Maker Pro News: Long Live Modular Smartphones, Farmer Makers, and More

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Maker Pro News: Long Live Modular Smartphones, Farmer Makers, and More

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“Modularity is not a fad. It will endure as long as human beings value their creativity over their role of being passive consumers.”
–Project Ara Founder Dan Makoski

shenzhen manufacturing

Should You Manufacture Overseas?

A heavy-hitting Quartz feature last week opined that the Chinese government’s efforts to jump start its stalled manufacturing sector are unlikely to reverse its fortunes in the long term. The reasoning is that cheaper automation is eating into the cost advantages of manufacturing overseas, which will gradually push manufacturing centers back into the sectors where their goods are made.

Of course, that’s all highly speculative — Shenzhen is still an unparalleled destination for maker pros, and China writ large is still a manufacturing titan.

Micaelah Morrill (@mbmorrill) has a unique viewpoint on maker pros and manufacturing: her job, at the Massachusetts prototyping space Greentown Labs (@GreentownLabs), is to help local entrepreneurs connect and communicate effectively with domestic manufacturers. Morrill cautions startups: don’t assume that overseas manufacturing is the only option.

“I find that many new entrepreneurs operate under the assumption that you need to build in China, but rarely in practice is that true,” Morrill told us. “Working with manufacturers close to home allows you to understand and play a more active role in your prototype and product. And working locally helps develop relationships with people, so hopefully if you need to make 200 units on the fly, it is much more realistic than if you are dealing with a vendor halfway around the world.”

Maker Pros at Maker Faire

World Maker Faire is just a few weeks away. Each week we’re going to highlight a few of the maker pros you’ll be able to meet in New York City on October 1–2. So without further ado:

Cardboard Teck Instantute (@cardboardteck), which Kickstarted its PinBox 3000 “Artcade Pinball System,” will be in NYC to show off its corrugated, pinball-inspired creations — including the head-to-head “Battle Mode” unit.

OIZOM (@oizom_IoT) will be showing off the AirOwl, a deceptively cute personal air quality monitoring device that collects real-time data on dust pollution and either uploads it or stores it locally for analysis.

We The Builders (@WeTheBuilders) is part art and part social experiment. The idea is to crowdsource 3D-printed sculptures: mail them a piece, printed in whatever color you want, and they’ll assemble the fragments into madcap patchwork creations. Previous projects include busts of Ben Franklin and Edgar Allan Poe.

Tickets for World Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science are still available! Get yours here!


Project Ara is Dead. Long Live Project Ara

Remember Project Ara, Alphabet’s ambitious attempt to develop a modular smartphone with components that could be swapped or upgraded? The company quietly suspended the project last week.

Ara was an intriguing concept, especially for hardware hackers, that seemed to suggest an alternate vision for smartphones that favored customizability over off-the-shelf models, much like a desktop PC. Technical hurdles, though, proved too challenging for Google’s secretive, maker-inspired group.

The concept of a modular handset, though, will live on. A number of small, independent ventures are working on similar concepts, notably PuzzlePhone (@PuzzlePhone) and (@Fairphone).

And Project Ara founder Dan Makoski (@mak0ski), who left Alphabet in 2014 — when it was still just called Google — recently joined the team at Nexpaq, a venture that raised nearly $300K on Kickstarter to develop a phone case that supports add-on modules. “Modularity is not a fad,” Makoski told 9to5mac, “It will endure as long as human beings value their creativity over their role of being passive consumers.”

Industry Beat: Agriculture

Farmers aren’t necessarily resistant to change, but regardless of whether they represent the tiniest organic farm or the largest industrial agriculture operation, they tend to be fundamentally practical. Any technology they’re going to embrace needs to be uncommonly effective and easy to implement — not to mention durable enough to withstand multiple seasons of sun, mud, rain, and extreme temperature shifts.

That means any IoT or robotics platform that takes off in agriculture is going to need to be as easy to use as an iPhone and as rugged as a combine harvester. One contender is the startup Prospera, which thinks the market is already ripe: it’s working on a system of solar-powered cameras that use machine learning to identify pests and diseases before they ruin a crop.

“The entire agriculture industry itself is due for an evolution,” Prospera CEO Daniel Koppel told Tech Insider. “Farmers who are accustomed to making decisions based on instinct will be able to look to data, and deliver the freshest produce to the grocery store every harvest.”

Prospera (which, word to the wise, is hiring) isn’t alone in the belief that agriculture is nearing a hardware tipping point. Taking a cue from Tesla, agro giant CNH recently debuted a self-driving tractor. The American Farm Bureau is pleased with new FAA regulations that spokespeople say pave the way for farmers to use drones to survey their fields. On the open source front, FarmBot is developing systems powered by Arduino and Raspberry Pi that help with watering, planting, soil testing, and weeding. If you want to dabble your toes in automated growing, check out this homebrewed plant-watering machine.

Elsewhere on the Maker Pro Web:

Alfresco Director of Market Intelligence Stefan Waldhauser (@StWaldhausernotes an intriguing reversal: while the manufacturing sector of his youth was the traditionally-minded antithesis of tech ventures like Microsoft or Nokia, the image of the two have increasingly merged in the form of sexy ventures like Tesla, growing fields like digital fabrication, and the host of early-stage startups jockeying to hack together the cool new gadget.

On the Make: blog, longtime BattleBots contender Lisa Winter (@lisawinterxdusts off some old ideas for ferocious bots in response to ABC’s updated version of the show. Cabe Atwell checks out Intel’s Joule dev board. And in a dispatch from the world of food hackers, Brett Lindenberg (@balindenbergdeconstructs the anatomy of a successful food truck.

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DC Denison is the co-editor of The Maker Pro Newsletter, which covers the intersection of makers and business. That means hardware startups, new products, and market trends.

DC manages customer stories at Acquia, the digital experience company.

View more articles by DC Denison

Jon Christian is the co-editor of the Maker Pro Newsletter, which covers the intersection between makers and business. He's also written for the Boston Globe, WIRED and The Atlantic.

View more articles by Jon Christian


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