll outline the journey of the Essential Sensor Kit to the SparkFun storefront. If our task was to manage an increase in the tariff on a single product, we could simply match the increase in price to the increased cost of that product. However, our storefront SKUs fall into roughly three categories: board, kit and resale.

  • A board refers to the storefront products we manufacture in house from raw materials or components we’ve sourced from suppliers all over the world.

  • A kit refers to a storefront product that includes a collection of different parts bundled together, some we buy and some we build.

  • A resale product refers to component or product that we resell without any alteration. Most of our components and small parts are classified as resale, meaning that we order them from suppliers and then sell them on our storefront to our customers in the same form they came from suppliers, like LEDs.

Our Essential Sensor Kit includes a combination of boards and resale products, which makes it a great candidate to share how a single tariff, or a combination of multiple tariffs, can be a problem greatly amplified when managing a catalog like ours.

Impact of tariffs on SparkFun Essential Sensor Kit

Complexity of Our Business

To top it all off, SparkFun isn’t just an e-commerce company. It’s also a supplier to other companies like Digi-Key, Mouser and Arrow, as well as a distributor of goods like Arduino, Raspberry Pi and micro:bit. We also manufacture goods in-house, and sell both online and to business partners like Intel, IBM or Microsoft. On top of that, we work closely with schools to stock their classrooms with low-cost, well-documented product that can be used to teach kids how to write code and build STEM skills.

So when we get calls from our distributors, or calls from school districts worried about price increases, we can’t provide a concrete answer right now because of the complexity of our supplier-distributor marketplace. We essentially have to manage two types of amplified cost impact:

  • Product & Inventory: The increase in cost of boards and kits based on tariffs on individual goods.
  • Supplier & Distributor: The increase in cost from domestic suppliers whose goods include components with a Chinese country of origin, and the price we have to pass along to our distributors.

Complexities of being an e-commerce company, a distributor and a supplier

Tariff effects on different businesses aspects

Challenges

For many small businesses like SparkFun, the challenge of managing the impact of increased tariffs ultimately comes down to resources. Large companies in our market have the resources to deploy lobbyists and legal experts to either fight the tariffs or discover loopholes, as well as sophisticated supply chain management teams that work closely with suppliers to optimize their cost of goods.

We also have to consider the opportunity costs associated with managing this change. From a supply chain perspective, if we allocate our resources to determining the impact of tariffs, we’re not spending that time managing the challenges of the current driver shortage for ground shipping, or looking for ways to manage fuel surcharges. Perhaps most importantly, we’re taking resources away from managing supplier relationships, sourcing the most cost-competitive goods while preserving quality, and managing inventory and stock levels in an increasingly competitive and unpredictable supply chain landscape that results in more expensive goods (tariffs aside) and longer lead times. This impacts our customer when we can’t keep certain products in stock, or they cost more due to materials shortages or competition from larger companies that buy up the global supply.

All of the points of uncertainty explained above are only exacerbated when managing a catalog of 2,400 storefront SKUs, and the 4,000 small parts that go into those products, for customers as varied as the individual engineer, K12 teachers and university professors, corporate partners, and distributors.

Do we have concerns about how this will affect our customers? Absolutely. We’re concerned about teachers with limited budgets and about the way our competition will price the same product. We’re concerned with continuing to be a compelling and competitive option to engineers who use our products to prototype. We’re concerned about an already challenging pricing landscape in electronics, and we hope our customers are willing to take this journey with us and not let price variability in the near term prevent them from bringing their project ideas to life.

While we’re tempted to make sweeping statements about how this is good or bad for our business in the long term, the only thing we know is that in the short term, this certainly isn’t good for business. The problem for small businesses like SparkFun isn’t necessarily an increase in tariffs, it’s managing the uncertainty around it and not only keeping our losses to a minimum, but being able to confidently quantify those losses in the first place.

Ultimately, the answer we have to give about how tariffs are impacting our business and our customers is the same as the answer we are getting from our suppliers and partners: “We’re not sure. We’re still evaluating.”

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SparkFun AVC 2018: party, prizes, and your chance to be famous

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

Today we want to share with our competitors this year’s prizes, and some exciting news about the competition weekend. We want to extend a big thanks to our returning sponsor Digi-Key Electronics for continuing to support SparkFun AVC and helping make this year’s event our best party yet.

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Prizes

First things first: We have our first round of prize announcements!! This year we’ve created more focused student team competitions, added a 60-lb combat bot division and brought back Logistics Class. First-place winners in each of these categories will receive a cash prize or, like many competitors did last year, SparkFun will make an equivalent donation to a non-profit of the winner’s choice.

