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The Riddle of Kit Building – why do they do it?

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The Riddle of Kit Building

The Heath Company

There is a popular book that you will see at Hamfests – Heathkit-A Guide to the Amateur Radio Products.  You can also find this book on http://amazon.com.

The Guide is a very good reference on all the Heath/Zenith products.  In fact, it’s a wealth of information on the history of the company, the products along with beautiful photographs, and a chronological history of the company from creation to decline and extinction.  The book is highly recommended if you are interested in the history of the Heath/Zenith company or details about their products.

Benevolent friend to Amateurs?

Without knowing the history of the Heath Company one might get the idea that the company had some sort of maternal instinct to Amateur Radio insofar as they created quite a popular and successful line of amateur radio products and test equipment.  One might think that the founders of the company had some benevolence for Amateur Radio and then built a company around this core concept and mission.

A good trivia question would be: “What is the first kit that the Heath Company produced?”  This answer is: a kit airplane – a kit airplane in which the founder of the company was killed.  That has nothing to do with Amateur Radio.

In the early history of Heath, the company was a generic profit making business in the sense that they had no core mission to develop amateur radio products.

Box-car loads of government surplus electronics

After World War II the Heath Company found that they could buy box-car loads of surplus electronic parts from the US Government at rock bottom prices.  So, what do you do with box-cars loads of electronic parts?

The biggest cost of manufacturing electronics products is labor.  The Heath Company had box–car collections of electronics parts.  How do you take box-car loads of surplus electronics parts and turn them into finished goods inventory – at low cost – to sell to consumers?

The business genius at Heath

The Heath Company may have been way ahead of their time – they were business geniuses.   They found a way to turn surplus electronic parts into finished goods at near zero cost and sell the product at the same time.

How is that accomplished?  Outsourcing.  Outsourcing to whom?  Outsource to the Amateur Radio community and to electronics hobbyists.  Genius!

It really is business genius.  Engineers at the Heath Company scoured electronics hobby magazines including QST and snatched schematic diagrams and reverse engineered existing products.  From these diagrams and reverse engineering  they built prototypes.  From the prototypes they made decisions on what would become viable Heath products.  Those destined to become products were turned into a bag of parts including fabricated parts for the cabinets and other mechanicals.  If there was a question about intellectual property of the schematics that they lifted or reverse engineering of existing products then the engineers made a few changes to the point of plausible deniability.

The key to success – the Heatkit manual

The real key to the success of the Heath Kit was the manual.  The construction manual was written so that anyone could build the product.  Or in our language, the manual was written so that anyone – and we mean anyone – could perform the outsourced manufacturing job.  And the outsourced manufacturing individual – the souce of “free” labor – was the electronics hobbyist and/or the Amateur Radio operator who built the kit.

If you inspect these Heathkit manuals in the construction section there is no attempt to explain how any part of the radio actually works from an electronics or radio design perspective.  It is pure outsourced manufacturing manual for which no electronics knowledge is needed – zero – other than soldering skill and common sense.

Ramey and TenTec Kits

The Heath Kit building manuals – or the outsourced manufacturing manual – differentiates itself from manuals supplied with kits from Ramsey and TenTec insofar as the Ramsey and TenTec kits try to teach you about electronics as part of the building process.

Pedagogy

In a sense, Ramsey and TenTec have a dual purpose in having you build the kit.  On the one hand they show you how to build the kit – manufacturing.  But the value-add of Ramsey and TecTec is that electronics education (pedagogy) go along for the ride.  In fact, Ramsey and TenTec invert the purpose of the kit.

One could say that the purpose of Kit building for Heath was to get rid of box-car loads of electronics parts they bought as surplus from the government.  The purpose of Ramsey and TenTec is to teach you something about electronics and you get a usable electronic gadget at the end.

So, is the beloved Heath/Zenith Company taking Amateurs for a ride?  That is, what is the true business model of these companies?  Is it to make money – no matter how that is accomplished?  Or to serve some sort of community as its prime mission and make money as a by-product of that worthy endeavor?

The trouble shooting differentiator

To be fair, that the end of the Heath Kit build manuals is a section that provides a circuit description and explanation.  But again, this is completely separable from the construction (manufacturing) process.

In fact, this separation of “outsourced manufacturing” performed by the Amateur and the circuit description (pedagogy) in the Heath manual undermine troubleshooting.  Both Ramsey and TenTec kits which integrate construction and teaching have a modular build process where one builds and tests modular (functional blocks) of the device as one goes.  This process of modular build and test facilitates troubleshooting.

At the end of the build process with Heath you are left with a fully assembled radio having not tested a single functional block.  Troubleshooting this can be a challenge.  At the opposite end is Ramsey and TenTec which warn you not to proceed in the build process unless you have fully tested and trouble shot the current functional block and a string of integrated functional blocks leading up to the current block.

