Osborn: Of all the people I’ve interviewed, you have the most experience and ideas about the difference between manufacturing in China compared to the US. One thing that concerns me is that places like Portland, where I live, are considered a center for silicon companies in the United States. We have Intel, Maxim, and Tektronix, but if I want to have a PCB made and build a prototype, besides etching some board in my garage, my only option takes two weeks through the mail. Two weeks to get my prototype on a PCB. Then even simple resistors, capacitors, and other basic components are all going to be shipped via DigiKey. There’s nowhere to go to just walk in and buy those things. Even tips for my soldering iron, like my Hakko. There’s not a store in town I can go and get tips for it. Those get shipped to me via Amazon Prime.
Huang: It seems like everything is unduly hard in the US. Even in Silicon Valley, it’s unduly hard to get a lot of things done. Now that I’m out here in Asia, I try to live one month a year, in Shenzhen, just for the experience. It’s so convenient: it will be like two a.m. and my soldering iron will stop working for whatever reason, and I’m like, “Oh shit. I really, really want to get this project done. I just can’t wait until tomorrow,” for whatever reason.“Let’s go and see if I can find a soldering iron.” I walk around the street, and like one block over, there’s a hardware shop that’s open at two a.m. that has a freaking soldering iron. It’s like five bucks, you got it, you walk back, half an hour later, and you’re online again putting down your stuff. That is great. That is freaking awesome.
Osborn: I might be able to get a Radio Shack firestarter if it was between nine and six. Do you have any insider ideas as to how do we fix that? What can we do in the US to try to build that culture around and foster hardware engineering here? This is obviously not something you solve overnight. Maybe it’s a decades-long effort to make that change. Or maybe it just doesn’t happen or it doesn’t make sense. What is your opinion? How do we enable makers to build more, faster here in the US?
Huang: I think companies don’t have this problem so much because they have so much money to do prototypes, they don’t care. It’s really the individuals and the makers who really suffer because they can’t afford the FedEx charges, and the big purchasing, and ops, and the logistics guys to get disparate vendors in fifty different states to try to come together and do the thing for you.I think it’s a little bit of an attitude shift. Between the late eighties and today, hardware just wasn’t sexy anymore. No one really wanted to do it. It went through this phase of massive outsourcing, and then software just became the new thing—like the whole dotcom boom and everything. Everyone wanted to make money by writing software, and it was cool. And hardware just didn’t make any money. I think because of thirty years of this cultural bias in the US against hardware, it’s really hard to get the right mindset to approach hardware.I mean, at the moment, there’s almost this mysticism of what’s inside the box, right? Like you’re just hanging out, and you go and start pulling out screws from the box, and they’re like,“Holy cow! You can pull the screws out of that! You’re going to electrocute yourself!” When the net goes down, you go and reboot the router, and it works. Everyone is like, “Wow!” But it’s like, come on, guys, this is not that crazy, right?Then you go to China, and you walk into the markets and the stores, and it’s a family affair. They have babies and kids running around in electronic markets, inside these stalls where Dad is like soldering the cables and Mom’s hawking chips and stuff like that. The kid comes home from school and does his home- work on top of a glass case full of SMT10 ICs.
These kids just live surrounded by components and electronics. They don’t think it’s weird. It’s so normal to them. It’s what they do. Then when they become teenagers, they are like, “Hardware? Whatever. I don’t want to do that. My dad does that. I want to go into fashion,” or something like that. You get a lot of that in China. That’s typical. But the thing is, you go ask these kids who want to go into fashion,“Can you solder this?” They go,“Sure, whatever.” They’re like, “Of course. Everyone can solder. What are you talking about? People can’t solder?” You know what I’m talking about? It’s just this completely different mindset that they have out there that is just lost in the US.It’s a cultural thing. You just have to get over this mysticism that hardware’s hard, like it’s immutable and that it’s expensive and all these kinds of problems. If you can get around all that, it’s actually not that bad, but I think maybe part of the problem is the ecosystem just doesn’t exist in the US.There’s Thief River Falls [Minnesota] and DigiKey. I’m like, “If I move back to the US, I’m getting a house near Thief River Falls.” I’m just doing will-call to DigiKey all the time and walking in and getting my stuff, because that would be awesome, right? But there’s only one place in the United States that has that. I mean, maybe there’s another one. There’s Jameco in Silicon Valley and a couple of other spots. There are not a lot of places that have that feel. Another thing is that those places are all distributors. You still order on the Web and10Surface-mount technology，you can’t really browse the inventory. The great thing about China is that you walk in these stores, and they have all this inventory. They’re like,“Yeah, come on in.” You walk in like, “Oh, you have those? That’s awesome.”
