Field Trip! Hackaday Visits Adafruit Industries

While still weary from our TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon, The Hackaday crew had a chance we couldn’t pass up: A tour of Adafruit Industries. Adafruit isn’t open to the public, so an opportunity to see the inner workings of one of the largest companies in the hacker/maker industry was really something special.

Coming in off the hustle and bustle of lower Manhattan streets, we found ourselves in a nondescript white marble lobby. The contrast and colors made me think of a scene out of THX1138. A short elevator ride opens to a second lobby area with a large door. We weren’t alone though – a security camera stands silent witness. Any thoughts of Big Brother were quelled when the door was thrown open by none other than [Phil Torrone], welcoming us to Adafruit.

If you’ve seen any of the photos or videos of Adafruit’s offices, you know what to expect – a large, open space broken by the columns keeping the building’s 10 stories upright. It’s the perfect blank canvas upon which to build a company. Since we were there late on a Sunday afternoon, things were relatively quiet. Only a handful of the 80 Adafruit employees were at their stations. Those on hand were packing and scanning in orders, in preparation for what would be a busy Monday. It’s a bit hard to be standing in Adafruit, knowing that you’re within arm’s reach of every part, module, or device you’ve ever wanted, and not want to jump right in on a project. With 10 of us there that may have made a bit of a dent in Adafruit’s bottom line, though.

The tour started at [Phil’s] desk. Tucked in among a copy of Dune, a very respectable graphic novel collection, and the two most recent editions of The Art of Electronics was United States Export Controls, 7th Edition. Considering the amount of shipping to far-flung countries the company has to do each day, one must stay on top of little things like ITAR and other export laws.

Throughout the tour, [Phil] made it clear that he views his job as a simple one: Do everything possible to allow [Limor] to crank out designs. [Phil] keeps the business running so she can keep on engineering open source hardware. [Phil’s] touches shine through though, in the product logos, and the characters which appear in Adafriut’s Circuit Playground. If those videos strike you as kid stuff, that’s exactly what they are designed to be. During his tenure at Make, [Phil] was one of four people who ran the first Makerfaire in 2006. He still gets e-mails from people who attended it as kids and were inspired to enter the fields of engineering or computer science. Both [Phil] and [Limor] have their sights set on inspiring the next generation of hackers.

Next up on our tour was the wearables department, domain of the one and only Becky Stern. We were all struck by how incredibly neat and organized the area was. There was a well-labelled place for everything, and everything was in its place. On display was a grey hoodie with a bandolier of ninjaflex 3D printed bullets, all lit by RGB LEDs.

Click past the break for the rest of Hackaday’s Tour of Adafruit Industries!

Walking past an entire pallet of The Art of Electronics 3rd edition and two pallets of Rigol DS1054Z oscilloscopes, we made our way to the “Ask An Engineer” studio, a desk in the far corner of the building. One of the largest live hacker/maker shows on the internet streams from a MacBook Air and a couple of cameras.

We slowly made our way over to the manufacturing side of the floor, dominated by Adafruit’s two Samsung pick and place (PnP) machines. PnP’s are something of a holy grail in the electronics world. They have to be precise, they have to be fast, and they are freaking mesmerizing to watch. This late on a weekend, the PnPs, reflow oven, and stencil machine were all quiet. [Phil] explained how efficiency experts have come through and been shocked to see the machines switched off. Normally systems such as this are run 24/7. Why doesn’t Adafruit take on contract jobs to fill up their excess SMT line bandwidth? It’s all about concentrating on core products. In [Phil’s] own words, “I have two kidneys, but I’m not about to lend one out just to be more profitable”.

Our tour finally had come around to [Limor’s] desk. [Limor “LadyAda” Fried] needs no introduction. She’s been at the forefront of the maker movement for over a decade. If you want a bio, check out the judge page over at the Hackaday Prize. We found [Limor] behind her desk working on a test fixture for some of Adafruit’s newest boards. The fixture is a mix of laser cut acrylic, 3D printed parts, a milled PCB, and pogo pins. A board to be tested is slipped in and held in place by a toggle clamp. The pogo pins connect to test points. As with many of the test fixtures at Adafruit, an Arduino Uno drives the entire system. Since Adafruit sells many of the tools they find useful, toggle clamps and pogo pins are available on the site.

