Spare Parts Express

I’ve got spare parts, and I cannot lie.

This week I’m sending out two care packages to friends and coworkers because I’ve got too many hackables on hand, and not enough time to hack them all. One is a funky keyboard, and the other is an FPGA dev board, but that’s not the point. The point is that the world is too interesting, and many of us have more projects piled up in the to-do box, with associated gear, than we’ll ever have time to complete.

Back in the before-times, we would meet up, talk about our ongoing hacks, and invariably someone would say “oh you need an X, I’ve got half a box of them” and send you one. Or maybe you’d be the one with the extra widgets on hand. I know I’ve happily been in both positions.

Either way, it’s a win for the giver, who gets to take a widget off the widget pile, for the receiver, who doesn’t have to go to the widget store, and for the environment, which has to produce fewer widgets. (My apologies to the widget manufacturers and middlemen.)

This reminded me of Lenore Edman and Windell Oskay’s Great Internet Migratory Box Of Electronics Junk back in the late aughts. Trolling through the wiki was like a trip down memory lane. This box visited my old hackerspace, and then ended up with Bunnie Huang. Good times, good people, good hacker junk! And then there’s our own Brian Benchoff’s Travelling Hacker Box and spinoffs.

These are great and fun projects, but they all end up foundering in one respect: to make sense, the value of goods taken and received has to exceed the cost of the postage, and if you’re only interested in a few things in any given box, that’s a lot of dead weight adding to the shipping cost.

So I was trying to brainstorm a better solution. Some kind of centralized pinboard, where the “have too many h-bridge drivers” folks can hook up with the “need an h-bridge” people? Or is this ad-hoc social network that we already have working out well enough?

What do you think? How can we get the goods to those who want to work on them?

33 thoughts on “Spare Parts Express

  1. I thought about this a long time ago, but concluded that it was just too time consuming to automate it. Ideally you’d want to catalog all your parts and make them available in searchable form online, then someone could do a search for the part they wanted by location and find the nearest source.

    But it ends up being a huge inventory management problem as parts get used and distributed.

    And clearly I don’t want to spend time monitoring a website of requests.

    This should be the purview of hacker spaces. I’d definitely donate excess parts to a hackerspace if I knew I could go back and get parts I needed and it was really close to me, but where I live I think there’s only 1 hackerspace, it’s a long ways away and I’m not eve sure if they are open.

    Turns out my Electronics instructor was right. Aside from chicklets like R’s and C’s, and a baseline of go-to parts like 3v3 and 5v regs, anything specific to your project order only the quantity needed to complete the project.

    On the other hand it is such a delight to actually have something in stock that you need *right now*. After Flight Sim 2020 came out you couldn’t buy a joystick, they were all sold out (still are) – I was able to hack one together with springs, magnets and analog Hall sensors I had on hand.

    1. You don’t really have to inventory EVERYTHING though. Just inventory the items you know that you happen to have far more than you will ever use and/or just the particularly interesting/unique gadgets that you don’t have time to play with yourself.

      I’m pretty sure I could come up with between 5 and 10 items to list that way in just a few minutes. If we all did that imagine what kind of resource it would be.

  2. This is what we all thought the internet would do.

    The issue is the edge cases.

    How are you going to prevent scammers? This is why Ebay takes a cut when you sell there. Craigslist style could remove SOME liability for the site but I am not sending a $40 dev board to some random person on the internet.

    Anything good you come up with will be patented by someone. Spend the cash up front to make sure or wait for the S/D letter when you just get it going good.

    Someone like SupplyFrame might be able to do this but it would probably conflict with other similar things they have going on.

    1. “Edge case” being the progenitor of “use case” as a transitive verb, I want to encourage writing “boundary condition” instead of “edge case” or “corner case” as has been the use case in science and engineering of the last 250 years.

  3. I also have a similar idea but more specific. I call it Cable Exchange. I would collect cables from different sources and build a bank. HDMI, RS-232, Ethernet, SCSI, VGA, micro USB, you name it. Anyone can donate working cables. Anyone can pick up a cable as long as they drop off another cable. There are lots of lots of cables around people’s house, but you just always seem to be missing the one you need. By pooling the cables together, people don’t have to waste money buying overpriced cables from Best Buy.

      1. True, up to the point when you install a 19″ rack mount cabinet worth of equipment in your sleepout and then run short of IEC cables. I used to have too many SATA cables until one day I needed a lot of storage, used them all up and had to go to the local electronics recycling place, who were happy to give them away.

