You may have seen the news that Fry’s Electronics—the well-known retailer of electronic components, boards, assemblies with more with 31 stores in nine states—is closing all of its locations after 36 years of operations in the United States (Figure 1). The reasons are the ones we’ve heard so often in the past few years: it’s a combination of the pandemic, changing retail environment and online competition, for starters.
Figure 1 Fry’s 31 stores are closing down across the United States.
I’m not here to bemoan the passing of stores, although that would be simple to do as it’s easy to be nostalgic about the “good old days”. Fry’s was one of the last shops for do-it-yourself and makers a.k.a. hobbyists crowd that sprung with stores selling surplus electronics and electromechanical components after WW II, including the legendary “radio row” in New York City. Hobbyist at all levels would poke through boxes and bins to look for parts and decide what they could find and afford, and then make it work.
Now, things are much easier: from the comfort of your keyboard, you can go to a website like Amazon or to one of the many distributors who accept smaller orders, pick out what you need, and have it in a few days. I call it a BOM project, where you do your component shopping with your bill of materials in hand while sitting at your PC. It’s easy, it’s painless, and it works. It’s along the lines of, but somewhat above, a “cookbook” project where the schematic, BOM, and any assembly notes are laid out right there in front of you.
All you have to do is fulfill the BOM and follow the directions, and you should end up with a working project. Note that there is nothing wrong with that. When you think about it, the much-heralded “Heathkits” were sophisticated cookbook projects, except you didn’t have to gather parts or build the enclosure yourself, and lots of people learned quite a lot while assembling these kits.
But do we lose some aspects of apprenticeship along the way? I think so. There’s a lot more to designing and implementing a project than formal rules and knowledge, of course. Much of design reality, especially for lower-volume or custom projects, involves balancing of various tradeoffs, compromises and goals. A designer needs to assess, for example, if a slightly larger component which is also more efficient is worth the size penalty, and what enclosure will be needed. Building a breadboard before the prototype or pilot model takes more than just a schematic diagram; it requires getting parts to fit and function properly.
Figure 2 Rows of electronic components hanging from the pegs allowed hobbyists and makers to get a real sense of available options when trying to put together a viable “mix” of project elements. Source: CBS News
Many of these issues can be addresses by careful study of datasheet and modeling—but not all of them. Sometimes, you just have to look at and handle the available components to really see what makes sense. It’s like learning to play a sport: there are the formal rules and techniques, but there’s also the experience and judgement you get from playing against a real opponent.
As retail outlets that catered to hobbyists wind up—and we have to mention Radio Shack, despite its many weaknesses—they did provide a sort of “real world” training ground for learning the skills of improvisation, assessing tradeoffs, and evaluating compromises. It’s hard to teach that skill; like the art of debugging, it is not taught as much as learned.
Perhaps it is unavoidable, as the widespread domination by ultra-tiny parts—both ICs and passives—in SMD packages with invisible underpackage bumps really proclaims that the days of hobbyists using discrete components are rapidly coming to an end. Maybe we are seeing the future now as use of standard boards like Arduino with some added I/O, all driven by user-defined apps and code, minimize the need to “roll your own” at the discrete-component level.
What’s your view on the demise of retail stores selling basic electronic components? Is their real value in today’s reality overrated? Will novice engineers fail to acquire the ability to compromise, adjust, and improvise when they can’t touch and feel the component options? Is buying parts online from a BOM list comparable in learning value or does it fall short, and have negative long-range implications?
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