[Limor] waked us through some of her tools and processes, fielding our questions on her techniques. She and [Phil] even passed around the upcoming Metro Mini board, as well as a new version of the Gemma. All too soon though it was time for us hit the road back home. Various members of the Hackaday team had trains or planes to catch. We’d like to take this opportunity to thank both [Phil] and [Limor] for their hospitality – our tour of Adafruit industries was both awesome and inspiring!

49 thoughts on “Field Trip! Hackaday Visits Adafruit Industries

  1. How the heck did you guys get that?! They never ever let people call, or visit them, even when we are willing to pay double the money for a pick up!

    Also, sure you can do more PnP jobs on the side, but holy hell have you ever tried working with a customer’s design and getting them loaded and swaitched out? a complete PITA! PnPs are amazing, but they take a ton of work to change out designs, let alone someone else’s crappy stuff. They’d have to hire more people (at a premium being where they are located) just to take on more jobs on the PnP. Good job Phil, live a life!

      1. Being realistic here ,not judgmental. In other words Adafruit gets more exposure by taking the time to give Hackaday a tour than giving giving every Joe or Jane customer willing to travel to the location a tour. Not that much different than MFJenterprises, who AFAIK doesn’t give individuals a tour of any sort tours to individuals uses to record and disseminate video tours of the business. Sorry Hackaday and Adafruit. the combination of amateurlogic and MFJ effort blows you out of the water. The down side is that the tours where recorded before amatuerlogic had better cameras Of course Ada fruit and MFJ could schedule days where they would give the general public customers tours. However both companies don’s so any less or more than other similarly sized companies. In the end the situation is some of life’s small shit not to sweat, so I have already given it more than it’s worth. Although it’s another opportunity to sneak in plug for amateurlogic. Not that I’m saying no one should never comment “it would be nice if [fill in the blank]”.

        1. I don’t see it as a competition and I am sure that that both George (W5JDX) and Limor would agree. If Adafruit doesn’t want to allow customers into their operation, that’s Limor’s choice. I don’t see a problem with this.

          Would you be upset if Icom, Kenwood or Yaesu refused to let you tour their R&D offices or assembly plant? What about Shell, if they declined to let you tour a refinery, or ConAgra, one of their mills? While it is nice that some operations grant tours, I am not aware of any law, regulation or gentleperson’s agreement that states that any and all company, firm or manufacturer should let customers/fans inside to watch the sausage be made.

          Both Limor and “Martin Freaking Jhu,” as he is sometimes known, are decent people with enthusiasm for their products and markets, but I wouldn’t necessarily compare them as equals. Different generations, different markets, etc.

          I am a customer of both AdaFruit and MFJ and I enjoy George and Tommy’s efforts, but this ridiculous plug doesn’t add anything constructive to the conversation. If anything, it violates Wheaton’s Law.

          1. It doesn’t sound like they have a choice. They don’t allow visitors because of the contract with the building owner. They’ve mentioned if before on one of the shows.

  2. There are so many things wrong with this trip. First and foremost, I wasn’t on it. That’s it, really, everything else is great. Good trip report, too.


  3. It is so awesome to see a company employing technically oriented women. Neither of my daughters wanted to be engineers, but hopefully maybe one of the grand kids and a bonus a granddaughter to boot! We need more women in engineering!

      1. If the goal is to balance out the gender disparity in engineering and science, why should the methods of achieving that be limited? Sexism isn’t something that just goes away on its own.

