Ricky Ye (DFRobot) Interview Transcript

Pete: Hey it's Pete. I'm in Shanghai China today and I'm at a very cool space called Hackerspace where geeks get together and play with various technology including a lot of robotics related stuff. And today I have the pleasure of talking to Ricky Ye, and Ricky's the founder of a company called DFRobot and he's going to tell us little bit about what they're up to in terms of making Arduino kits which is quite cool, actually.

And, so we're really happy to be here. Thanks for coming.

Ricky: Thank you

Pete: So, Ricky, first tell me a little about DFRobot and the high-level of what you guys do.

Ricky: Right, actually DFRobot started from 2007 and we were probably the first company to introduce Arduino in China. And then, we formed the official company in 2008 and started building Ardunio kits and robots. And the main target is for education and hobbyists at the very beginning and then start growing and target more industry-level focus.

Pete: Great. So just to set the stage, for all the geeks out there who might not know what Arduino is, tell us a little bit about what's cool about Arduino and what the big deal is.

Ricky: I think Arduino is the open-source hardware, as everybody knows, and it's first designed for interactive work. So, the main purpose of Arduino is to bridge the gap for software developers and the actual physical world. So, it's the link between software and actual world. So Arduino is an easy to use board which a software programmer can just a simple click a few buttons and burn the programs into the board and then you have the capability to control the actual sensors, to read data from sensors, to control the motors. And with the motors you can do a lot of things, it's just based on your imagination.

Pete: Cool. You have an Arduino board here. I think this is one of your kits. Can you just show us briefly what the hardware looks like?

Ricky: So this is the standard Arduino board, and you can see it's very simple, and it's elegant and beautiful.

And here, this is our product, we call this IO Expansion Shield. So what this does is to actually expands the capability of Arduinos. So you can see it just simply stacks on. And with this board, you actually can see there's a lot of pins out which expands the pins for the Arduino. And also you have a wireless communication socket which you can give the Arduino a wireless communication capability, such as the XB modules which is very popular in the industry. Also, this gives you IS 2,3,4 and 5 communication ports as well. With this board it's very easy to expand the capability of Arduino.

And also it's designed for some kits like this. This is a joystick module, right. So with this module you can do a lot of gaming, you know motion control sort of things. But with Arduino it's not that easy - you needed to hardwire a lot of cables to this module. But with this IO Expansion Shield all you need to do is plug on a pin and then write some code. Job done.

It's that kind of easy.

Pete: That's great. So talk to me a little bit about the software that you use to control these devices. Is that something very obscure or obtuse? Or is that - how does that work, when you want to talk to an Arduino device with software.

Ricky: Basically, we're using standard Arduino IDE. It's derived from the Processing language. Basically it's a Java kind of style of programming format. So, I think most programmers, software programmers can pick that up very easily. Maybe in an hour or two hours.

What you need to do - it's just a standard programming IDE. Write in and type codes. And what you do is just a standard compile and upload, and job done.

Pete: Ok, interesting. And now the Arduino platform is open-source. I guess I feel like I know what that means when it comes down to open-source software. But what is open-source hardware? What does that mean?

Ricky: Open-source hardware is to, they just give you all the details about the hardware such as the schematics to the design file, probably the layout file, the firmware, also the BOM which is the bill or material. So with these four files actually can easy to put this to a factory and they can manufacture products based on this file.

So for open-source hardware which means you can very easy to copy and reproduce the product.

Pete: So, one of these boards, an Arduino board, costs around what $20 or so? So if this board costs $20 and you don't want to spend $20 for every piece of product you deliver to a customer what you're saying is you're able to send the specs, send this to a factory where it can be mass-produced for much cheaper.

Ricky: Yeah. I think the most application so far is, say, using Arduino to do rapid prototyping. And for mature products design a new board, maybe based on Arduino, maybe not, for that purpose you can save a lot of cost because all the files are open so it's very easy to modify and reproduce the product.

Pete: That's great. So it's basically - for those of us who do startups and understand the whole concept of rapid iteration, Arduino allows you to do quicker cycles with hardware. Is that right?

Ricky: That's correct, yeah.

Pete: So, when it comes down to real-world products and applications is Arduino just something for geeks who like robots? Or is there some real-world applications that you've seen in the market that are interesting?

Ricky: I mean, if you know Arduino you know how Arduino is applied in various types of works such as interactive art, education, robotics, even home automation as well. But, that's the past. From last year we've had several customers actually come to us looking for code developed for an industry product. The recent finished product is called a stomach probe product, which using an industry stomach probe.

Pete: A stomach probe?

Ricky: Yeah, stomach probe. So they actually have asked a company, so a traditional company, using a PRC or a micro controller to the development, and they figure out the cost and the development time is not a good thing. And such as for a standard one is like twelve months. And for us, I mean we saved the time to one month - we finished the project in one month. And then we saved the cost to about 1/5. Which is great.

Pete: So there're arguably ways to put real products in the market based on Arduino technology that already supports certain kinds of standards, standards compliance, etc.

Ricky: Yes, that's right because Arduino itself has already passed all the tests. So the design is mature and reliable. And the second case is we recently working with a company which is trying to design Segway style transportation tools. And they designed for a ? actually, and they're using Arduino as the main controller. And they sell 5,000 in a year for that product based on Arduino. That's an amazing thing.

Pete: Well I find it fascinating as an entrepreneur and a geek myself that the Arduino platform allows me to create hardware based solutions and then send them off for manufacturing and, potentially, even as a low capital style, lean startup operation, produce a real-world useful hardware based solution. That's fascinating.

Ricky: Yeah, that's the biggest part of Arduino - that's the spirit of Arduino. Using Arduino you can produce a lot of end applications, not the half-product application. We think Arduino is, in the industry level, it's just in the middle. It gives you the capability to do rapid prototyping, to do research, but it's not used for the end product.

Pete: Right. So, do you think if I come up with a really cool application, a hardware based application, solution, that Foxconn will want my business?

Ricky: Yeah, definitely. If you have such an idea you can use Arduino to do the prototyping and then they'll manufacture.

Pete: That's great - very cool.