K12 Prizes

$250 cash prize to the winning team for the following divisions:

  • Plastic Ants
  • Featherweight
  • Logistics Class
  • Autonomous Car Wars
  • Speed Demons

Higher Ed

$250 cash prize to the winning team for the following divisions:

  • Antweight
  • Beetleweight
  • Hobbyweight
  • Featherweight
  • Lightweight
  • Logistics Class
  • Autonomous Car Wars
  • Speed Demons

Adult

$500 cash prize to the winning team for the following divisions:

  • Antweight
  • Beetleweight
  • Hobbyweight
  • Featherweight
  • Lightweight
  • Logistics Class
  • Autonomous Car Wars
  • Speed Demons

We will have more announcements over the next few weeks regarding special awards or additional prizes from our sponsors!

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Party

Digi-Key Electronics is hosting a Competitor Reception on Friday, September 7, at the Boulder County Fairgrounds from 6-8 p.m. We’ll be bringing in some delicious food and some entertainment to welcome our teams to Boulder for our 10th AVC. For all our teams that arrive a day early to check in, set up your pits, and test your bots, be sure to stick around for a fun evening!

We will be sending invitations to our registered competitors to RSVP. Non-team members are welcome to join; expect more info on the party in the coming weeks.

Your 15 Minutes of Fame

We have a dream to broadcast this year’s event to the far corners of the universe, and have thus brought in a production team to capture the whole event for a livestream on September 8. We’ll be interviewing some of you for the big screen (or little screen, if you’re watching on your phone) to capture some of the most creative and compelling competitor stories to share with our audience.

If you want to explain your robot or vehicle on camera, feel free to email us at avc@sparkfun.com and stay tuned for more info on how to share the livestream with your friends and family!

If you still haven’t registered for AVC this year, head over to avc.sparkfun.com to get your bot signed up!

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My Adventures with Open Hardware

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

This post is part of a series of guest posts by GroupGets and their appointed experts to talk about project crowdfunding and early-stage product development, from successes to battle wounds.


My earliest attempts at creating open hardware were some robotics circuit boards for a small, now-defunct company called FAST Robotics. We had the lofty goal of providing a complex, semi-autonomous, quadrotor UAV-based civil inspection platform called Icarus. As the PCB design engineer for many of the projects, I pushed for the designs to be open due to the success that I had seen with other platforms, such as Paparazzi UAV and PX4. Long story short, our many efforts failed. We fully intended on using Kickstarter to help launch the platform but it never got to that point. I like to think we were just too early and regulations were too restrictive, but being a PhD student, instructor and having a full-time job probably didn’t help either.

When I first founded QWERTY Embedded Design in 2015, I wanted to provide a few open hardware reference designs to help promote my PCB design capabilities. I wanted to create something new but relatively simple. I had heard of the new 96boards initiative and figured it would be much easier to provide something new for its ecosystem compared to Raspberry Pi or Beaglebone. As I had some experience with robotics, a robotics mezzanine seemed a logical first choice and Robomezzi was born. The design consisted of 16 servo outputs, a 6V buck regulator, a 9DoF IMU, four analog inputs and some level-translated IO. Ten handcrafted units were distributed at various Linux conferences and it gained some product interest that never really took off. Either way, I was still happy as I forged a connection with Linaro and 96boards and got to meet several well-respected engineers through the process.

Eight hand-assembled Robomezzi boards

Eight hand-assembled Robomezzi boards

In the following years, I became a fairly well known Linux kernel contributor and was mentoring for Beagleboard via the Google Summer of Code. Beagleboard collaborations would actually be the source of my next open source hardware projects, PocketBone KiCAD and BeagleWire.

The PocketBone design was brought to my attention by Drew Fustini at the Linux Plumbers Conference in 2016. It was a small side project of the org’s founder, Jason Kridner, that was in need of some engineering assistance. Essentially they wanted a Beagleboard that would fit into an Altoids Smalls tin by taking advantage of the new Octavo Systems SIP, but the initial attempt was non-functional. I stepped in, converted the design to KiCAD and successfully hand-assembled five PCBs. This design was well documented and you can read more about it on the Octavo Systems website here and here.

PocketBone with a SPI LCD attached

PocketBone with a SPI LCD attached

The PocketBone design ended up garnishing enough attention that I initiated my first crowdfunding campaign on GroupGets. The campaign was cut short before we could apply the economy of scale upon receiving word from Beagleboard that they were working on a revised design. To recoup some of the costs associated with an early prototype run, we decide to sell them at a less-than-handsome price. The success of the revised PocketBone design and attention I had drawn through blogs would go on to spur the development of the PocketBeagle.

PocketBone units next to BeagleBone Black for comparison

PocketBone units next to BeagleBone Black for comparison

Though I was considered for the design of the PocketBeagle, the initial design was done by GHI Electronics in Eagle and I eventually converted it back to KiCAD. Through the process I forged a relationship with GroupGets that would eventually lead to my first profitable crowdfunding campaign, LoFive.

