As soon as I locked in my move from Ithaca, NY to Denver I signed up for Sparkfun's Open House; five months in advance of the 10/22/11 event date. And like always, the folks at Sparkfun did not disappoint. It was a carnival for engineering-types! They had good food, bouncy castles, a juggler, booths like 'Ask and Engineer' and 'craft table', plus an expo where people from the community could show off their projects.
Being immediately drawn to the area where people had all kinds of cool projects on the table, I found myself speaking to exhibitors building prototypes for a myriad of reasons. I couldn't resist the large electric motorcycle in the corner, so I started the tour by talking with Tom McKinnon of ElectroRide to learn all about his bike and his company. Tom's display was incredible – with not just the bike, but each subsystem on the table with a detailed one-pager on what the module did, the key parts, and (my favorite) the subsystem's approximate cost. It was excellent to speak with a guy who was dedicated to his design work and was at Sparkfun to truly share ideas; a refreshing change from the corporate approach of a booth being an elaborate advertisement that provides only company-approved, mostly boring information.
Another great project table was hosted by Scott Harris who owns Flatiron Research. He had three great projects on the table to talk about. The first two were light organs, one based on the Sparkfun LED strip and the other built from the readily hackable string of GE's Christmas LEDs. His coolest project, however, was an autonomous robot that he used to win the annual Sparkfun autonomous vehicle competition. His car used GPS coordinates and acceleration data to feed a Kalman filter that drives the car along a pre-programmed path. It was so well tuned that this recent year the car drove at full throttle the entire time! Scott's next step? A bigger motor so the car will actually have to use the brakes!
I saw another great display of a home-built tractor complete with a machined chassis and custom treads. Not happy with what was available on the R/C tractor tread market, he decided to make a mold for pouring his own material for treads that wouldn't crack or break. He added a video camera beaming a POV video stream over Wi-Fi to the remote. The next step we discussed was the addition of a robot arm for what I assume will be to fetch beer!
The last table I was able to visit was hosted by a couple of art students who were taking an art course focusing on the use of technology. Both women were using Arduino to drive LEDs. I was happy to see people involved in professions far from engineering recognizing their ability to use electronics and the value it can bring to art. Surely these students are well on their way to creating artwork that not many others in their field would know how to implement.
After checking out the tables, I went to take a look at Sparkfun's manufacturing floor. Based on the market that they serve and the nature of their employees and advertisements, I was foolishly expecting a 'fun' manufacturing floor akin to a hackerspace. Boy was I ever wrong. They have a legit facility that is put together very well and capable of making large quantities of excellent devices. I shouldn't be surprised since I have never received a poorly made unit from them, but it was good to see it in the flesh.
No article on the Open House would be complete without mention of 'The Sventastic Show'. Although Sven had nothing to do with electronics, he had everything to do with entertaining. He juggled fire, 7 balls at once, and then perched atop a precariously balanced stack of loops to juggle swords – all without lopping off any fingers! While I was hoping he would break out a cordless soldering iron and tin some wires while walking across his 3/32” tightrope, he put on a great show and the kids LOVED him.
As with everything Sparkfun does, they took the fun of their open house very seriously and it showed. Everyone had a great time – so be sure to make it out next year! And check out all of the photos I took here!