How can people come together to make a hardware product? That’s the question Simon Höher and his co-founders are setting out to answer with their new online platform, Knowable.org
Knowable is a website that, at first glance, looks like many other project sharing websites. You can post your project, something you’ve made, and others can find projects, learn about them, comment and share. So I spoke with Simon to find out their vision for Knowable, what they’re setting out to build, and how they think hardware makers can work better together.
In its current incarnation, Knowable is a showcase for hardware projects. Users can upload design files, videos and photos, and tell the story of how the product or prototype came to be. They can also use it as a compliment to other services such as crowd-funding or sales platforms.
Other project sharing sites let you describe the steps needed to replicate a project, and upload the files that someone else might need in order to build a circuit, or print or cut a part. They even support some forms of collaboration. On Instructables, you can leave a comment to ask the author to clarify a step you didn’t understand, or suggest an improvement. Thingiverse has the concept of a remix, an adapted version of a thing. These platforms support collaboration in a kind of evolutionary form – through a process of mutated replication. Simon contrasts Knowable’s approach:
Here, I have a product or an idea or a concept, and rather than telling you how to replicate it, I’m telling you: these are the sketches, the blueprints, the components, the interface parts. And then you can engage with it, and say, why don’t you change this or this, … so it’s not necessarily a linear reproduction process.
Collaboration for hardware startups
The problems that new hardware startups face are different – or at least on a different scale – to those faced by software startups, or traditional product manufacturing companies. How do you assemble a team of experts across software and hardware? How do you work together on a physical project when your team is distributed around the world? This is where things get interesting, says Simon:
The second part of Knowable, the step after learning about a project, is actually joining forces, teaming up with others to design and iterate on a hardware product in a team online.
He envisages collaborators sharing sketches or design files, but also managing workflow and tasks, or sharing a product roadmap, or even searching for new project collaborators.
It works for this prototyping and iteration phase of a project, where you’re saying – OK, this is the first version, what do we have to improve, who can work on it? This can also mean something like – I have a prototype here, but I’m really not happy with the electronic parts – and then you’re actively looking for help, for someone to join you.
Of course, in the software development world, online collaboration tools have reached some level of maturity, and Simon sees Knowable as being complementary to those tools:
Say I’m working on an internet of things device. Such a device would include software or code, and the best place to collaborate would probably be Github. Same goes for industrial designs or CAD files – maybe you want to go to GrabCAD. The idea of Knowable was more of providing a backbone for hardware projects: one place to tie all the resources in to get a comprehensive overview.
Software to hardware and back again
Hardware engineers may look at their software cousins with some envy. While we do hear horror stories of software engineers dealing with the effects of sudden massive demand, we hear many more about over-target Kickstarter campaigns and the problems of manufacturing and fulfilment that come with them.
Hardware is a completely different beast, says Simon. Building an app might require some heavy work in the beginning, but then if it works, you put it in an app store, and suddenly you get 100,000 downloads, and you’re good. But with hardware, if you have a good idea, and suddenly 100,000 people say I want that, then you probably have a problem.
But what’s driven the growth in hardware startups is the merging together of these worlds; integrating software into hardware – yes, the Internet of Things. And so the hardware engineer now faces additional problems, that were once the domain of the software engineer. How do you build and maintain the cloud service that powers your connected device? How do you persuade someone to invest in an online service with a hardware component?
It’s this new world that Knowable and their collaborators in Berlin want to explore at ThingsCon, a 2-day conference about the future of the hardware business in Berlin in May (disclosure: I’ll be going on a free ticket to cover the event).
Among the speakers is Matt Webb, CEO of Bergcloud (formerly BERG), makers of Little Printer, the internet-connected printer, who will be talking about how they built their own cloud service, and ended up shifting their entire business to focus on the cloud services they wished had already been available when they built Little Printer.
Also speaking about cloud services is Usman Haque, founder of Pachube (now Xively), one of the original IoT infrastructure platforms and communities. And rounding out the new hardware landscape will be Brady Forrest of Highway1, a hardware incubation and investment program.
With other speakers including Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino (Good Night Lamp), Bethany Koby (Technology Will Save Us) Reto Wettach (Fritzing), and Gawin Dapper (Phonebloks), and a whole day of hands-on workshops, it should be a great opportunity for European makers to gather and explore, in Simon’s words:
What does it take to have an idea for a product, all the way to designing, and scaling, and funding, to make it an actual hardware company? What are the challenges we face today, and what might they be tomorrow?
Andrew Sleigh hails from Brighton, UK, and co-founded Brighton Mini Maker Faire, which will be announcing dates for 2014 very soon. He’s catching up with the latest fabrication technology, having just learned how to make a dovetail joint.