Reel Crime: The Pulse Sensor Counterfeit LEDs Story

When we first started having our Pulse Sensor (featured in MAKE magazine vol. 29) manufactured, we ordered them in limited batches of 500 pieces, so we could get volume pricing on parts and assembly costs, and update the hardware quickly. After a second run of 500, we decided that we understood the design and engineering enough to commit to a larger production run. We were also running out of Pulse Sensors. So, we prepared for an order of 2000 Pulse Sensors. This was big time for us.

(As a reminder, the Pulse Sensor shines light into your skin, then looks for how much light reflects back. The more blood it hits, the less light reflects back. Our Arduino program then uses this data to determine your heart rate.)

For previous runs, we ordered all of the electronic components from suppliers like Mouser or Digikey, then bundled them up and shipped them our production facility in southern China. The factory in China fabricates the Printed Circuit Boards, PCBs, and assembles (places and solders) the parts we send them onto the PCB’s. As you can imagine that process incurs a lot of shipping and duties costs, transit time, and hassle for us. You need a spreadsheet to track it all. We were ready for a better method, and our fabrication facility offered us a turnkey solution for a small added cost, where they would find, buy, and receive all of the parts. This was ideal for us. So we gave them our Bill Of Materials (BOM), they returned an acceptable quote, and we were on our way.

Everything was going fine. We sat back and had a beer. We congratulated ourselves on a fine job. Then had another beer. At this point, all we had to do is pay the factory, and check the top of production, the first small batch of parts. If the top of production samples were all good, all we had to do is wait for our finished goods. What could go wrong? We ran out of beer and switched to green tea. In a state of knowing, Zen we waited for our production samples to come in. When they came in, they looked gorgeous. All we had to do was a quick routine test, which surely would be fine, and ‘green light’ the factory to make all 2000 Pulse Sensors. Drinking our tea in cozy confidence, we plugged the production samples into Arduino, put the unit on our fingertip, and casually looked at the screen for the Processing sketch to perfectly render our heartbeat. (Cue first spit-take now.)

The sensors did not work. In fact, all of them did not work, in exactly the same way. This was actually good news, since a consistent problem is easier to find and fix. Immediately we were in Problem Solving Mode. The first two rules of problem solving are Check Everything. We made sure we had the right code, then verified the soldering job and made sure the right parts were placed correctly. We confirmed that all the parts were correct, the circuit connections were correct, and the soldering was good. They did not work, but they looked exactly the same as our last batch. Just to make sure we weren’t going insane, we tested a sample from the previous production run, and it worked great.

Then Joel noticed that the green LED was not shining in quite the right color – more of a teal instead of super-bright green. The lower intensity and difference in wavelength was sufficient enough to kill the accuracy of the Pulse Sensor, if not its functioning altogether.

Thankfully, our contact at the factory was responsive to our problem. They confirmed that they ordered our part number from a reputable company, and sent a photo of the reel of parts they received. The photo confirmed that they were indeed the LEDs we specified for production. It had the manufacturer’s label (Kingbright USA) and correct part number on them. At this point we were nervous. Were we insane? Did Kingbright change the color of their green LED? Was the reel part of a bad batch? Or maybe the new green color was within an accepted tolerance range of manufactured lots? This was not good!

We made a quick call to Kingbright, and asked them why their new green LED’s where not like their old green LED’s. (Cue second spit-take now, over the phone.) Kingbright asked for photos of the parts we used. After reviewing the photo, an engineer at KingBright responded quickly, and solved the mystery at last. That reel of LED’s in the photo from our manufacturer bore a reference number that Kingbright didn’t use, and contained 500 more pieces than they supply per reel. Even the shape and style of the plastic reel was not the same as the kind Kingbright uses. Our factory’s supplier had bought counterfeit LEDs!

Mystery solved. Our engineering prowess was exonerated, and our factory was free of any malfeasance. Mouser China, a well-known and trusted parts supplier, had sold counterfeit parts, knowingly or not. The gritty details of who punked who was beyond us. Meanwhile, we needed to ship Pulse Sensors, and ship them yesterday.

To get our working units, we could simply order 2000 LED’s in the USA and ship them to our factory. The problem was, in six days, all of China would shut down for the two week celebration of Chinese New Years Festival, and there was not enough time for the parts to even clear customs. This did not help us “ship yesterday.” We had to act fast! Luckily, we had stock-piled 1000 pieces of the correct LED’s at Joel’s place in Brooklyn. If the factory could assemble the Pulse Sensors with all the parts except for the LED, we’d could hand-solder the correct LED’s in Brooklyn ourselves. This was the quickest way to fix the problem, and we received the LED-less Pulse Sensors the day before Chinese New Year.

