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Adafruit's Limor Fried Ushers In A Cool New Age for Hobby Electronics

11 September 2015, 6:11 pm EDT By Stacey Szewczyk Tech Times
Limor Fried is the founder and CEO of Adafruit Industries, one of several upstart hobby electronics companies that are galvanizing millennials.  ( Stacey Szewczyk )

That DIY Daft Punk helmet with the pulsing LED lights on Pinterest seems light-years away from those do-it-yourself ham radio ads in vintage Sears Roebuck catalogs, about as far as the iPhone 6 is from great-grandma's rotary phone. If Limor Fried has her way, we'll see a corresponding revolution in our appreciation of hobby electronics as a cultural and educational force in the coming years.

Fried is the founder and CEO of Adafruit Industries, one of several upstart hobby electronics companies that are galvanizing millennials, teens, 'tweens and even tots — others include Italian firm Arduino, UK-based Raspberry Pi and New York's littleBits.

Adafruit produces and sells DIY electronics ranging from beginner-level push-button sound effects kits to sophisticated micro controller boards for cell phone and game developers through an online store that also stocks jumper wires, soldering irons and other geeky peripherals. With its richly-illustrated, plain language manuals and extensive library of tutorials, the site also doubles as an educational platform.

Even the company name is instructive: "Adafruit" derives from British mathematician Augusta Ada Byron, a pioneering computer programmer.

"She was really into math," says Fried, a fuscia-haired MIT grad with a bright demeanor and a ring in her lip, adding: "She liked to gamble."

As lead engineer and sole owner of Adafruit, Fried is at the helm of one of the fastest-growing companies in New York, reporting $33 million in revenue last year.

"Some days, I get to spend the entire day engineering and other days I'm researching equipment purchases or negotiating a lease or working with a partner on a contract," says Fried from a quiet corner of her 40,000 square-foot West Soho factory, where two Samsung pick and place machines, an MPM stencil machine, a circuit board depanelizer, a magazine loader and a small reflow oven are run and otherwise enabled by 85 full-time employees.

Along with FLORA, Trinket, ChronoDot and other in-house brand microcontrollers, Adafruit manufacturing equipment produces most of the Arduino products in the United States. The disarming bonhomie in evidence among Adafruit, Arduino and the other main players in the current hobby electronics boom makes sense in light of the fact that most are graduates of MIT's Media Lab, who were influenced, if not shaped, by an open source ethos.

"People who are involved in Arduino and littleBits (including) Ayah Bdeir and me," says Fried. "I think we were all inspired by the idea of Fab Labs (small-scale workshops equipped for personal fabrication) and being able to make electronics on your own."

Fried also came up in the code and life-hacking subcultures of the 1990s that laid the groundwork for the maker spaces where DIY electronics are currently experimented with and shared.

"What used to be a place where you'd just go and hack on code is [now a place where you can] hack on hardware or use the lathe and the mill or do costuming or wearables or crafting or make Kombucha," says Fried delightedly — her manner is equal parts girl detective and Glinda of Oz. "It's growing, which is really good. It's why we have hundreds of maker spaces."

As an open source proponent, Fried devotes the energy and resources more traditional tech hardware developers expend on patents and legal teams to creating manuals, schematics, videos, GIFs, Google Hangouts and other educational tools to advance Adafruit's DIY mission.

"It's 100 percent teaching," says Fried when asked how much of her work is heuristic and how much is product-driven. "I almost never engineer for the sake of engineering. There's always a project or a goal or a design that I think would benefit from the engineering. That way, I know that there is an end purpose to it."

Among the more than 850 tutorials on learn.adafruit.com, the casual hacker will find tips on topics ranging from how to print circuit boards to how to build a hardware startup. Tutorials on how to make wearable items like LED-Illuminated sneakers and 3D-printed horns are numerous and diverse.

"What's interesting about the wearables is that I think it's kind of our growth area," says Fried. "We're getting a lot more people interested in [using wearable tech for] costuming and Cosplay, so it has been increasing year over year."

On the mainstream fashion front, Adafruit microcontrollers were recently used in a pre-Fashion Week collab between Zac Posen and Google's Made w/Code initiative to create twinkling LED light patterns on dresses and backpacks designed by young women embarking on fashion careers.

Fried credits the unprecedented affordability of sophisticated electronic sensors, along with widespread access to personal digital fabrication equipment with the explosion of interest in DIY electronics. There's also the ready market of tech savvy millennials with a fondness for unique, customized products, who currently constitute nearly 30 percent of the U.S. population.

Becky Stern, Director of Wearable Electronics at Adafruit, specializes in craft techniques that incorporate electronics and often speaks directly to members of the maker, craft and Cosplay communities when producing Adafruit's wide-ranging wearables content.

"A lot of what I do is [get] young girls inspired to make electronics," says Stern. "Maybe they didn't realize they were interested in computer science until they wanted to make their prom dress light up when they dance and they needed to learn to code to make that happen."

As a young woman working in one of the creative careers that technological literacy opens to someone with a knack for handcrafts, Stern is also a defacto role model. In weekly project tutorials, she weaves electronic components into the fabric of daily life. The results are fun and enticing but there's a serious side to her wearable tech tutelage--she believes it's essential for our future wellbeing.

"I like to say learn how to program or be programmed by your devices," says Stern. "If you don't know how your technology works, it's going to control you."

Limor Fried concurs. In her vision of the future, programming will be a part of every school curriculum and daily life.

"Just like everyone now knows how to use email, I think everyone will know how to use Arduino."

At her company's current rate of growth — 50 percent over the last two years — we can probably expect a lot of Adafruit fluency too.

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