Thursday, January 29, 2009

My Visit to Parallax 2009



As I write this I'm just starting to recover from jet-lag. It is time to share my amazing trip to the headquarters of Parallax in Rocklin, CA. This 2300 mile journey taught me a lot about what happens behind the scenes in product development, as well as a good method of dealing with severe flying anxiety.

The many unexpected surprises started from about the first moment I walked through the doors, greeted by the receptionist. While she was answering phones, and paging my host, Ken Gracey, I noticed that she had an open PEkit on her desk as well as twenty or so finished kits on rack behind her. When not answering telephones she was assembling PEkits! Everyone at Parallax works hard to provide quality products, all the way down to the person answering the phone.

I was first taken to the "Purple Room", a conference room to meet with Ken Gracey. Like many shelves and desks throughout Parallax various Stamp, Propeller, and robot projects were on display on the sides of the room. There are so many variations of Boe-bot type robots throughout Parallax that I believe they out number employees 3-to-1. Creative juices really flow at Parallax. (Could it be something they serve in their kitchen?)

Ken then proceeded to give me the tour of Parallax. My first stop being the technical support department where I began to witness to the diversity of individuals that work at Parallax. The first cubical was covered with robots, electronics and reference materials. It looked like this individual has around 10 projects going on all of the time. A virtual toyland, with Parallax projects, gadgets, and proposed robots that just didn't make the grade everywhere, (and around 12 inches of desk space left to work.) I started looking for a cot, pondering that this might be a good place to spend a night. :) The second tech support cubical was extremely organized, with everything having a place, and everything in it's place. It's probably a good thing that they had hotel space for me, because I'm pretty sure the two cubicals would have matched by morning. I wonder if these two guys drive each other crazy from time to time.

The second leg of my tour took me through the Parallax machine room. Two very large mills, CNC machines occupy this room allowing Parallax to fabricate their own metal parts for their kits. When Parallax says "Made in America" they are not kidding. This investment has paid in many popular robots, wheel parts, and kits made onsite.

From the CNC room I was taken into the warehouse. Geek Heaven. Shelves and racks containing boxes of everything Parallax sells. Another surprise was just how open everything was. When I questioned Ken about security he replied with "Parallax has zero employee theft." When someone at Parallax wants to work on project or needs parts all they need to do is walk back and get what they want. The only requirement is that they list the item on an inventory paper with their name. This pays back with extremely product knowledgeable employees that are both happy with technology access, and perfect year-end inventory counts. Other technology companies could really learn from this. (Are you listening?)

The warehouse is connected to the production room where BASIC STAMPS were being built in sheets, and cut. Parallax has their own Pick-n-Place machine and the hardware to produce all of their own products on site anytime they need to produce boards. Products like the Protoboard are made at their overseas Parallax location, allowing them to provide the product inexpensively, but it was pleasing to see that any board could be assembled at whim.
Their recent investment allows them compliance with lead-free production.

On the second day of my visit, I was invited to a Product Planning meeting where several new products were discussed. I can't reveal everything I witnessed there, but I can tell you that there are exciting products on the immediate horizon in robotics, and BASIC Stamp. There are some incredible hurtles that must be leaped to bring a product from idea to market, regulations, FCC certifications, and design coordination. The teamwork at Parallax really showed as I watched them tasking each part of the challenge around the room.

You may have heard the joke, "This business would be great if it weren't for the customers" from tired businessmen. As I wandered around Parallax I saw repeated instances of the Parallax forums being open. Messages were even reviewed in the Product Planning meeting. Parallax really pays attention to both what their customers are interested in, as well as what happens in the forums. (Several forum members have commented that perhaps they should start wearing a tie. You'll be the only one. Parallax employees don't wear ties. ) Several times I saw support people asking for ideas to help solve customer questions. Parallax isn't really about their products, they are about people. The customer really is number one at Parallax.

My trip ended with a trip to Chip Gracey's house where we talked for hours about all things technical until very early in the morning when just before I left to catch my flight home I was invited to see his private office where the Propeller II is being designed. (Wait until you see the number of colors in the next graphics demo!) At the rear of his office was the nicest sound system I've ever seen. Two very large speakers, a stack of audio processors, topped off with a turntable. I tried not to smirk, (after all I was a guest) but a record player??!!! I think Chip caught my look because he immediately offered to let me listen to it. Out of respect I said, "Sure, why not?" Chip put on a 78 from around 50 years ago, and I swear I thought I was actually in the same room with the performer!! The sound was incredible. He switched to something from the Moody Blues, and I found myself ruined for CDs for life! I had always thought that audio CDs where the top of sound quality. I'll never look at vinyl the same way again. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised from someone who creates such a high quality products.

I made it back to my hotel with an hour to spare to pack up and head back to land of corn and Smuckers jelly. After my bags were taken to be loaded on the plane, I suddenly realized that I had packed my anxiety meds in my suitcase and I'd have to find a better way to deal with my issues with air flight. As we started to hit some pretty severe turbulence coming back to winter storms. It occurred to me that the ride was identical to the subways in Chicago. I love the subways and make sure to ride them every time I go to Chicago or DC. I closed my eyes and truly enjoyed the ride.

I was invited to wander around and take pictures everywhere.
You will find them at: http://picasaweb.google.com/jeffledger/ParallaxPhotos#

Jeff/OBC

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Upcoming Visit to Parallax


I feel like Charlie from the story of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. (The Gene Wilder version, not the recent poorly made remake). Thanks to the generosity of the Parallax folks, and a very sneaky spouse, I have the "golden ticket" to explore the halls of Parallax. I'll be making a complete report on this trip, and snapping plenty of pictures and video so that others can enjoy the experience through the lens of my camera. While I'm not a big fan of flight, I'm looking forward to sharing the experience in full reporter style next week.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Propeller and CP/M: A perfect match.


Question: What does a Propeller chip have in common with this old machine?
Answer: They both can run Wordstar 4. (Well sort of)

I've been playing with a board called the N8VEM, a 6"x4" mini CP/M computer with a Z80 processor, powered by 5v. The N8VEM's output device is a standard serial port, this is where the Propeller chip comes in. I've been creating VT100 terminal software for the Propeller, translating all those old Vt100 codes into a window into the past.

Pictures of the project as it progresses can be found here. The Propeller PPDB board is compliments of Parallax, (Thank you Ken!) and the N8VEM board was compliments of James Moxham (Thank you James!)

This is a truely interesting project combining my love of Retrocomputing with modern microcontroller technology. Playing with CP/M 2.2, Wordstar, and BASIC-80 feels a little like being a technology archaeologist at a dig site.