Introduction to Jan's blog

Posted by Jan on 12 November 2010

About me

Pololu Valley, December 2000.

My name is Jan Malášek, which is a Czech name, so the “J” is pronounced as an English “Y” (if you care, we can go over the last name in person, or you can consult your local Czech person). I grew up on the Big Island of Hawaii, spent five years in school in Massachusetts, and then moved to Las Vegas, Nevada to work on Pololu. I recently turned 30, and I’m still not the millionaire I had hoped to become at age 23 and then by age 25. Hitting 30 means it has been twenty years since I got started with electronics and ten years since I routed the first circuit board that said “Pololu” on it.

I have been trying to teach electronics to my friends and others around me since I was in high school, and I have wanted to write a book about building robots since before I started Pololu. However, making the time for that is getting more and more difficult; my hope is that I can make at least some progress toward that goal by writing a series of articles about common problems encountered by those getting started in robotics.

About this blog

I’m not even comfortable calling this a blog, partly because having one seems trite at this point. Some folks at Pololu have been pushing for a company blog for years, but I wasn’t too excited about something that would amount to a bunch of press releases. However, one major aspect of blogs that I like is the interactivity provided by comments. Thinking of this project as a blog helps make explicit that part of the purpose is to be more personal, to allow some commentary, and to provoke some interaction with customers, employees, and others that are involved with Pololu. I thought for a while about whether this should be a “Pololu blog” with either a mix of authors or no explicit author, but I want this to be more personal than the rest of the content on our web site, so I have committed to making this the blog by me, president of Pololu.

I have several kinds of readers in mind:

  • Those getting started in robotics – I was fortunate to have many wonderful teachers and mentors as I was growing up. I realize many students don’t have the kinds of opportunities I had, and I hope to reach budding roboticists who don’t have access to engineers to help them with their projects. Those wanting to learn about building robots are not just children and teenagers; for adults not already in a related field or in an academic environment, finding help and good advice can be a challenge. I regularly have to turn away reasonable questions because they are beyond the scope of the help I can offer on the phone or by email. If I can write some decent articles, I can point to them instead of giving the less satisfying reply of, “There must be a web page about that somewhere; go look it up.”
  • Customers – Having done most of Pololu’s technical support for the past decade, I have seen many of the same questions again and again, which gives me a good idea of common problems that trip people up. My addressing each customer individually isn’t sustainable as Pololu continues to grow, and I’m also getting sick of answering the same questions again and again. I hope this blog helps me address those questions more efficiently while maintaining some personal connection with our customers. And, if they see some of the reasoning that goes into our designs, they might not bitch quite as bitterly about us when they connect power backwards and blow out the new electronics they just bought.

  • Employees and Potential Employees – I want to pass on the ten years of experience I mentioned earlier to my employees, whether they’re now answering the tech support calls or whether they’re designing our newest products. The interdisciplinary nature of robotics makes it common to be a beginner in some areas even with good experience in others. I expect to have others at Pololu proofread my posts before I make them public, and since I intend to include some content that is not purely technical, I hope that the editing sessions will give us opportunities to explicitly think about the values and principles that should shape our growing organization. It would be great if this blog gets outside readers excited about what we’re building and helps them consider joining us.
  • Teachers – Most engineers go through quite a bit of schooling, which I suspect contributes to strong opinions about how engineering should be taught. It’s certainly true for me. Although I have no formal training in education, I have been involved in various projects aimed at introducing middle school and high school students to electronics, programming, and engineering, and I have been involved in organizing some robot contests, so I might someday share some thoughts on ways to get students excited about robotics. I hope this blog becomes a resource for teachers trying to help their ambitious students who want to go beyond standard curriculums, and I welcome any suggestions for potential blog topics about common stumbling blocks.
  • Engineers and advanced hobbyists – Although I expect most of the articles here to be targeted toward beginner-level issues, I intend for them to be rigorous enough to be of interest to non-beginners or for professional engineers with only a casual interest in the kinds of work we do at Pololu. Since I list other entrepreneurs as potential readers, this “engineer” category of reader might also cover the opposite: the engineer who considered working at a small start-up but instead opted for the probably safer career route of working at a large company. I suspect I might want to comment on some trends such as open source hardware, which could be more relevant to my peers than to beginners.
  • Other entrepreneurs – I enjoy learning about the experiences of others starting or running their own companies, whether it has to do with my industry or not. I’m not sure how much useful experience I have to share, but I think I might have enough for the occasional post. I suspect Pololu is relatively unique, at least compared to a restaurant or dry cleaner, but I’m not sure if that makes us interesting or irrelevant. I should at least have some relevant material for those engineers and advanced hobbyists that are trying to turn their fun project into a product they can sell.

