Limor Fried is the founder and owner of Adafruit Industries, a manufacturer of educational electronics and the leading source of educational materials for young makers. She’s also one of the honorees of The Manufacturing Institute’s 2019 STEP Ahead Awards, which recognize accomplished women in manufacturing.
Here is a brief interview with Fried for the NAM’s morning newsletter, Input.
Input: How did you come to create Adafruit?
Fried: I’ve always liked to make stuff and work with my hands. I studied engineering at MIT, and as I learned about electronics in class, I’d build projects in my spare time. I made a little MP3 player, a cell phone jammer, even a gaming device like a Game Boy. Then I published these projects online. People around the world would see my blog posts, and they’d email me saying, “Wow, these projects are so cool, I want to make my own MP3 player. Can you sell me a kit of the parts needed?”
Right after I graduated, I started making kits for people. I’d order all the parts and assemble them into a kit pack on my own. That was 13 years ago. Today, we have a facility here in Manhattan, with a pick-and-place line that does all the assembly. I don’t have to cut out parts and put them in bags anymore.
For me, creating a manufacturing company tapped into that same joy of creating that I felt when I was five. I’m just doing things on a bigger scale now.
Input: How has the market for hobbyist and educational materials changed over the past 13 years?
Fried: When I was a kid, doing electronics or assembly with kits was really hard. I wasn’t very successful in building stuff because the kits were difficult to use and the documentation wasn’t very good. Now, thanks to MakeCode from Microsoft and Scratch and CircuitPython and the Circuit Playground Express, it’s so much easier to build stuff. You don’t have to have a computer science background or even a computer at home. You can even program from a mobile phone.
At Adafruit we have almost 2,000 projects and guides available on learn.adafruit.com, which is our public learning system. We provide everything from beginner projects to complicated designs that require 3D printing, soldering, electronics, coding and more.
Input: Do the kids who use your products keep in touch as they grow up?
Fried: Absolutely. We’ve had kids appear on our show-and-tell program, which we host every Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. It’s been going on for 10 years, so the eight- or nine-year-olds who appeared in the beginning will email us years later to say, “I really loved building these projects as a kid and so I became an engineer.”
The early exposure matters a lot. You get kids into manufacturing at a young age, and they realize that you need the same skills when you’re older, too. As an engineer, you’re just working with bigger schematics and more CAD drawings.
Input: Do any examples of kids’ projects come to mind?
Fried: Not too long ago we had a Girl Scout troop come on the show with their robot. Each one of the girls showed off a different part of the robot from the chassis to the drive train to the central system. They all worked together on this robot, which taught them another essential skill—collaboration. Those girls will be well prepared to go into engineering someday.
Input: On the same subject, when it comes to inspiring more young people to go into manufacturing, is there anything else we should be doing?
Fried: Manufacturers and engineers can make a tremendous difference by mentoring children in their local school or community. The school probably has a robotics, 3D printing or metalworking club that would love to have an experienced adult come in and share his or her knowledge. You can also go to local events, like Maker Faires or state fairs, to show off some of the cool stuff that your company has built. There are many ways to get involved.
Input: How do you respond to young people who say, “I’d like to start my own business just like you did”?
Fried: The best advice I have is to start with a small run. Build something and then share it with people and get their feedback. It’s okay to build the first few products by hand. If your design is popular, then you can look into adding automation. Trying to optimize your automation early on can make things difficult because you end up optimizing the wrong thing. I made my first few kits by hand, as I said. It took longer, but I learned a lot about what to look for in the equipment I purchased later.
Input: What’s on the horizon for you in future? Where would you like Adafruit to go?
Fried: Adafruit is focused on making it easier than ever for anyone to build stuff with electronics. Python is the most popular programming language in the world, used in almost everything—and in almost every sector of manufacturing. We need to introduce kids to a version called CircuitPython, so they can use all the technology that’s out there and be prepared for jobs that require programming.
We’re also excited about assistive technology, which helps people with disabilities use the technology all around us. A lot of people need custom designs to suit their individual needs. We sell off-the-shelf components and electronics that can be used to build those solutions. That way, people who aren’t necessarily engineers by training can get plug-and-play parts, then customize and code everything they need. It’s a form of a small-scale manufacturing.