Thursday, July 31, 2014

Quick Hack: A Soldering Ventilation Fan

Here is a quick solution I put together earlier this week. The fumes from solder (more so the flux rather than lead) are not particularly healthy to breathe. I usually solder in a room with decent ventilation but I was meaning to set up some kind of fan. My quick solution was to take a small muffin fan from my junk box, glue it to a heavy block of marble I had (from some old trophies) and extend the wires to go to a bench power supply. Sitting this unit next to the soldering iron or PCB will keep the fumes away while I am hunched over a board during soldering. It only took about five minutes to throw together from junk parts I had lying around.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Can Heathkit Make a Comeback? Yes, and Here's 10 Reasons Why.

Despite all the reasons I listed in my last blog post on why Heathkit could not successfully reenter the kit business today, I believe they still can. Here are some reasons why, and how, they could do it.

1. Reinvent yourself. Heathkit started as an airplane manufacturer, then got into aviation electronics. Then test equipment, amateur radio, audio, and computers. The company twice lost their president in airplane crashes and had to reinvent itself. The new Heathkit could and probably should be different from the Heathkit during the heyday of the past. There are many opportunities for products different from those that Heathkit traditionally offered. They need to think outside the box and come up with new ideas for product opportunities.

2. Leverage the Internet. The Internet means there is no longer a need for brick and mortar stores. No printed catalogues or advertising. The Internet means global markets. To be successful, Heathkit needs to adapt to the times. As just one example, the large effort to write assembly manuals could be crowdsourced by allowing users to edit and improve the manuals, much like Wikipedia. Support for building kits could be handled by on-line forums. People who are active in helping others in the forums could be rewarded with some type of badges, promotional items, or discounts on kits.

3. Buy some expertise. Buy out or recruit some successful small kit companies, like Briel Computers, for example, or license their designs. Expand them in size to offer better ordering, distribution, manuals, and packaging than a one person outfit can handle.

4. Fill a size niche. I think there is a gap between the small one-person companies and the large electronics firms that Heathkit could fill and be successful while still remaining small and lean.

5. Crowdfund startup costs. Get initial funding using sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Take one good idea, maybe a new solid-state ham radio transceiver like a redesigned HW-8, that is internally a new design but has the original retro look. Fund the cost of getting it to market and get initial orders using crowdfunding. That revenue could then fund R&D for future products.

6. Steal ideas from successful competitors. The experts said you couldn't offer a kit that competed with commercial amateur radio equipment for price and features. Elecraft did it. They said the market for hobbyists is too small? AdaFruit is doing okay. Learn from the successes of competitors and adopt ideas that worked for them.

7. Partner and contract out. Sell through Amazon. Have someone else do kitting. Avoid the need for a big factory and inventory. Run the company as a virtual distributed organization with staff located world-wide.

8. Link it to education. There is a huge demand for learning materials for electronics hardware and software, as evidenced by products like the Arduino and Raspberry Pi. Leverage Heathkit's expertise in developing training materials and courses (one of the last areas where they were successful).

9. Capitalize on nostalgia. Offer some of the original kits again, even if only on the outside. Consider offering some vacuum tube designs. Make the assembly manuals look like the old ones, possibly offering a printed manual (rather than download) as an extra option when ordering a kit.

10. Build credibility and reward early adopters. Lots of people would like to see Heathkit succeed. Offer incentives to people who pre-order. Reward early purchasers and they will give you free marketing. Be open about plans for the future, and the keep promises you make. As just one example, why not make the legacy Heathkit manuals available as free downloads as a goodwill gesture and a sign that Heathkit is serious about coming back?

In summary, I believe Heathkit could re-enter the kit business if they adopt some of the ideas I've outlined here. It won't be easy, and the clock is ticking as the old Heathkit becomes a faded memory, but it can be done.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Can Heathkit Make a Comeback? No, and Here's 10 Reasons Why.

Last year Heathkit announced on their website  that they would be making a return to offering kits, placed an extensive survey on their web site, and held a Q&A session where they presented many ideas for kits that they hoped to offer in the near future. Little or nothing has been heard from them in the last few months. Here are ten reasons why I don't think Heathkit can successfully make a comeback to the electronic kit business.

