The Open World series of articles documents Liam Grace-Flood’s year of traveling all over the world exploring maker culture and spaces.
Wevolver is a platform for sharing and collaborating on engineering projects – their mission is to enable anyone, anywhere, to develop hardware that improves life. They’ve worked from many of the London Makerspaces I’ve spent the last three months in, although they’ve since spread their team all around the world. Just this week, they launched the first few projects using their new version control system: Wevolver’s latest effort to make collaborative engineering more effective.
In the weeks leading up to the release, I spoke to Cameron Norris, Wevolver’s Marketing and Community Manager. We talked about the human side of what they do – like how they balance their social purpose with requisite financial sustainability, how collaborative platforms like theirs are only as strong as their communities, and the future of collaborative engineering work.
The transcript of our conversation follows. It’s been edited for length and clarity:
Before we get started, could you tell me a little about your background and how you got involved with Wevolver?
Absolutely. When Wevolver started off, it was primarily a platform for sharing open source and creative commons hardware projects. I was one of the early users who joined after discovering the 3D printable InMoov Robot and deciding to build it.
If I remember correctly, I actually first came across Wevolver on the WevolverApp Instagram account. After building the InMoov Robot arm, I shared a few pictures on Instagram myself and ended up chatting with Richard Hulskes, one of Wevolver’s cofounders.
He explained to me how Wevolver began as a platform for designers to team up and collaborate on challenging projects. There was a real focus on multidisciplinary projects and I really liked their holistic approach to collaborative design. I felt Wevolver provided me with a meaningful way to contribute to public projects despite not having a formal background in engineering. My field is digital marketing, but I’ve always had a passion for hardware development. I even spent one year co-hosting a weekly podcast focused on tech startups.
At first, I offered to get involved with Wevolver as a volunteer, and went to visit their office in London on the weekends. During this time, Wevolver was based at Makerversity, which is essentially a community of creative businesses involved in digital fabrication, technology, and craft. Spending time there inspired me to get more involved, and now I’ve been working with Wevolver for almost three years.
I mostly take care of outreach, project documentation, community management, and social media; so yeah, that’s how I got involved and what I do.
Awesome – all of that resonates with me. But you guys are changing a little now, in that you’re becoming a platform for private projects too.
So what does that look like exactly?
So one of the biggest tasks we’re working on at the moment is developing a version control system specifically for hardware development.
We started our research around six months to a year ago, essentially figuring out how engineering teams, specifically distributed engineering teams, collaborate, what tools they use, what problems they face…and whether there was a way Wevolver could help.
We discovered that pretty much everybody in a distributed engineering team is using some form of basic cloud storage to manage their files, while actually communicating over Slack, email, or Wechat. And we saw patterns emerging where this setup was causing problems; everything from people working on the wrong file version – because file versioning for multidisciplinary hardware projects is pretty much non existent – to even more serious issues, such as incorrect design files being sent for manufacturing. There were also startups attempting to use Github, but these companies often faced resistance from team members who were not from a software development background, despite the advantages.
So from there, we grew the team and started working on a Git-based version control system to see how that might help our community.
Richard and Bram have dubbed this “Wevolver 2.” Wevolver 2 adds version control, and provides users with the option of cloning Wevolver projects to their local computer. Changes to local clones can then be synchronized with the rest of the team and used to update the live project on Wevolver.com.
So if it’s an open source project, people can clone a file from Wevolver, have that file on their desktop, make whatever modifications they want and then send those changes back to Wevolver where other team members can access them.
But even if everyone has access to all the same project files, not everyone has the software to view and edit them, which is another problem that open projects are facing. Not all software is free either. So we’re working on increasing the number of file types that can be previewed using Wevolver. That way, even if contributors don’t have a specific software, or they’re not familiar with it, they can still access the files and see what’s going on.
The overall idea of Wevolver 2 is to make collaborative development on multidisciplinary hardware projects more effective. The web-platform, desktop client, and version control system are aspects of that.
That raises a couple questions for me. The first, which you already touched on, is just comparing Wevolver to other alternatives. You’ve called yourself a hardware-specific Github, or a more collaborative Thingiverse. Are there other people doing similar work to you?
Yeah, like any industry, there are a few organizations developing similar platforms, but so far these have either targeted a very specific niche or skill set, or been focused on hobbyists. So, DocuBricks set up their own platform to share open science hardware projects, and Appropedia created a platform for self-sufficiency projects. Both are great platforms. Other sites like WikiFab and Atlas of the Future are a little different. They’re more like publishing platforms for completed projects than places to find ongoing work.
