In the #Badgelife: DEFCON 2019 Badges from concept to production – DCZia

Anyone interested in PCB badges must know of DEFCON and the associated #Badgelife that exists with it. Apart from being one of the world’s biggest security conferences, DEFCON is the event to showcase the year’s best, and often last minute, efforts in creating the blinkiest, quirkiest and most inventive badge designs you can think of, with the best coming installed with geeky gimmicks, games and unlockable secrets. Last year saw over 20,000 participating in the conference from computer security professionals and lawyers to casual hackers and hobbyists.

To whet your appetite for Defcon 2019, whether or not you will be in attendance, we thought we’d share some projects we’re proud to have played a part in. Groups usually keep things under tight lockdown until nearer the event, but Steven Ball from the DCZia group was nice enough to give us some deep insight into their experience ‘in the Badgelife,’ and tease us with the latest scoop on their upcoming design ahead of Defcon 2019 next month.

Over the years, #Badgelife has cultivated a loyal following of both badge makers and admirers alike. Amidst the hype in the build-up to Defcon, a great deal of secrecy is involved with carefully planned updates and campaigns leaked out to fans and would-be buyers. This is product development complete with marketing strategies, challenging deadlines and limited resources, and part of the fun is following the entire story from concept, prototyping, and then finally, batch production. And that’s where we get to come in.

We first came to know of the DCZia group and one of the group’s hardware hackers Steven Ball in 2018 through their mechanical keypad badge with all of its quote “Clickey Blinkey Awesomeness.” Not their first attempt but a culmination of their experience and ideas from previous creations, the keypad badge boasts a 4×4 grid of hunky CherryMX blue mechanical switches (only clickiest kind) topped with 3D printed glow-in-the-dark keycaps, allowing the full rainbow effects to shine through and form a 16-bit RGB display. The rainbow lighting effects are provided by non-other than the popular WS2812 LEDs, otherwise known as Neopixels.

Not enough pixels? There is also a mini LCD screen in the top center for Defcon shenanigans.

If like me, you get giddy, or your fingers start tingling at the mere mention of CherryMX, this badge will certainly float your boat and indeed proved to be a unique and popular addition to the Defcon 26 offerings. But the question is, how does one go about going from concept to manufacturing at scale? Steven shared with us their experience.

“..Our goal is to do something neat, but be educational and further the craft for others.”

Steven Ball – DCZia

Beginning as a casual badge group with the shared values of skill learning and open-source badge development, DCZia started out making badges that were shields based on Raspberry Pi and Arduino as part of Defcon24 and Defcon25 (this year is Defcon27). As one of the newer and more down to earth Defcon badge groups, DCZia’s development focused on imparting knowledge and experience with the wider community.

“We’ve been slowly advancing our design over the years. Our first badge was literally a Raspberry Pi with a battery pack and a series of neat videos.  It was quite fun to get into the scene, and our group as a whole really wanted to push harder into making the badge our own.  The next year our badge was basically a battery-powered shield for an Intel Curie based Arduino board.  We did a very small run of about 25 badges, all hand-assembled in my garage.”

DCZia’s Arduino 101 with Intel Curie shield badges.

“Our intent with the DCZia badge is to develop in the open, which means open-source hardware and software design… Nothing makes us happier than seeing others take our design and push it in a new direction.”

After completing prototype runs, the group decided to upgrade and try out the Seeed Fusion PCB Assembly service for the first time. Unfortunately, Steve and the team were running a little too close to the Defcon deadline, so, DCZia made the most of the Seeed Open Parts Library; a catalog of readily available parts from Seeed’s own inventory.

Sourcing eats up most of the time when it comes to turnkey PCB Assembly. A few boards may take a couple of hours to solder-up but waiting for components, especially if importing, can take weeks. It doesn’t matter how fast your fast-turnaround PCBs are completed, the soldering iron (or oven) stays cold until everything has arrived.

In an effort to remedy this, Seeed Fusion introduced the Open Parts Library, sharing its own stock with users of the PCBA service. By using all parts from the OPL, the production time can be slashed in half. Parts are cheaper too. At the time, the only issue for DCZia, and many others was that the selection was limited.