1. Economics. There is a huge one time cost (often called NRE or Ron-Recurring Engineering cost) to bring a new product like a kit to market. You not only have to design a product that works, but it needs to consistently work when built by customers without sophisticated test equipment, you need to develop the assembly manuals, obtain sources for components, stock the parts, have expensive custom plastics and cabinets manufactured, and put all the right pieces in the kits without making errors. If Heathkit is going to sell a kit for, say, a digital multimeter, it will likely cost a couple of hundred dollars. Meanwhile, I can get an assembled, calibrated, and working meter at Harbor Freight for $5 or free with a coupon. In addition, unlike in the past, almost every product today relies on a software component, something that is very expensive to initially develop and needs to continue to be maintained.

2. Startup costs. Similarly, to get economics of scale to be profitable, you need to set up manufacturing, distribution, and agreements with component suppliers. I don't believe that the new owners of Heathkit have deep enough pockets. Are they going to open dozens of retail stores as in the past? When companies like Radio Shack are going bankrupt?

3. The market has changed. While there has been some resurgence, the hobbyist market (sorry, now it's called the "maker movement") is small. Ham radio users are ageing. Probably Heathkit's most popular kit of all time, the HW-101 transceiver, would not have specs that would interest modern hams other than some nostalgia buffs. No one today wants to build a stereo or TV set from a kit.

4. Changing technology. Most new electronic components are only available as surface mount technology (SMT) devices that the average user cannot solder. And forget about getting vacuum tubes in any quantity. Even if they could assemble it (or it came with SMT parts pre-assembled), the average user doesn't have the test equipment needed to test, calibrate or debug modern equipment.

5. Safety. Most kit companies shy away from anything powered by line voltage. It is too easy for the user to electrocute themselves. In the litigious North American market you can be sued if a customer hurts themselves trying to do something they were not explicitly warned not to do in the instructions, no matter how ridiculous. Many of the original Heathkits required aligning or adjusting the equipment under power. But limiting the products to battery operated or external power supplies will make it impossible to offer some of the most interesting kits. This alone could be a showstopper.

6. Too much competition. The market already saturated with established players like AdaFruit, Elecraft,, etc. Many of these are small, Internet-savvy operations with low overhead. Some are run by a single employee on a part-time, break-even basis.

7. The need to go global. In order to get a decent sized market today you have to expand beyond just North America. But this will introduce even more challenges in distribution. How about the famous Heathkit manuals - can they be economically translated into 30 languages?

9. Lack of goodwill. A number of years ago the Heathkit name carried some cachet, but it is now long past it's expiry date. Heathkit has been out of the kit business since the early 1990s, almost 25 years now. The in-house staff and expertise that Heathkit once had is now long gone (most are retired if they are even still alive). They can no longer rely on the Heathkit name to carry any weight with customers

9. Staffing. It is very difficult and expensive to find good engineering staff, especially those with the specialized knowledge to build kits. Technical writing is also expensive and a specialized task that can't be done by the engineers. It takes a long time to build up an engineering team. And will the best people want to relocate to Benton Harbor, Michigan?

10. Differing expectations. If you poll people it seems like everyone would like to see Heathkit come back, but all for different reasons. Some hams want to see the old kits come back, others want new state of the art kits. Some users want computers, robots, radio controlled equipment, and 3D printers. They all have different expectations, but any one of these markets is too small a niche for a viable business.

Given all that, in my next blog post, I will present ten reasons why Heathkit could re-enter the kit business and be successful.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Lil Squall ][ Transceiver kit

My latest kit building project is a Lil Squall ][ from This is a QRP (low power) ham radio transceiver kit that, like most of their kits, is mounted on a tuna tin.

It is based on the Pixie II transceiver design which has been around for a number of years. It is a very minimalist CW (Morse code) transceiver that uses only three transistors and one IC.

I will be making a youtube video about the kit shortly.

Some pictures are shown below.