Osborn: And you can pick it up and touch it.
Huang: You can pick it up and look at it. You say, “I want two of these.” And they’re like, “You can just have it, whatever. It’s just two of them. I don’t want to deal with invoicing you for it.” It’s a really different world. That ecosystem and mentality doesn’t exist in the US. If we could bring that back somehow, that would be great, but it’s just not there.
Osborn: I wonder if the whole hobby hardware hacker movement will help soften that. I’ve met a lot of people in recent years who are career web devel- opers or career software engineers who have been introduced to hardware through Arduino or something, and start out blinking some LEDs and it snow- balls from there. I don’t know how much that’s really going to help or not.
Huang: I think it will create a new generation that won’t be recognizable from today’s generation. I think it will have an impact in the long term. Hardware has moved beyond circuit design and chips and stuff. It’s more about what you want to do. The question is, “What do you want?” Do you want just some wireless widget that can have GPS and all these other things and take wind measurements and stick it on your roof, whatever it is? Do you want a dog collar that can tell your dog where it’s not supposed to be? Do you want something that can control your thermometer on your house from Twitter or something? All these things are bits that require hardware to enable them.Hardware currently becomes this barrier between a lot of applications that people want because they just don’t have the coupling to get it. So I think the innovation ecosystem right now is creating a lot of building blocks, which is what Arduino’s great for.We already have awesome terminals for almost anything. They’re called smartphones. They have great touchscreens. They have interfaces that can talk to almost anything. The really hard barrier of “I’ve got to build this com- puter with UI and a touchscreen and speakers,” isn’t there anymore. Pick up a smartphone. You just figure out how to co-op those and have them control the bits of hardware that you actually need to do to get your job done. That seems to be a winning strategy. I think they’ll continue to advance.
Osborn: At this point, there are so many good building blocks. There are so many LEGOs out there where if you want to build a GPS dog collar, you don’t really need a good deep understanding of electronics. You just need to buy a couple things from SparkFun, and they go together like LEGOs. You can just download some code, and modify it to do what you need it to do. I think that’s exciting. I’ve seen a lot of products at the prototype stages that get people excited about the possibilities that way.
Huang: That’s exactly right. The big difference between China and the US around that is that in the US, you go buy a GPS, you need an Arduino and all this stuff together to build the collar. You’ve spent like $150 or $200 in the day, right?
Huang: In China that would cost you like $10 or something like that. If in the US, you wanted to go and mass-produce these things—like your friend says, “Hey, that’s awesome. I want one of those,” well, you can open-source your plan up on the Net and that guy can spend $200 and buy it with SparkFun. That’s great for SparkFun, but it just doesn’t scale because there are not a lot of guys who are going to buy this and put them together. In China, if somebody says, “Hey, that’s pretty awesome. I want to market it.” They say, “Oh, oh, oh, cool. I’ll just place an order with the factory, and then how soon do you want it? Like six weeks? Ten bucks?”“Okay, fine. Here’s a thousand.”Then you say go. Everything you need from prototype one to mass manufac- turing exists there, whereas in the US, everything to go from prototype one onward is missing. That’s the big contrast.
Osborn: I’m going to jump a little bit to a different topic. I don’t know how much you were involved with Safecast.11 I saw that you had built one of the early prototypes.
Huang: Safecast is a big organization. There are a lot of different aspects to it. I built a device—a Geiger counter, actually. And there are two or three lineages of sensors they’ve built at Safecast. A team in Japan built the one that they’re using to do a lot of the geographic logging in Japan. They are building huge data sets. I have some involvement, but I’m mostly on the manufacturing ops end for that. That’s basically a GPS unit with a Geiger counter also. Then the other thing I built was a consumer Geiger counter. I wanted to take the Geiger counter you can buy today, which is this very lab instrument–looking thing that is very expensive, and merge it with modern design principles of today—which is simplicity, ease of use, good user interface—and build something that I could see a concerned father using to determine if the playground’s safe for the kids to play in. And it wouldn’t require a degree in nuclear physics to operate. It wouldn’t have to be scary and bright yellow and scare you when they bring it out, like you’re about to do an analysis, you know what I mean?Taking radiation measurements should feel very normal, right? It shouldn’t be something you should be exceptionally worried about because, in fact,11Safecast is a global sensor network for radiation sensors.there are many sources of radiation in the world. Granite is radioactive. There’s radon in the tiles. If you just want to know what’s out there, it shouldn’t be this taboo to measure it, right? So I designed a Geiger counter, which I open-sourced and released to the world. One of Safecast’s commercial affiliates, Medcom, picked it up and decided to build. They had a Kickstarter around it, and it’s currently shipping out like any day now.