Hardware is hard, the quip goes, but there’s never been a better time to be prototyping and launching hardware projects than right now. That seemed to be the consensus today as the second and final day of MAKE’s Hardware Innovation Workshop wrapped up. The all-day schedule of speakers represented a deep pool of talent, creativity, and passion for the business of making.
From crowdfunding to new developments in CAD and from the Internet of Things to manufacturing, today’s speakers offered an exciting and comprehensive view of the thriving maker pro ecosystem. The strength of that system is clearly built around new technologies and the ability to scale up, several speakers said, but also the open community that supports it.
“Over the last two days we’ve heard that factories are about capabilities not products,” said MAKE founder Dale Dougherty, summarizing the two-day event. “The maker community is also about capabilities, and we are all learning from each other.”
Chris Anderson, founder and CEO of 3D Robotics and DIY Drones, kicked off the day with a one of the great maker pro stories about how the guy with the most smarts about drones turned out to be a teenager from Tijuana Chris met over the internet. Together, and almost to his surprise, he and Jordi Munoz built a successful manufacturing company that competes with the best aerial drone companies from China… all engineered and manufactured in North America.
The second keynote from the workshop featured Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk. Carl is a maker at heart, but his interests can also be found in his desire to empower makers to “make things” through innovative software. In his talk he describes a new revolution in computer aided design (CAD) which will address the lack of the “D” or the design aspect of CAD.
Traditional CAD software is more about the documentation of a product rather than its design, he said. Typically the computer does not actively participate in helping make design decisions, but Autodesk hopes to change that with Autodesk Fusion 360. Now makers can not only document their project, but they can build true digital prototypes, Carl said.
The growth of the Internet of Things from concept to reality was one of the hot topics of the event. Eric Jennings and Sally Carson, the creators of Pinoccio, described the birth of their product, which came about after the need to monitor squatters in a neighborhood home. In conjunction with their wireless hardware, they created online tools, an API, and a community portal. Their goal? Help makers connect anything to the web.
The 3D printing session opened with a talk by Peter Weijmarshausen, co-founder and CEO of Shapeways, who talked about new opportunities in manufacturing, enabled by rapid prototyping, at the emerging intersection of traditional mass production and user customization. Nervous System, a very successful Shapeways-based jewelry designer, was held up as a new model for start up businesses.
“The top 1,000 Shapeways sellers are making serious money,” Peter said. “I am on the lookout for the first Shapeways millionaire.”
Printrbot’s Brook Drum offered another great maker story.
“I’m just a guy,” he said. “I have no degree. I was a pastor for years and years, then I started making stuff. First I was making websites. Then I wanted to make something that you could hold in your hand.”
He bought an early MakerBot kit, and enjoyed assembling it with his children. But he wanted something easier.
Enter Kickstarter. Printrbot’s spectactular and unprecendented success on that platform completely changed Brook’s life. Their goal was $25,000. They made more than $800,000.
“Before, I was a guy who had a hard time making his house payment. First year, we had $2.4 million of business in gross sales.”
For Brook, the future of 3D printing is about expanding access, especially for kids and educational institutions. Printrbot is working on a new, even smaller fused-filament printer design. They’re also, he revealed, developing a DLP-based resin printer project, which produced its first print just a few days ago.
“Jump in with both feet,” he said. “Who cares what you know?”
“Makers need partners,” was the way Dale Dougherty introduced the panel on “Incubation,” and all four presenters validated his point, although each approached the challenge from a different angle.
Scott Miller, the CEO and co-founder of Dragon Innovation, tapped his experience launching the iRobot Roomba robot. He explained that although prototyping has gotten easier, manufacturing is still a challenge for many entrepreneurs. One reason, he said, is that manufacturing is “experienced based.” You can’t just query Google: “how to manufacture in China?” You need to work with people who have learned their manufacturing skills working with factories. Quality is not sexy, he added, but shortcomings in this area can bankrupt your company. That makes it important to spend time choosing exactly the right factory, a process that generally takes Dragon Innovation four to six weeks.
“Picking your factory is the most single most important thing you’ll do,” he said.
Zach Smith, program director at the accelerator HAXLR8R gave a vivid tour of Shenzhen, the Chinese manufacturing city where he lives and works. According to Zach the value of working in Shenzhen is that you can radically increase your iteration speed, because you’re so much closer to your factories. The more back and forth you can have with your manufacturer, the better your product will be. Like Scott Miller, Zach emphasized the importance of choosing the right factory. The value of Shenzhen, he said, is that you can usually find a factory with experience in your product, whether it’s bicycle handlebars, household lighting, or a vibrator.
Jeremy Conrad, a founding partner of Lemnos Labs, said one of the aims of his accelerator is that they want to make it easier for engineers to be entrepreneurs. It’s important to get early expert advice on a hardware start-up, he said, because you make many decisions in the first six months of a hardware start-up, and you’ll be living with those decisions for the next two years.
Finally Brady Forrest, of PCH International, which helps companies with manufacturing, described the company’s dream to “become the AWS of hardware,” referring to the way that Amazon Web Services enabled many software companies to scale quickly.
After a great catered lunch, Arduino co-founder Massimo Banzi kicked off the “board building” session by talking about his personal background as an electronics hobbyist, and how it ultimately led him down the path to Arduino.
He cited Dieter Rams as a major inspiration both in practice–Banzi himself had one of Braun’s “Lectron” kits as a child–and in theory. Rams’ principles of design would heavily influence the development, design, and branding of Arduino and the entire Arduino line.
“We started to apply design principles to bare circuits; usually, circuits are inside an enclosure and it doesn’t matter what they look like.”
The session wrapped up with Eric Weddington, Open Source and Community Marketing Manager at ATMEL, which manufactures the AVR microcontroller chips used in the Arduino board family. Weddington had some pithy advice for firmware developers about the effects of software on board design.
First, don’t optimize too soon—prototypes just have to work, and optimizing code in a prototype will likely waste resources, he said. But be prepared to optimize when the time comes—both to meet product specs and for the possible economic benefits.
“Think scale,” he said. “I work for a semiconductor manufacturer, and they always think in terms of scale. When you’re building a billion-dollar fab, you have to.”
“The maker is just a small part of an ecosystem,” he said, adding, “there’s always a lot to learn in the world of making.”
–D.C. Denison, Sean Ragan, Marc de Vinck, and Andrew Terranova contributed to this story. Photos by Gregory Hayes.