Jan pretending to engage his brain.

  • Myself – There are many designs and programs I made a while ago that make me wonder, “what the hell was I thinking?”. Perhaps some of these posts will help me answer such questions in the future.

So, there are a lot of lofty aspirations and uses of the word “hope” here. I’m not sure of the extent to which I’ll be able to satisfy my goals while keeping things personal and interesting without offending or alienating too many customers, but let’s see how it goes.

15 comments

There is about to be an explosion of interest in the world of hobby robotics. It's called the Boy Scout Robotics Merit Badge and it launches in April. What is Pololu doing to get ready for it?
John,

I had not heard about the robotics merit badge, and we have not done anything to get ready specifically for it. I looked around a bit and didn't find any details about it; can you provide some specifics of what's involved or links for more information? What would you like to see us do in anticipation of this launch?

- Jan
Aha! I thought the name "Pololu" sounded Hawaiian. Mystery solved.
I am also of Czech heritage. It's great to see you using the proper pronunciation and spelling. I'm just starting out but have purchased several of your products all with good results. I love the supporting articles you provide. I believe in supporting science and engineering with young people and robotics is definitely an interesting way to do it. Maybe one day some of your products will end up helping to explore another planet or the bottom of the sea. Keep up the great job.

A.J.R
Thanks! Does standing in a few inches of water at the beach count as touching the bottom of the ocean? If so, our products might have already been to the bottom of the sea...

- Jan
Ahoy Jan!

I too am Czech!

Very nice articles in your blog (even the one where you oppose comments ;) )

I would like to see you write about a plan for a novice to intermediate robot builder in order to get more masterful. I started with the BASIC Stamp and later went on to the Arduino, not before making side ventures into PIC programming that failed miserably.

That is why it would be nice to have a recommended path if you will. Complete with suggested reading, and platforms.

Another blog post would be on how to interface a netbook or small full blown computer into a Rover type robot.

Keep up the great blog.

Miguel Reznicek
In that case, ahoj should be with a J, right?

Thanks for the feedback and suggestions. I already have a long list of topics, and I don't think either of those were on there; I'll definitely add them. I also started with the BASIC Stamp and then PICs (after a few years of just electronics without any programming). It's difficult to come up with a "recommended path" when it's kind of a lot of parallel paths, and people who approach robotics can have very widely varying skills.

- Jan
Hi Jan,

I, too, am a PCB designer, though not also an electrical engineer. I am working for a double-E who has adapted one of your motor drivers to a field outside the remote control field. We want to mount the qik 2s12v10 directly as a piggyback onto a motherboard, using the headers as board stackers.

Since you provide no data on the locations of these headers, we have to measure and guess, and already some motherboards have been built which don't quite fit the qik 2s12v10.

We realize we don't represent your typical market, but here is a suggestion: Along with the other technical data for each module, post the Gerber files for your modules, at least the silkscreen and top soldermask layers (if you don't want to give away the full artwork). Doing so will automatically smooth the way to new markets for your products based on the ingenuity of engineers you've never met without requiring any marketing efforts on your part, or any drawings modifed by draftsmen, but only some time spent by your documentation department to gather some files together and give to your webmaster to get the files in place available for download.

Meanwhile, please send me the silkscreen and soldermask Gerber files for the qik 2s12v10.
John,

I know we need to work on the documentation for the mechanical aspects of our products, but thanks for the reminder. In general, if there is some information that you need and that isn't on the web site, you can email or call us about it. I'll ask someone to send you a drill drawing for your qik 2s12v10. By the way, the qiks are purely serial motor controllers, so they are not intended for radio control applications.

- Jan
Just stumbled across your website. I am an old geezer, 65 yrs. old, who likes to experiment/play with electomechanical and electronic things. You certainly present a lot of easy to understand information for people like me, i.e., a beginner. I just purchased a Parallax Basic Stamp to teach myself about microprocessors and eventually want to build a rc contolled wheel barrel or wagon to use in the yard.
Thanks and regards. By the way, my wife and I visited Prauge and Brno a couple years ago, nice places.
Ron
Jan, please feel free to delete this post. I simply wanted to bring your attention as quickly as I could to a potential issue within your company.
I requested a laser cutting quote for some small 4" x 24" basswood sheets 1/16th of an inch thick. Easy stuff.
I created a file to cut small circles with a square hole, as many as would fit on the wood. The minimum order for the wood from the supplier is $25, which is 20 sheets of wood. Might as well get them all cut, right?
Your website says the average cost of laser cutting comes to about $2.50 a minute. From the quote I received from your laser cutting department, it calculates out to almost four hours (!!!) of cutting time on your laser. Really? Really? I could cut them out with my leather punch in less time than that.
It would seem that someone saw the finished pieces adding up to 2,000, and decided to make a little money off me. That is a guess, but compared to other quotes I am getting, your price seems incredibly far off. Even greedy.
Thought you'd want to know.....
Dan Hoffman
Dan,

Thanks for the feedback. It looks like you are aware that this is not the most appropriate avenue for this discussion, so you might want to think about what prompted you to post here before trying to contact us some more conventional way. You do bring up two subjects that I think are worth discussing publicly.