  4. Mr. Williams has provided a good overview of common problem, but does not account for human nature.

    When a former employer shut down part of the company, there was an aprox USD $300k inventory of components in parts bins. My initial thought was to contact local community colleges and trade schools. The only interest was from two schools, but they *demanded* a complete inventory and for my employer to ship the components for free. We then attempted to sell the stuff, but by the time people responded, whatever could be legally disposed went into the dumpster, the transformers and wire went to a scrap metal dealer, and leaded parts went to a hazmat facility. I set aside ten parts bins of several thousand ICs and smuggled it to a teacher a local high school literally under cover of darkness.

    I have accumulated too much stuff, most of it paid for by previous clients: hi-performance opamps, hi-V MOSFETs and bipolars, TI/Atmel/ST micros, TI and Atmel dev boards, many SMT and through-hole passives, various sensors, many LCD displays, heat sinks, chassis material, and data books. Tried to contact two local ‘maker’ sites – no interest, so put it on Craigs list under free stuff. Many a reply *demanding* immediate pre-paid shipment, some wanted detailed inventry and complete documentation for all part numbers, and one guy wanted me to provide private instruction on electronics.

    Many people do not seem to be aware of value and good will. Many people demand service where they have paid nothing in either currency or sweat equity. And most people have not attempted to venture beyond their tribal and parochial boundaries.

    No good deed will ever go unpunished by this species.

    1. Exactly. We once tried to donate a bunch ( actually, a pickup truck full ) of old computers to some section of a local technical school that appearead on TV refurbishing computers for the poorer municipal schools.

      But the guys wanted description and specifications of all the computers, and also wanted us to issue a “receipt” ( forgot now the word for it in english ) . Come on, we were just a bunch of friends that tried pool up and clear some space in offices, garages, closets and the like, not some big business donating things to get a tax cut.

      At first we were irked and prepared to dismantle the things and get rid of them little by little through giving them to scrap recyclers, but later found some local charity ( they care for mentally deficient children and the likes of that ) that would accept whatever donation someone would like to do. The guys even offered to come pick the items, but we preferred to take it there just to know the place.

      Since some years, they are the destination of whatever we end up collecting to donations, from clothes to computers to food or furniture, from home or from the workplaces .

      So, there are people that may have some use for whatever you have in excess, it just is sometimes not easy to find them. And we need to be prepared to avoid and not be affected buy the undeserving ones ( those demanding types on Craigslist, for example )

    2. I, too, have experienced similar things when I tried to give things away… what a pain. Now, depending upon the items I donate them to the local University’s Electrical/Computer Engineering clubs and students can do with that what they want. For items that are cater to a more general audience… I offer them for sale for a reasonable low fee. Having some dollar amount seems to keep the ball breakers away and those that do arrive are prepared to pay for the items and if they are reasonable and not demanding, etc I simply give them the items. This has worked well for me… although it would not really be an option for the article’s author.

        1. This is true. But what I tend to give away are manufacturer specific dev kits which cannot be found via the usual Asian seller platforms… These dev kits were and sometimes still are very pricey… $500 to $1000 USD ones. Some I bought myself so I could get a jump on a project and others were given to me by the Manufacturer’s rep. What is odd I even offered some of these on manufacturer specific forums and had no takers.,,, so some of these, sadly, went into my city’s computer recycling bins.

        2. That is true for stuff like R’s and C’s and universal transistors, but anything slightly special like specific ICs and high spec transistors, and you’ll be risking counterfeit parts.

    3. While I would love to take surplus components that would be destined for the dumpster (or out of the dumpster).
      I draw the line at devices that have been pre-programmed (PALs/GALs/PROMs/FPGAs) devices that the giver is unwilling or unable to supply documentation. This includes “in-house” part numbers with out a cross reference. Those are as much trash to me, even more so than to the giver.

    4. Well, “demand” is an interesting word. It sounds like maybe the people you offered parts to weren’t very appreciative?

      I can understand why a university or other organization might turn down an offer of parts without an inventory of what they are getting although they certainly should be polite about doing so.

      Think of it this way. If you don’t know exactly what you are getting then somebody’s working hours are going to go towards sorting it all out. That’s money. Then, likely much of it won’t be something anyone is currently looking for to use in their classroom. So it either must be stored in the hopes that one day it will be useful (space is money) or it must be disposed of. Disposing of electronic waste, or at least doing so in an environmentally responsible way also costs money.