        1. Yes, we should convince someone who has no interest or talent in electronics or engineering to get a job in such a field by enticing them with handouts… Just because they are rare in the field. It would be awesome to work along side dead weight who has nothing to offer while giving them benefits to stick around, wasting time and resources all because “Sexism” or (insert your favorite “ism” here)…

          Engineering is chock full of those kinds of people already, and it just isn’t about sexism. I know many, many mannnnyyyyyyy young engineers who are completely devoid of any kind of intuition, talent, interest or anything that the field really requires to excel, because their dad was an engineer, or it sounded like a good paycheck, or they were decent in math in high school and the guidance counselor suggested it, etc. etc. etc. And they all have absolutely ZERO to offer bedsides occasional comic relief or blank stares when presented with the most simplistic of concepts.

          You can try strapping wings on pigs and kicking them out of airplanes all fucking day, it doesn’t mean their suddenly going to take flight…

          I take exception with this whole “well, there aren’t enough people of this gender or color in field x, so lets make it super easy for those people to get in and entice them with whatever handouts we can find and HOPEFULLY some of them will work out” – especially when it makes less room for people who already have what it takes.

          A lot of people want to be astronauts, but thankfully there is a selection process….

          1. But I should say I know A LOT of women engineers who are the exact opposite of the bad things I exampled above.

            But they have a natural talent unto themselves, as individuals, not just because they are women. They grew up curious about engineering and science and enjoyed those kinds of things from an early age, just like every good, male engineer I know. They were lucky enough to have family or teachers that took notice and fostered it. And that is fine. But as others here have said, just because their is a shortage, doesn’t mean you should start blindly hiring by gender and hoping it works out. That’s just dangerous.

        2. Why we need artificial gender disparity?
          Why it shouldn’t be limited? Because it smells like one group of people is in advantage (women in this case) and I thought that we are all equal (or at least we should be).

      2. More about insuring that “American ideology” equal opportunity than is about quota and ” super benefits” so “they should come naturally” is possible. Have a better method to try? Take it to national discussion, but returning to the former paradigm isn’t a solution, but it’ the solution many critics desire. HTH are super benefits in this context? I can’t recall anything that could be characterized as super benefits in the context of employee benefits for minorities. Sounds like something Rush Limbaugh invented.

    1. I am tired of this “we need women” in certain fields, because some people care more about statistics and “feel good” ideologies. I want people in fields, especially those fields that require, or impose, the dedication of a large portion of one’s life to succeed at being in said field. That certain fields have, proportionally, more men than women, is and should be of no consequence. Forcing fields to hire more women, over men, is a petty and potentially dangerous as “affirmative action.

      I want people to be in the fields that want to be in, and I want the best people to be in said fields(like engineering, medical, education, and others fields where having the “best performers” is exceedingly more important than having hiring quotas of people of certain societal labels). If some women wish to not be engineers, then it is exceedingly ignorant for people to push said women into engineering fields, because “we need more women”; we don’t.

      Having those with the best “talent”, and the highest performers/quality, are the most important aspects that employers should always be focused on during hiring considerations, not “do we have enough of [insert social group label]” among our employed bodies.

        1. No, I haven’t. Regardless, if you are going to make an accusation, you need to follow up with some actual details and facts. If not, then you haven’t actually raised an argument. I am not going to argue your point for you, nor will I provide substance to your lacking claims.

          If you provide some actual substance, which includes facts and such, I will read it and respond.

          1. Relevant XKCD:

            Everyone should be able to do what they want to do. The issue is the barriers faced by women STEM positions. The ‘old boys club’ mentality which still does exist in many places, the lower pay, the glass ceiling. This causes many women who are interested in tech fields to leave them. I’ve seen this personally at several companies where I’ve worked as an engineer.

            (which sources)


          2. @Adam… I’m not (dis)agreeing with the point you are trying to make. And I’m not (dis)agreeing with Montezuma…

            But what I see happening here is guilting companies into making up for the failings of *society*.

            Enough people complain that Lego doesnt make sets for girls, LEGO complies and makes girl-themed sets. Which pisses off the people that complained initially PLUS a whole new group that march under the banner of gender-equality. LEGO couldn’t have possibly won on this.