And yes, we’ve referred to ourselves as a “Github for hardware,” but the most important thing that distinguishes Wevolver from other platforms is our community. Someone could create an exact replica of Wevolver tomorrow but we know it wouldn’t affect us because it’s about the community, about the people involved. They make it work and they make it an interesting place to be.
Yeah, I really like that. When you think about it, obviously an open source platform is only as good as the people who use and contribute to it. Cool! But if your platform and all your projects are openly available to people, how do you make money to keep things going?
Yeah, this is a question that comes up a lot. Frankly, it’s an interesting story. At the moment, we’re supported by investment and have been for the last four years. We’ve also picked up some prizes and grants along the way, such as the Accenture Innovation Award, and the Interactive Innovation Award at SXSW for our contribution towards making 3D printing technology more accessible for everyone.
Initially, the revenue model was offering the components listed in each project’s bill of material and sharing the proceeds with the project creator – making it easier for people to make the projects on our site. We did an initial test with a robotics project that went really well, but having to suddenly manage an inventory was a big disadvantage – imagine going from being a software company to running warehouses with physical stock.
The guys wanted to figure out a revenue model more in line with what we like to do, so we began speaking to more and more hardware startups that were both working on open source projects and also wanted to develop proprietary technology. That’s what led us to where we are now. We’re aiming to provide Wevolver 2 as a paid tool for private engineering companies, while providing free use for open source projects.
Okay, going back to when you were talking about projects and community being the main strength… I’ve been really impressed by the high quality of projects on your site. Like you were saying actually – that’s for sure the thing I found most attractive. Do you have a favorite project?
Yeah, definitely. exiii Hackberry. I’m a huge fan of our projects from Japan because the teams are so dedicated! They really put 110% effort into every tiny detail.
exii started off as a prosthetics company that designed both open source prosthetics and robotic hands for researchers. They used the HACKberry, their open source project, as a marketing tool to raise awareness for their company and what they’re working on, as well as getting people involved in contributing to open hardware.
Another team from Japan, PlenGoer, develops desktop robots, including an IoT “personal assistant” with a built-in camera. It’s a really cool desktop gizmo, and they release everything as open source or they provide all of the source files under a creative commons noncommercial license. They are very active in our community. They’ve actually flown over to the UK and Netherlands a number of times to host workshops. They were really eager to meet other develops and fly all over the place to connect with the open source community.
Is that the reason that you guys are in London and Amsterdam? Are you still based in Makerversity?
No, we left Makerversity about a year and a half ago now, and then we moved from makerspace to makerspace – basically anywhere that engineers were working on cool projects. We had a stint for about 6 months at London Hackspace, which was pretty interesting. Then we moved into Fab Lab London. We spent some time at Machines Room too, where Bram was mainly involved. I guess you did some stuff there too?
Yeah. For the last three months, I’ve been all over those spaces.
Awesome, all great places. We moved around a bunch before finally settling into Fab Lab London. Richard and Bram are from the Netherlands, they were based in Amsterdam before they came to London.
They’re really keen on building an international team, so they travelled to San Francisco while I visited India to work on a prosthetics project from our community. When we came back, it made sense to have a physical presence in both countries so I stayed in the UK and they returned to the Netherlands.
They’re based in Freedom Lab at the moment, which is an innovation hub in the heart of Amsterdam – it’s across the road from ARTIS Amsterdam Royal Zoo so you can hear the animals during the day. I absolutely love it.
I’m based in close proximity to London, so if we have meetings or events scheduled there, I’ll hop on the train, and every couple of months I’ll travel to Amsterdam to work with the rest of the team at Freedom Lab. We have two new team members from Toronto and Florida so it’s a lot of fun.
It’s really exciting to see your progress. And it’s cool that you’re a global, multidisciplinary team just like the projects you support! But if we could step back from that for a second: Part of my project is looking at larger Maker issues (and I use the word “Maker” purposefully). I wonder what you think about that language and how Wevolver fits into all that.
Originally, we were very strongly aligned with the Maker Movement. And we were really focused on documenting hardware projects for hobbyists. Around this time, there was a lot of people who bought a desktop 3D printer who didn’t really know what to do with it. Wevolver was a place where people discovered the potential of desktop 3D printing. Our project selection and documentation was all geared towards generating interest from a broad audience of hobbyists and 3D printing enthusiasts but what we found… how to put it… a lot of people who fell into that category didn’t always finish projects because they approached it much more casually. Which could get kind of disappointing at times for project creators. While we still provide content for the hobbyists in our community, we’re now much more aligned with meeting the needs of professional engineers and supporting them.