      So yah. Free stuff isn’t really free. From the giver’s standpoint it’s a nice gesture but from the recipient’s point of view optimistically it’s like asking someone to buy a random grab-bag. For the pessimist you are just asking them to pay the disposal fee for you.

      I wish it wasn’t true. I hate the thought of all those resources being wasted. I also hate the thought that every time I spend money on a part someone else out there in the world is probably throwing a crate full of that same part away.

      But that’s life. What can you do about it?

      Maybe somebody can build a bot that uses opencv to sort and inventory components. Just dump them in the hopper and out come a bunch of little labeled baggies and a spreadsheet. I can’t wait to see that project here on HaD.

  5. My contribution of ideas would be to make it work it would have to be something akin to bricklink. With the functionality, schematics and ordering all baked in. Then people could sell their custom kits and people could piecemeal them as well.

    1. I have a pickit 3, brand new, never really used it. It was bought by my company for a project that was shelved and I’m the last one one that knows it exists. Ping me if you’re interested, I’m more into st micros these days.

  6. What a coincidence…I was just setting up to sort through and test a few of the ~400 smal signal transistors I’ve pulled off of boards over the years. I don’t need all these bits… I just find dismantling and stripping electronic junk to be therapeutic and occasionally inspirational. Plus I sort and cart the stuff i don’t want to the city’s recycling center.

    But anyway, I too have too many parts to use up, plus some dev kits I no longer need/want. It seems to me that a great idea would be a forum where people can offer or ask for parts, with the requester providing the postage, maybe. In some cases a small charge might be appropriate. Sender and receiver complete the transaction on their own through email.

    How about it HaD? How about setting up such a forum, provided in exchange for user signups and some profile info that you can sell to advertisers, who could then send us free dev boards that we will later try to give to each other ;-) ?

    1. “How about it HaD? How about setting up such a forum,”

      Back when HaD had (see what I did there) a forum, one of the fora was a Classified Ad (IIRC).
      It wasn’t very popular.

      But maybe we (the royal “we”) could set up a “clearinghouse”. Some one sends in their excess and gets credit for a withdrawal. Or Just send in the info of the inventory they need to get rid of, and the clearinghouse lists it. If and when there is a “pull request” from someone, the 2 parties are notified, and they can hammer out the shipping.

  7. I’m moving soon and I’m just going to toss my most of my bits and bobs. I haven’t used a dedicated DIP IC in over 5 years on a project, I either use a uController or a quick turn surface mount board. I hardly use any of the wires and connectors because you can get nice precrimped ones from DigiKey now. The electromechanical devices are all some level of suspect and ordering new isn’t expensive any more. I’ve got whole 12″x18″ drawer bin things full of crap like sorted resistors, sorted screws, and other stuff I haven’t opened in a year. I’ve got a stack of smaller containers with sorted resistors in bags and screws in compartments instead that take up much less room and are easier to keep on hand. Sad, but the world and I have changed in the last 25 years of hacking.

    1. precrimped‽‽

      When I used to use precrimped wires it seems like I just about always needed a wire just a little longer than the ones I had on hand or I only needed really short ones so my projects were a mess with extra wire curled up all over the place. And don’t even get me started on cutting then splicing multiple precrimped wires together in order to daisy chain more than 2 pins.

      It took a couple tries (because I was cheap) to find a truly good set of crimpers but now I am so much happier just keeping big spools of various colors of wire and a bunch of new crimp-on connectors around the shop.

      Now I just need a good way to build up multi-conductor DuPont connectors from single-conductor ones. I have a collection of connector shells that take varying number of pins but every project seems to need one that I don’t have yet. I’m picturing something like how Power Poles clip together but that’s probably not practical in such a small space.

  8. Wish we had surplus parts place here. Been wanting to learn fpga’s, hobby is using sdr radio’s. Lot of the Development boards are out of my range. Went from being a senior repair tech of 22 years to being in disability. Big change in income.

  9. I thought about this at length in the past. Inventory tracking is a problem indeed. I had two ideas that may be useful:
    1) maybe an automated system could be created where you create an email forward for order confirmations which are then parsed. This only works for a limited list of common shops but this could cover a majority. Another issue is that not everything ordered remains unused (fortunately)
    2) a kind of social network for parts could be demand based instead of supply based. I.e. people who might have something to spare (matched by ai?) receive a request. To prevent too much spam I was thinking that it could slowly spread out geographically. To contact people close by first makes sense because it’s easier to arrange a hand over. Further propagation can be cancelled as soon as the request is fulfilled. Of course, user privacy needs to be protected. E.g by only using that approximate locations.

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