When we received the Pulse Sensors, we brewed a pot of green tea, and started soldering. 1 LED soldered, and 999 more to go. So much for turnkey production. It took 3 days for the two of us to solder 1000 completed Pulse Sensors. For your enjoyment, we made a time-lapse video of the process. Now we just have have 1000 more to go.

Learn about the Pulse Sensor and how to use it in MAKE Volume 29:

MAKE Volume 29

We have the technology (to quote The Six Million Dollar Man), but commercial tools for exploring, assisting, and augmenting our bodies really can approach a price tag of $6 million. Medical and assistive tech manufacturers must pay not just for R&D, but for expensive clinical trials, regulatory compliance, and liability — and doesn’t help with low pricing that these devices are typically paid for through insurance, rather than purchased directly. But many gadgets that restore people’s abilities or enable new “superpowers” are surprisingly easy to make, and for tiny fractions of the costs of off-the-shelf equivalents. MAKE Volume 29, the “DIY Superhuman” issue, explains how.



High-Tech Pinewood Derby Racetrack Resolves Race Times 0.00005 Seconds

I asked Cub Scout parent Eldon Asp to describe the cool extruded aluminum racing tracks for the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby held in Manhattan Beach, CA last week. Here’s his report:

(Photo by Bob Visty)

For generations of Cub Scouts, the Pinewood Derby has been a gateway to the joys and frustrations of making.

While the basic concept — a simple block of wood is transformed into a gravity-powered race car and sent rolling down the track to glory — has remained unchanged through the derby’s 59-year history, recent advances have made the racing faster and the judging more fair.

(Photo by Bob Visty)

Manhattan Beach, CA, the birthplace of the derby, held its annual event Feb 11th at the Automobile Driving Museum in El Segundo. Instead of the original wooden course, however, the scouts raced their cars on slick four-lane extruded aluminum tracks fitted with spring-loaded starting gates and infrared sensors at the finish line.


The track timer, manufactured by BestTrack with electronics from SmartLine, is capable of resolving race times to 0.00005 seconds. The clock starts with a switch attached to the starting gate and stops when each car breaks the IR beam at the finish line. Results are revealed instantly on two-sided LED displays, and simultaneously sent to an attached PC running a race management program that tracks standings and organizes brackets on the fly. (For the really close races, SmartLine offers a proprietary video capture device which, when combined with the user’s own camcorder, can record photo finishes.)


NEWS FROM THE FUTURE – Swiss Satellites Clean Up Earth’s Orbit

News From The Future-5

NEWS FROM THE FUTURE – Swiss Satellites Clean Up Earth’s Orbit

The proliferation of debris orbiting the Earth – primarily jettisoned rocket and satellite components – is an increasingly pressing problem for spacecraft, and it can generate huge costs. To combat this scourge, the Swiss Space Center at EPFL is announcing today the launch of CleanSpace One, a project to develop and build the first installment of a family of satellites specially designed to clean up space debris.

The Earth’s orbit is full of all kinds of floating debris; a growing crowd of abandoned satellites, spent rocket stages, bits of broken spacecraft, and fragments from collisions are rocketing around the planet at breathtaking speeds. NASA keeps close tabs on at least 16,000 of these objects that are larger than 10 cm in diameter. When an operational spacecraft such as a satellite collides with one of them, serious, costly damage can result; often the satellite is complete destroyed. And the collision itself then generates thousands more fragments, further exacerbating the problem.


Getting into DIY Synthesizers

MAKE author Tom Whitwell wrote this great piece on how to jump into the synth-building scene.

The hardest part of DIY electronics is starting out. My first step was building a few guitar pedal kits and learning by reading the Beavis Audio site. Other people start with noisemaker kits like the Atari Punk Console or circuit bending. They all lead in the same direction — down a very deep rabbit hole.

There’s a lot to buy – a kind of infrastructure you need before doing anything – soldering kit, a multimeter, and a stock of components. None of it costs much, but it’s hard and disconcerting to buy. Online megastores like Farnell or Mouser will stock 50 versions of every component. Get the part number wrong, and you accidentally order capacitors as small as grains of sand, or as large as golfballs.

Also be sure to check out Tom’s Lego Instruments article in MAKE Vol. 4.


