Thousands & Thousands of Tiny Robots.

Seize Them!

By: Modular Robotics

As we’ve grown from 2 people to 20 and from hundreds of Cubelets to hundreds of thousands of Cubelets, we’ve hit a few stumbling blocks.  There was that time that we received a huge shipment of plastic parts that were all the wrong size, for example.  In the general scheme of things, we’ve been pretty lucky, and we’ve learned quite a bit from (and enjoyed) the Sparkfun blog, where they document their travails trying to make stuff.  There was that time that they got all of the counterfeit Atmel micros.  Or the cease and desist letter.  Or the subpoena.  Now we’ve got a new problem, though, and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.  US Customs seized our stuff.

We’ve been waiting on a shipment of voltage regulators for a while.  They’re tiny little parts; miniscule electronic chips that stabilize the varying battery voltage in Cubelets before power gets to each microcontroller inside.  Every single Cubelet contains one, and it’s the FAN2500S25X, made by Fairchild Semiconductor.  For the last couple of years, we’ve been buying them from Zhengke Electronics in China because they offer better prices and much shorter lead times than any of the electronics distributors in the USA.  Since the parts are so tiny, the shipping doesn’t get too expensive.  Whenever we work with a small, offshore vendor, we scale up gradually.  We place small orders, make sure they’re good, and then increase quantity as we trust each other more.  There’s always some risk of wiring a whole pile of money to China and getting a box of rocks in return.  We’ve been working with Zhengke for three years now, though, so we’re pretty comfortable placing large orders with them.

When this shipment of voltage regulators seemed to be taking a long time to arrive, we tracked the shipment on UPS.com and were fairly well surprised to find a status reading: GOVERNMENT AGENCY HOLD.  Seized.  Seize them!  It sounds like a Scooby Doo episode.

We called UPS and they told us to call US Customs and Border Patrol, where we reached Officer Ayala.  He explained that one of his agents inspected our package and suspected that it might contain counterfeit parts, so they seized it, took it to an undisclosed location, and were going to investigate.  He explained that Fairchild has been seeing a lot of counterfeit parts recently, and that Customs was on the lookout to prevent such things.  He said that Customs had taken photos of the packaging and of the individual parts, sent them to Fairchild, and would wait for their response.  He suggested that we should call again in a week or so.

I’m really curious to see how this plays out.  Since we’ve had such a great relationship with Zhengke, my intuition is that the parts are genuine, not counterfeit.  But we’re buying them through an “unauthorized channel”: a little Chinese vendor who buys leftover parts from big contract manufacturers and then resells them.  This doesn’t bother me in the slightest, and it’s perfectly legal, but Fairchild probably doesn’t like it; I imagine that they want to control distribution through a set of specific vendors.  That way they can control the price and who gets what.  In my head I’ve already made up this story of international intrigue in which the parts are genuine, but Fairchild has Customs working as their little personal goon squad to stop any shipments from an unauthorized reseller, but I have a vivid imagination.  Stay tuned!

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