Oh man, this is good! You’re looking at the first DB-19 connector to be made in the 21st century:
This is a happy story about the power of global communication and manufacturing resources in today’s world. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, then you’ve certainly heard me whine and moan about how impossible it is to find the obscure DB-19 disk connector used on vintage Macintosh and Apple II computers (and some NeXT and Atari computers too). Nobody has made these connectors for decades.
I’ve got a disk emulator product called Floppy Emu that attaches to an Apple DB-19 port, so I need a steady supply of these connectors to build my hardware, and that’s a problem. Over the past couple of years, I’ve scrounged what seems like every warehouse and basement on the planet, and bought up nearly the entire world’s remaining supply of new-old-stock DB-19 connectors. My last few product batches included DB-19s from some very obscure international sources. It was clear I’d reached the end of the road.
This wasn’t a surprise. The DB-19 shortage first became obvious to me about a year and a half ago, when a manufacturing error forced me to replace all the DB-19 connectors in a batch of boards, and replacements couldn’t be readily found. Since then I’ve written a dozen times about the impending DB-19 doomsday. I also made several attempts to design a DB-19 substitute using a small PCB and suitably-arranged header pins, but while they more-or-less worked, I wasn’t satisfied with the result.
The specific part in question is a D-SUB DB-19 male solder cup connector, sometimes called DB-19P. It’s very similar to the more familiar DB-9 (old style serial ports) or DB-25, but with a different width to accommodate the different number of pins. “But wait!” says the well-intentioned blog reader, “this web site over here has DB-19P connectors for sale right now!” They may claim to have them, but trust me, they don’t. Electronics parts suppliers seem to make a habit of listing available items that aren’t actually available, whether out of laziness or as an intentional bait-and-switch, I’m not sure. But if you call them or try to actually order the parts, you’ll find they don’t exist.
About 15 months ago, I first started looking into the idea of manufacturing new DB-19 connectors. So here’s the thing – how do you go about having something like this made? I had no clue, and it took me over a year. How do you find factories that might possibly build something like this, and then how do you find a contact person to whom you can explain your needs? Almost all the manufacturers that I talked to blew me off, or wouldn’t even talk to me at all. The US-based manufacturers weren’t interested, or couldn’t do it. In the end, I went through Alibaba listings for companies that make other types of D-SUB connectors, and emailed several dozen of them to ask if they could make a DB-19. Only a few even replied, and only two said they could, both located in China.
The estimated cost was eye-watering – a minimum order size of 10000 pieces and a total cost well into five figures. I had naively assumed that somebody might still have old DB-19 molds they could reuse, or that DB-25 tools could somehow be easily adapted to make DB-19 connectors. Nope. I did a lot of research into possible alternatives like 3D printing or alternate materials, but nothing looked viable. And given the tiny scope of my disk emulator business, I couldn’t justify spending tens of thousands of dollars for making new DB-19s.
So nothing happened. A year passed, and the DB-19 shortage grew more dire still. I made another attempt at designing a DB-19 substitute, but wasn’t satisfied with the results. Out of options, I reluctantly circled back to the manufacturing idea again. I tried to calculate how many years of future sales it would take before I could earn back my investment, and it was a depressingly large number.
But just as I was getting discouraged, good luck arrived in the form of several other people who were also interested in DB-19 connectors! The NeXT and Atari communities were also suffering from a DB-19 shortage, as well as others in the vintage Apple community, and at least one electronics parts supplier too. After more than a year of struggling to make manufacturing work economically, I was able to arrange a “group buy” in less than a week. Now let’s do this thing!
Let’s Build It!
Early on, it became clear they’d need more specific directions than simply “make it like a DB-9 but with more pins.” They wanted mechanical drawings and specifications for the part. Umm… They asked for information from my engineering department. Er… I was stumped by this for a short while, but then I found an old mechanical drawing of a DB-25. I photoshopped that sucker, edited some key measurements, and that was what they used for the very expensive mold-making process. I’m still kind of shocked that this actually worked.
Payment required wiring a Very Large Amount to a bank in Hong Kong – no PayPal accepted here. I’m sure the people at my bank thought I’d been duped by some kind of Nigerian 419 scam. Maybe it’s more common elsewhere, but transfers of this type are rare at US retail banks. In my case, it took the branch manager and 30 minutes of paperwork to get the transfer done.
Two months passed, and a round of prototyping. Progress was slow but steady, and I received updates from the manufacturer every few days. I kept waiting, eagerly anticipating this DB-19 bounty. At the end of May the product finally shipped, only to disappear into a US Customs black hole somewhere for a couple of days. Then at long last, after what felt like an infinite wait, I came home to find 10000 of these beauties stacked on my doorstep:
For the moment at least, I have nearly the entire world’s supply of DB-19 connectors, stacked in my living room. I think I’m going to fill the bathtub and swim in them.
Next step: re-ship the majority of these DB-19 connectors to the other people in the group buy. They should start becoming available in small quantities at electronics parts suppliers in a couple of weeks.
Assuming Floppy Emu sales continue apace, I’ll eventually make back my investment in a couple of years. If not, it will at least make for a good story. 🙂 Now, let the retro-hardware celebration begin!Read 39 comments and join the conversation