Clamp Lamps for the Workshop

Ben Light made these simple and elegant “Clamp Lamps” for his workshop. The wooden bases attach easily to the end of a bench or table with a simple C clamp, and have gooseneck attachments upon the ends of which one can attach all manner of objects, such as a lamp or magnifying glass. These could be great accessories for your Helping Hands or Panavise, but also have a nice clean look on their own.


Falcon Sculpted From CD Fragments

It’s just one of many striking and beautiful works in this medium—shards of what appear to be CD-Rs secured to wire mesh frames with hot glue—from Chicago artist Sean E. Avery. [via adafruit]


Maker Shed Site Refresh

If you haven’t visited the Maker Shed for a while, you’re in for a surprise! We’ve been working hard to make the site look better and to improve your shopping experience. We’ve made literally hundreds of changes and tweeks; fonts, colors, new logo, MAKE site bar, Deal of the Day page, the list goes on and on. There are still a few minor issues we’re trying to sort out but we invite you to stop by and take a look. Let us know what you think in the comments!

A special thanks goes out to Melissa, Jake, Jason, and Heather for all their hard work. The Shed has never looked so good! Overview

Be sure to check out this great interview with a member of in Athens, Greece. Note that the above interview is in Greek, for a translated (but alas, unembedable) version, see the main interview page.

The Hackerspace is an open space for creativity, collaboration, research, course development and learning. But it is more than just a physical space. It is an active community of people with ideas emanating from the philosophy of Free Software. The idea stems from the Free and Open Source (Free / Open-Source Software), from open ideas, but primarily from our need to share with the world of experience we have gained through our involvement with the Free and open Source.
Just as we share our code, so we want to share and our ideas. Daily online shared data and ideas, problems and solutions, from home or our work. So why not do it up close?


Balloon Gripper with Positive Pressure Mode Can “Shoot” as Well as Grab

Last March, roboticist Eric Brown and co-workers at the University of Chicago made headlines with their new, unconventional robot gripper design: a balloon filled with coffee grounds or other grainy material and fitted with a vacuum line. At atmospheric pressure, the balloon is squishy and can be “mushed” around an object—even traditionally hard-to-grip stuff like thin flat bars and spheres—but suck the air out of the balloon, and it tightens down around the grains, “jamming” them into a rigid state and gripping the object securely. The process is fully reversible, too: open a valve to restore atmospheric pressure inside the balloon, the gripper reverts to its “mushy” state, and the object is released.

Jamming "coffee balloon" gripper in grabbing (left) and "shooting" modes.

Now the original team from Chicago, in collaboration with Cornell’s John Amend and Hod Lipson, have figured out how to go one better. Instead of just releasing the vacuum to release the object, they can apply sudden positive pressure inside the balloon to violently expel/shoot/pop/throw the object away from the gripper. The embedded video shows off the trick nicely, and is, incidentally, lots of fun. [via adafruit]



Businessweek Predicts “Culture Clash” Between Open Source and VCs

Bloomsberg Businessweek has a piece on the maker movement, its drift into the mainstream, and its attracting of venture capital interest. The usual suspects are here: MAKE, Maker Faire, Adafruit, MakerBot, DIYDrones (3D Robotics), and some are quoted. The surprising twist is that, after extolling the virtues of open source and the maker community that’s spawned it, the piece suggests that real money can’t come to open source hardware businesses (that whole giving stuff away part), and that OSH will likely be a hard sell to investors. The first suggestion runs counter to the experience of the very companies it quotes and the only example it gives of an actual VC experience is the Foundry Group’s $10 million dollar investment in MakerBot. And they quote Bre Pettis of MakerBot saying that Foundry Group gets it.

I’m not surprised that the only negative comment in the piece is by a venture firm that specializes in manufacturing. I wouldn’t expect them to be in the vanguard of open source investment. Foundry Group’s past investments include Zynga, the social network game developer. That’s the sort of direction one would suspect open source venture money to be coming from.

All that said, it’s encouraging to see the mainstream news and business media catching up with the maker movement. And it’s great that the wider business world is starting to take this space seriously.

The piece even contains a whopper of a quote from the Wharton economist Jeremy Rifkin:

“The maker movement is ‘as significant as the shift from agriculture to the early industrial era.’”

Wow. Take that, shift from industrial era to information age! (And take note of that, venture capital firms.)

The DIY ‘Maker Movement’ Meets the VCs


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