The bulk of our existing community is made up of professional engineers, mainly males in their early twenties to mid-thirties, but we continue to release content that appeals to other audiences so that we remain inclusive. Kniterate, an open source knitting machine, is a good example.
Yeah, that was also started at Machines Room.
Yeah, and anyone, whatever their background, can get excited about a project like that. There’s also Hovalin, a 3D printed violin designed by a husband and wife team – it looks and sounds incredible. We think it’s important to support and promote projects like these.
Yeah, you’re touching on a couple of the biggest problems I see in the “Maker Movement,” not just for you at Wevolver. I think it’s endemic that it’s mostly white, fairly well educated men. It’s tough that a movement based on ideals of democratization and inclusivity struggles so hard to realize them. And yeah, it’s still seen as a mostly hobbyist trend, instead of a more serious, purposeful kind of making. So anyway, I appreciate your thinking about how to move past that – and how to create a platform that works for more kinds of people. Not just to try to share projects that appeal to a broader range of people, but to bring a wider range of people into the process. We’ve got a lot of work to do.
We talked a little about the future of Wevolver, but what do you see as the future of making? I think Wevolver suggests a specific future, but could you talk more about it?
Yeah, I put down some thoughts about this recently actually. The biggest thing for me is the movement toward decentralization. Web-based manufacturing platforms like 3DHubs and Fictiv are doing a great job of that for digital fabrication, and more and more engineering teams are beginning to realise that they don’t need to work from the same room to build a company or launch a product. They can be distributed anywhere in the world. And social media is also enabling pretty much anyone to introduce a new product to a specific market segment at a much lower cost than has ever been possible.
It feels like it’s a bit of a cliché saying this, the whole “democratization” thing, but it really comes down to exactly that. So that’s what I’m really excited about – people with an idea coming together to collaborate digitally, and having products designed and manufactured from wherever they are in the world, with far fewer barriers to entry to go from being a hobbyist to a professional maker – people discovering open source projects that they can make themselves and learning from that to form their own products and companies.
I actually think we’re going to see hardware entrepreneurship – as a development of the maker movement – emerge as the main source of income for a lot of people in the future. And that will be supported by the democratisation of finance, manufacturing, and markets, through crowdfunding, social media, and online marketplaces. It’s all of those things coming together that will enable more people to build small businesses around hardware. And Wevolver has a big part to play in bringing those people together.
I’m also excited about blockchain for smart manufacturing. For example, The Genesis of Things Project stores a product’s manufacturing process and design files in the blockchain, which can then be accessed by the product’s owner with a specific code that is designed into the product itself. They did this with a pair of limited edition cufflinks as a proof-of-concept so that you know you have the genuine item, and I thought that was pretty amazing.
With Wevolver, there are ideas being discussed, such as A.I. assisted design. There’s a lot of interest in lowering the cost of 3D printing through design optimisation, which actually came up when I was speaking with some guys in our community today. They wanted to create an SLS print of a robot finger that had been designed for FDM, but, of course, the design files haven’t been optimised for that, and they’re missing holes for releasing the powdered material to create a hollow print, which is much cheaper than printing a solid model. I think having some form of A.I. to optimise your designs for whatever manufacturing process you’re undertaking, to ensure you get the lowest cost, best quality print, could be incredibly useful for a lot of people.
We also went to meet Mx3d recently – a company of designers who decided to attach an arc welder to an industrial robotic arm that they bought off an old assembly line –
Oh yeah, so it’s basically a big metal 3D printer?
Yeah they’re using it to build a bridge in Amsterdam. And they’ve been using generative design to assist them. I’m seeing it more and more… that’s probably the thing I’m most excited about: A.I. assisted design and generative design, particularly in how it can help design for manufacturing. So everyone doesn’t have to be an expert in every manufacturing process to mass produce a good product.
Oh cool – I think it’s interesting that that’s the angle you’re coming to this stuff from. Increasingly, I’m realizing that all these cool things aren’t engineering problems, they are access problems. So I love that Wevolver isn’t just about making things, but about making things with purpose, and making them accessible. Keep it up!
You can sign up to work on projects via Wevolver 2 (currently still in beta).