In this latter scenario – troubleshooting is much less a challenge with Ramsey and TenTec and not at all frustrating as it would be the in case of the Heath Kit where one has a fully built radio that does not work.

The Elecraft Company

The Elecraft Company may be the next generation of Kits for Amateur Radios.  One could ask – is Elecraft built on the Heath model or the Ramsey/TecTec model?  Why does Elecraft offer a Kit?

Is Elecraft a parts company looking to outsource manufacturing labor to the Amateur or are they are in the business of pedagogy?  Where is Elecraft on this continuum?

The Riddle

What we know for sure is that manufacturing is tedious work – in the Heath, TenTec, Ramsey, and Elecraft sense – if one does not benefit from the manufacturing labor in some way.  If there is no benefit from the labor – one is not being paid – in fact one is paying for the privilege of manufacturing  – then why do it?

We wonder if those Amateurs who built Heath kits in the past or those who build projects from QST or Elecraft K2’s without understanding “how it works” are really gaining anything related to Amateur Radio knowledge when they put one of these projects together.

Are they only enhancing their manufacturing knowledge – that they can follow rote instructions that anyone can do – even a factory worker in China or Vietnam– or are they learning something related to Amateur Radio competency?  That’s the riddle

One has to be amazed at the marketing genius of a business that can motivate an individual (Amateur) to take raw materials and transform them into finished goods by thier own labor, with the individual paying for the privilege of doing this under the pretense they are learning something, and then selling them the product of thier labor in the process at a profit to the business.

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Written by frrl

September 28, 2008 at 3:15 am

5 Responses

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  1. I found this post while searching for an outsourcer who could prepare kits for me!

    I would like to provide kits for people who want to make my simple, educational designs; the kits would absolve the hobbyist of most of the rigmarole of purchasing the devices, and ensure that the intended devices were used.

    I’ve built kits myself, and they allow the constructor / user to concentrate on the building and theoretical aspects of electronics, without having to deal with procuring many distinct device lines.

    I’ve shied away from providing kits thus far, because I’ve taken advice from those who know, and there are many ways of finding yourself out of time and pocket due to process and customer problems.

    I agree wholeheartedly about the way Heath (and the rest) present their kits as entirely constructional; the theory is dealt with elsewhere, and in great profusion. To give the theory with the practice would confuse those who don’t care, and annoy those who simply want a kit to assemble as a reflection of their new-found knowledge.

    We do it for a number of reasons; and they’re all valid. Thanks for asking this question, I’ll now continue looking for that kitting company.

    73, Pete G1INF

    Pete

    November 15, 2009 at 11:19 am

  2. I always liked Heath kits because I like to learn things. And I can’t think of a better way to learn about things than by building them!

    Robert McCulloch

    rpmsol

    December 17, 2008 at 6:15 pm

  3. Regarding the Zen thing – that’s interesting. When I was in high school I took an art class. One of the things we did was throw pottery on a wheel. I took this class in spring and found that I could spend hours sitting at the wheel near an open window in Spring listening to Jethro Tull and making pottery. Sounds strange now – but that was very relaxing.

    I used to be a member of an RC model airplane club. I liked to fly – hated building them – but I ran into many people who were nearly pure builders and got a certain enjoyment in building – not flying. Of course, these folks built planes that were works of art.

    As Bob remarked, I think its the sense of craftsmanship and accomplishment of why people do things like build things – and you can get “lost in it” – if you can understand what that means.

    A good read is still – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (P.S.) by Robert M. Pirsig

    http://www.amazon.com/Zen-Art-Motorcycle-Maintenance-Inquiry/dp/0060589469/ref=pd_bbs_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1224305963&sr=8-2

    frrl

    October 18, 2008 at 5:04 am

  4. I like kit building because i can solder better than the outsourced worker and care more about my construction practices. I have had to re-solder many joints in equipment from MFJ (I still remain a loyal customer). I also find cross threaded screws in their equipment. I would rather do it right the first time. If they sold their equipment as kits I would buy them. I also find soldering relaxing, sort of a zen thing (or maybe it’s just the lead poisoning destroying brain cells).

    73, August N6TYE

    August

    October 17, 2008 at 1:04 pm

  5. I built my first kit in 1956 – a Johnson Viking Adventurer – a 50 watt cw transmitter. Being 14, I probably didn’t learn a lot. Over the years, I built a Heath Seneca, SB-101, remote VFO, SB-200 (still in use today) and various other things. I DID learn and I was able to fix problems. I also felt free to modify the gear to my own needs.

    Today I build QRP kits. I can still learn. For me, kits offer a good value and a sense of accomplishment.

    73, Bob K2QPN

    Bob Nelson

    September 28, 2008 at 4:11 pm


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