Bridging the gap between prototype and production.
It’s not often I get to give “turtleneck” sorts of talks so buckle up. For too many months to count, we’ve been working quietly to iron out the details. Today, it’s with great excitement that I tell you about SparkFun À La Carte, or ALC, the world’s first board building service without the need for an EE degree.
I like soldering just as much as the next nerd but there are times when it can be really painful to build multiples of a device. That’s where ALC comes in…
ALC is a manufacturing service for professionals who understand the value of their time. How many times have you:
- Cut and stripped wires, point-to-point soldered breakout boards, anchored everything to the proverbial breadboard, and after four hours sat back to realize you only had five more devices to build?
- Found yourself with a great idea, but unsure of how to bring it to life?
- Had an amazing prototype but needed to create a demo ready proof-of-concept?
If you can build your idea with SparkFun breakout boards, you can have a fully assembled, custom board delivered to your door in a few weeks. ALC is the point-and-click tool to get a bunch of technologies onto a single board, fully assembled, right here in Colorado. No more late night soldering sessions before the big day; leverage our designs, our circuit know-how, and our machines to have a professional device made just for you.
À La Carte is based on blocks. An ALC block contains the module to be added to the board along with information about nets, classes, connection restrictions, and other electrical design needs and constraints. By including all of this information, ALC is able to remove the need for users to have intimate knowledge of a technology that usually only comes with lots of trial and error. SparkFun has been doing this for nearly 20 years; we know firsthand what it’s like to mess up a PCB or fight jumpers on a small IC. Let us remove that frustration so that you can get back to your larger project.
To create a board with ALC, simply select the various blocks you need on your design and the system figures out the rest as you go, ensuring an electrically sound board.
- Select your controller. Today, we offer five controllers: Artemis, SAMD51, ATmega328, ATtiny84 and ESP32
- Select your components. We have 85 sensors, actuators, radios, switches and LEDs available today, and piles of new blocks planned to release soon. ALC will ensure all blocks chosen are compatible with your current design as you go.
- Add connectors. The classic PTH header, a latching terminal or any number of terminals can be added to make your design really flexible.
- Pick how you’re going to power your board. Wall, solar, battery, even car power are all available. This tells the system how many components you can add to your board before you may run into power constraints.
- Check out.
It’s as simple as that, and feels more like shopping for parts than designing a board.
Sample boards assembled with ALC
The not-so-hidden fees
Design fee – There’s a $949 design fee on all new orders. For businesses, this is much lower than you’ll find with comparable do-it-yourself board designers, definitely less expensive than hiring a contractor or employee to design the board for you, and clearly more efficient than trying to do it on your own. We’ve been using it to run new product ideas and it’s amazing how much it saves us in schematic and hardware mistakes.
If you find yourself wondering why it costs so much for something that seems so simple (it’s just blocks, after all!) then we’ve done our job! The best designed interfaces are the ones you don’t notice. We’ve spent a tremendous amount of time boiling down a very complex process into the best user experience possible.
Design files – All ALC orders include a downloadable version of the Gerber files and PDF of the schematic. If you need the Eagle source files (BRD and SCH) to edit the design, they can be purchased separately for $150; these files are routed and ready for manufacture.
That’s it. Those are the only two fees not included in the per board price.
Point-and-click board design
The number one question we’ve received about ALC is: “Why can’t I move the blocks around?” While we could absolutely design a tool that allows you to poke and prod down to the mil, there are already piles of tools that do that: Upverter, KiCad, EAGLE, Altium, Orcad, Pads, it goes on. For now, we want to focus the interface on being as simple to use as possible. When a block is placed on the board, ALC takes into account the needs of that block, as well as all the other blocks on the board, to determine its optimal placement. This optimization is what allows ALC to take care of all the traces and other electrical needs for you.
SparkFun is not another contract manufacturer – we’re one of the only companies in the world that has the latest sensors, hard-to-find ICs, the know-how to integrate them, and the tools to solder it all together. It’s what we do, every day! Now we want to enable you to enjoy the benefits of all that knowledge. So the next time you think, “How am I going find someone to design that board?” – think À La Carte instead.
Give me all the details!
We’re excited and it’s been a lot of fun watching what people create. But this is just the beginning! Please kick the tires today but check back in over the coming months. We’ve got a lot more to share.
Interested in trying SparkFun À La Carte?
To encourage you to give ALC a try, we’re offering 50% off the design fee on all new orders through 11:59 p.m. on 12/31/2020 with promocode: ALCSPARKFUN50
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