Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Electronics Parts for Free: Harvesting and Free Samples

   The main reason I chose the TI Launchpad as my entry point into electronics and microcontrollers is that it's darn cheap. At $4.30 for the board and two chips it beats out everything else I know of in the hobbyist market, and I was able to use the code HALFMSPTOOL to get mine for $2.15 with free shipping from the TI eStore. That low cost of entry makes it a great toy to mess around with and learn something, without needing to make a real commitment by buying some expensive kit.

   Of course, a microcontroller needs other parts to do anything interesting, and you'll want more than the two MSP430 chips the Launchpad comes with as you start to build your projects. All the stuff you'll want to buy can take a real chunk out of your wallet. Electronics certainly isn't as cheap a hobby as programming is. Being a cheap (and proud of it!) person without a lot of money for my hobbies I looked into how to get as much hardware as I could for free. The first thing that came to mind was taking apart the old electronic junk I had laying around to get parts and components.

   Broken printers, old outdated cell phones, random gadgets that just don't function anymore, all are great for scavenging parts. With a soldering iron, a clip for use as a heat sink, and some cheap desoldering braid or a solder sucker you can extract components like resisters, leds, pretty much anything you find useful from old circuit boards. You can also get stuff like stepper motors from printers, solar cells from calculators, piezoelectric speakers from greeting cards(!), all kinds of things. The prevalence of SMD components in modern electronics can make this a little tricky, but if you're careful you can manage to get a lot of useful stuff for free.
Circuit boards covered with components to harvest, and some stepper motors from printers.
   There will be components you want but can't harvest, like specific parts needed for a project. For my photovore project I need a motor driver and more MSP430 chips. I was able to get free samples of both, thanks to the samples programs run by TI and ST Micro. The TI free sample program is incredible, you can get a lot of chips for your Launchpad through it. Lots of companies have free sample programs, though not all are hobbyist-friendly. Many seem to be reserved for people working at companies that want samples to evaluate for their designs. The list of companies you can try ordering from at ladyada is very useful. Some companies seem to be more likely to authorize samples if you're a student, probably in the hopes that it'll lead to more designs with their parts in the future. A note of caution, don't request too much too often or you'll find yourself getting blacklisted. Only order what you need, and don't get greedy.

   Electronics is a more expensive hobby than software, which is what I mainly play around with, but by being crafty about recycling/reusing old electronics and making use of free sample programs you can get a lot of useful parts for free or cheap. This makes building stuff that much more fun for me!


  1. Great link from Adafruit, I have also ordered samples from Zilog(z80), Microchip, TI, and 3m with out an issue.

  2. Hey Justin, thanks for commenting! I've heard good things about Microchips free samples program but haven't tried it out myself.