Parallax has the hardware origin story that many dream of. Chip Gracey was selling self developed hardware at 15, bailed on college, and started his company first building expansion cards for the Apple IIGS. Parallax hit the map with their BASIC Stamp microcontroller, which was one of the early and most prevalent microcontrollers on the market, really before “maker” electronics were even a thing.
The Gracey brothers recently joined the MacroFab podcast recounting these early days, and talked a lot about the intricacies and challenges of manufacturing, especially with regards to integrated circuit development. It’s been 32 years since Parallax was founded, and they are on the cusp of launching their latest self developed chip as a part of their Propeller 2 board (coming later this year).
The Propeller 2 cost hundreds of thousands of dollars up front, and their last design change cost $82,000! The host, Parker Dillman, commented with a hyperbolic but enlightening bit of wisdom from his earlier hardware days:
You want 1 custom chip? It’s a $100,000 dollars. You want 100,000 custom chips? It’s $100,00 dollars.
The upfront cost is huge. There needs to be a ton of research and modeling done before production even begins. Designers of the latest cutting edge chips are looking at hundreds of millions in costs to just get their first manufacturing run going. This really narrows the field on who can design new chips. With the Propeller 2, Parallax is turning away from this, sticking to their roots of accessibility and less arcane functionality.
Listen to the whole show here, there is a lot to take away and with the Propeller 2 nearly at launch, there is a lot to look forward to.