First and most directly addressing your comment, you got quoted a little over $500 for over 2500 identical little parts. A laser cutter is not necessarily going to be the most cost-effective way to do that kind of job, and if you have a better way of doing it, great: do it that better way. It's a similar situation with the competing quote: I don't think we promise being the lowest-cost option, but you might not be getting an apples-to-apples comparison since there are other factors like turn time, quality, support, etc. I'm not saying the cheaper options are necessarily going to turn out worse: I might have done your job for half or less back when I was running a laser out of my house. Still, a lot of your ire seems to be stemming from your disbelief about it taking four hours, and that does not sound that off to me.

Second and more troubling is your resorting to complaining about greed, which seems all too popular lately. There's some rate at which things are worth it for us to do, and if that rate does not make sense for your application, don't go for it. There are probably things that you would not do for $100 but that you would do for $1,000; does that make you greedy (in some bad way)? You say, "Might as well get them all cut, right?"; isn't that the same greediness? It's fine for you to come back to us with your other quotes to make sure there wasn't some miscommunication about your requirements or to try to negotiate a better price, but it's not appropriate or helpful to stoop to that kind of name-calling. Also, you should want to work and interact with competent people, for whom "greedy" probably isn't a particularly meaningful word.

- Jan
Jan,

I have been pretty impressed with the Pololu site and the staff responses to my questions.

So far, I have built two robots from Pololu, one based upon the round robot chassis and the other based upon the Zumo chassis.

My next exploration is going to be into bipeds and I have purchased a Brat from Robotshop (Lynxmotion), but because of their documentation I have decided to purchase a Pololu sequencer.

I have a feeling that Lynxmotion is withering on the vine due to the purchase by RobotShop Inc. Has Pololu any plans to offer more parts and kits for servo based robots like bipeds, quadrapods, and hexapods?
Hi, Raymond.

I am happy to hear you have had good experiences with us. Lynxmotion has sentimental value for me since I played with some of their earliest arms and hexapods almost 20 years ago, but I have not really kept up with their more recent offerings. Is there something you see RobotShop actively doing to hurt Lynxmotion? My impression was that Lynxmotion was mostly the effort of its founder and that he retired; if that's the case, RobotShop would be saving it from disappearing completely rather than causing a problem. But I have no inside information and have not even paid attention to public information about it, so for all I know, all the original Lynxmotion folks could still be active in the company and butting heads with their new parent company.

I would like to offer more of the servo-based parts and kits you are asking about, but there is nothing specific in the works, so it's unlikely that we would have anything new for at least the next few months. We might start with something basic like small grippers; for bigger, more complicated systems, it's not clear to me that general-purpose RC servos are the way to go. Something like the Robotis/Bioloid products, with specialized (and proprietary) servos offer a lot more for robotics. How do you think these newer systems compare to the Lynxmotion type of products?

- Jan
Hi Jan,

I don't think RobotShop is trying to hurt Lynxmotion, but I do think that there is a cultural difference. Lynxmotion is a lot like Pololu in that there is a lot of support and educational information associated with each product.
RobotShop is not like that. As an illustration, compare the two web pages:

http://www.pololu.com/product/961

http://www.robotshop.com/en/pololu-qtr-1a-ir-reflectance-sensor.html

As more of the Lynxmotion product line is moved to the RobotShop website, I feel that a lot of the support and educational information will be either harder to find or lost entirely.

As far as Robotis and similar products, there are two forces as work.

First, it is harder to tinker and make custom designs. Your site specifically has products that you know we customers cannot build because the parts are "as small as a grain of rice".
Second, the only way to get better robots is further integration but too much of that will yield a product where creativity is limited..

I would like to think that those systems that are accessible to third party suppliers will be the ones that have the most success.
For Lego Mindstorm this came in the form of Hitechnic, Mindsensors, Robotc, and others.
Without the third party suppliers, the product will be limited to whatever the original design team offered.

Ray

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