CherryMX keys and RGB LEDs – what could be better?

“Last year was our third design, which we moved up to a run of 50 assembled badges ordered from Seeed.  To save time and money, these were assembled at Seeed 90% complete, and then the team added on a few chips and the LEDs. We decided that while we loved the price of getting them assembled at Seeed, we really needed to move towards getting things 100% assembled for this year as it was a lot of effort to stuff the extra few chips on the board after the fact. This year our plan is to push to a run of 75 boards, and order them early enough that we can have Seeed do 100% of the surface mount assembly.”

There is only so much Seeed can maintain in stock. But with the introduction of the Shenzhen OPL last year, bringing the total number of local parts to 15,000 and growing, we’re sure that 100% SMT assembly is easily achievable.

The badge ultimately came in a partially assembled kit, with the laser-cut acrylic “Key Alignment Diffuser,” clicky clicky keys, OLED screen, headers and battery pack to be installed by the end-user.

It also came preprogrammed with a series of interactive light modes and can detect other BLE badges and Bluetooth devices in the vicinity. There is also an additional add-on for sound interaction.

Incoming partially assembled PCBs!

“Seeed was a big part of our success this year… Between prototype boards, assembled badges, and little add-on boards, I estimate I ordered almost 1000 boards from Seeed this year, and was happy with everything I received.”

Now, Defcon27 is just around the corner and many of you will be looking forward to what DCZia is cooking up this year. Building on the keyboard/add-on idea, DCZia decided to push for maximum interaction.

Defcon 26 Keypad badge versus the new Lazer Theremin Synth badge

“People really enjoyed the ‘clicky’ feel of the [keypad] badge and the bright colors. This year we’re moving to only 5 mechanical key switches, but are pushing to make the badge itself a music synthesizer with a special control scheme: two time-of-flight range finding chips are on the board, allowing the user to interact with the badge like an optical theremin to adjust tone/pitch just by waving their hands around the front of the badge.  Additionally, we’ve designed the badge to slot into a Eurorack panel we are designing so that after Defcon people can use it to make music and take it to another level yet again.”

For this design, Steve and the team were certainly not going to let-up on any of the crazy Seeed Fusion PCBA service offerings. Earlier in the year, Seeed Fusion introduced the Free Assembly PCBA offer, which allowed customers to try 5 pieces assembled absolutely for free – just pay for the PCBs and components.

“I’ve always said someday I want to own a pick and place machine, not be a pick and place machine, so free assembly is just about as good.  The prototypes helped us learn a few important things about our design – I had one footprint wrong and one chip slightly wired wrong, but everything is working as intended.”

“We’re glad to be able to use services like Seeed that have a good value for our low volume assembly.  Since we are a small group, we have to front the money to design and build the badges out of our own pockets which can be pretty scary when you are wanting to be able to make enough badges so that a bunch of them end up ‘in the wild’ as it were.“

“There’s something appealing about accessible hardware hacking that brings people into the community for sure, and the fact that we can ‘hack’ fab houses to help us produce art instead of commodity hardware has been huge.”

Evolution of DCZia badges

Find out more about DCZia and the keypad badge via their dedicated website. All the code for the badges is open-sourced and available through the DCZia GitHub repository. So be sure to grab one of the badges at Defcon 27!

Inspired by Badgelife? Stay tuned as we’ll have more stories to tell of life in the badge-making scene.

Seeed Fusion is a one-stop hardware platform for anyone from hobbyists to professional engineers to build hardware with ease. With foundations with the Maker community, Seeed are immensely proud to serve passionate, creative and innovative DIYers around the world. Whether it is for education, profit, or just for fun, Seeed shares the enthusiasm for making.

To provide support for teams such as DCZia, Seeed provides sponsorship for badge makers using the Seeed Fusion PCB Assembly service. Are you a badge maker in need of a bit of support? Find the plan that works best for you here.

And don’t forget, there are no operation fees for batch orders of 100 pieces or more. Get started with Seeed Fusion PCB Assembly.

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December 2019