In the wake of the missed PocketBeagle design, I used some of the energy I had built up to design something new. While watching an Adafruit show-and-tell episode, I noticed that Scott Shawcroft was presenting a new feather baseboard he designed and assembled that was based on the SiFive FE310 RISC-V microcontroller. I ending up helping Scott debug his design, which in turn helped me develop some contacts at SiFive. We were using such early silicon that we even ended up helping correct mistakes in the chip documentation. In the meantime, I had created the LoFive design, using a Teensy-like form factor.

Having a design ready gave me enough leverage that SiFive ended up providing samples of the FE310. I ended up hand-assembling several of the LoFive boards, and handed most of them out for free at the Open Source Hardware Summit 2017 in Denver. After a few months, I was talking to Ron Justin from GroupGets about potential new campaigns. LoFive came up so we launched it! The LoFive campaign went on to be one of their most successful, with 257 percent funding and units that were shipped throughout the world, which was quite unexpected. During the campaign, I even got to visit to the SiFive headquarters while in San Francisco for Linaro Connect.

First hand-assembled panel of LoFive

First hand-assembled panel of LoFive

LoFive in breadboard blinking an RGB LED

LoFive in breadboard blinking an RGB LED

So what’s next for me? My latest campaign for the 96Boards GPS Mezzanine is live on GroupGets now. It is the first design to be promoted to a group buy from an open source hardware initiative for developing more mezzanine products for 96boards. Check out the blog over on the 96boards website or the source repository for more details about the initiative. As for the LoFive, the future is wide open. Though it had some great initial success, it has some drawbacks when it comes to newbie hardware hackers. The biggest complaints were probably the external JTAG programmer, shipping costs and lack of peripherals. I hope to resolve some of these issues in future revisions and accessory boards. I have a nice wireless baseboard in mind and hope to launch it soon.


About the author: Michael Welling is an embedded systems design engineer with over 10 years of experience. He owns an electronic design consulting firm, QWERTY Embedded Design, LLC. He has an MS in Electrical Engineering, was an instructor at SIUC and is a 12-year member of IEEE. He is also a mentor and contributor to E-Ale.org, Beagleboard.org and 96boards.org.

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Scaling Open-Source Conservation Technology

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

This post is part of a series of guest posts by GroupGets and their appointed experts to talk about project crowdfunding and early-stage product development, from successes to battle wounds.


Conservation technology - software and devices used by professional conservation scientists to monitor animals and their environment - is going through a rapid change. Individuals with exposure to online maker communities are increasingly using open-source software and hardware to develop their own bespoke monitoring devices. These are typically much lower cost than commercial alternatives, and most significantly, can be modified and adapted to their specific deployment setting.

For example, Open Acoustic Devices - a research project at the universities of Oxford and Southampton - have been developing a low-cost acoustic sensor called AudioMoth. In contrast to commercial devices, AudioMoth uses a low-cost sensitive MEMS microphone mounted directly on the printed circuit board to provide a single-board solution that requires minimal packaging prior to deployment. A low-power, 32-bit microcontroller provides sufficient computational resources to run acoustic detection algorithms to trigger recordings, and yet allows long-term deployments with just three AA batteries. These devices have been used in a number of deployments to record insects, bats and birds, and to detect gunshots from illegal hunting in tropical forests in Belize.

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However, sharing projects such as these with a wider user community continues to be a challenge. The users who might most benefit - typically professional conservation biologists - often lack the coding and electronics knowledge to adapt designs to their own use. As such, the Arribada Initiative is exploring how to best support conservation groups who wish to make use of open-source technology such as AudioMoth.

The first challenge is how to manufacture and physically distribute devices to a large user community spread all around the world. To do so, the Arribada Initiative have been running a series of group purchase campaigns through GroupGets: taking orders for devices until a sufficiently large batch size has been achieved, and then manufacturing and assembling devices to order from CircuitHub (who host the open-source design of AudioMoth). This provides economies of scale that are impossible for individuals to achieve, and also builds a community of users who are keen to help and support each other’s use of new devices.

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Adding a small margin to the manufacturing costs also generates proceeds that can be put back into development activities to refine existing hardware, and to help build a community of users by providing funding to technologists for small projects to develop new firmware and hardware for specific deployments. Plans are already developing for AudioMoth 2, which will incorporate the lessons learned from building and distributing over 2000 AudioMoth devices over the last six months.


About the authors: Alex Rogers is a professor of Computer Science at the University of Oxford, and leads the Open Acoustic Devices team.

Andy Hill and Peter Price are completing their PhDs at the University of Southampton developing the hardware design of AudioMoth and the detection algorithms that run on it.

Alasdair Davies is Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow and a Conservation Technology Specialist at the Zoological Society of London and leads the Arribada Initiative.

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