            A far simpler solution would have been if people had just bought thier kids some plastic blocks and been done with it. Especially in this day of internet sites that allow you to order the blocks you want in the colors you want. Everyone *KNOWS* imagination is far more important than kit instructions.

            You put enough minorities into their own group and pretty soon you have a new majority. Then what do you do with the old majority that is the new minority?

        1. It was a compliment for both sites. Hackaday blog and projects pages are the best. Adafruit store and tutorials are the best. A merger of the two would create some serious synergies.

    1. If you care about the wallpaper on your work computer, I’d suggest finding a more enjoyable job.

      I’ve got 3 monitors on my desk at work. All of them have the default windows logo on them. Viewing said logos occupies about 3 seconds of my time each morning before the programs I need finish loading; then I don’t see the desktop and could care less what’s on it until the end of the day, where I see it again for a few seconds as I’m logging off.

        1. I change it to black as well. Because how it contrasts with icon regardless where the icons are located. Not about pretty but function. what others do on theirs I can’t care.

  4. being a west-coaster, I’m jealous of what they have over there ;)

    if I was NY based, I would apply to work there in a heartbeat (I’m out of work and looking, but few are hiring ‘older maker types’ like me).

    too bad there isn’t anything like this out in the bay area. odd, since silicon valley WOULD be a perfect place for a company like this.

    I didn’t realize that they had so many employees, though.

    I wish them the best. its a cool company and they do good work there.

    1. EvilMadScience is in the part of the West Coast you seem to be thinking of. I don’t think they’re as big as Adafruit or Sparkfun, but definitely on the maker wavelength.

      … Somehow all that makes me wonder: given that San Jose is known as Silicon Valley, why isn’t San Fernando known as Silicone Valley?

      1. I know of EMS (seem like good guys; I’ve bought from them before) but I don’t think they are 1/100 the size of adafruit. just a WAG though; and small businesses that are a handful of people tend not to be hiring very much. thanks though.

          1. halted (HSC) is a few minutes drive from me. that’s my 2nd heaven ;) its a bay area landmark for folks who like surplus/old parts and test gear. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to work there. one benefit might be to see the ‘good stuff’ as it comes in before the public does. sometimes they get amazing T&M gear from entire lab ‘guttings’.

      2. Just too damn much effort to explain why you’re calling San Fernando silicone valley, killing the fun of doing so. That probably means it will never catch on.

    2. Adafruit has quite a few remote makers who help them design products, do write ups and even do shows. They generally hire from people who have show projects on their Wednesday night Show and Tell shows. There are at least 4 people who I know of that have been hired this way… also, Show and Tell isn’t just to show off Adafruit projects, they’ll show anything. So, if you really want a job with them… well I think you can figure it out, and good luck!

      1. interesting idea, thanks.

        and if I was near sparkfun, I’d apply to them. also looks like a blast to be there (at least from the outside).

        there really are damned few places or companies like these. countable on a single hand, maybe. lots of very small maker companies, but the ones that get to be medium size or larger are very rare.

  5. I love that Art of Electronics is *finally* out in its third edition, but $120??? Urrrgh… I thought I had left the days of the college textbook syndicate behind me, and yet here comes a book after which I greatly covet…

    Glad to see that Adafruit is stocking it though… it’s truly an investment!

  6. One way around the lease limitation on tours would be to have a browser based remote operated vehicle available during specific times. If someone wanted to tour Adafruit they could log into the Adafruit website and roam around through the browser. Off limit areas could be programmed in or areas blocked using Roomba like laser sensors.
    Could be very cool and use Adafruit products!

  7. I only met her once, at the HaD meetup here in NYC, but Limor is pretty freaking cool. I may have sort of embarrassed myself by kind of lavishing praise on her, but she is amazing and an inspiration to maker-kind, doubly so to ladies in the hacker/maker movement. Very pleased to be an Adafruit customer, even when I might have been able to acquire some purchases for cheaper elsewhere.

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