Eric Pan of Seeed Studios Discusses the Future of Factories

Technology Workshop
Eric Pan of Seeed Studios Discusses the Future of Factories
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Eric Pan started Seeed Studio in 2008, selling electronic parts from his apartment in Shenzhen. Pan also created a hackerspace in Shenzhen, co-founded the hardware accelerator HAXLR8R, and introduced the first Mini Maker Faire to China. Today Seeed has 200+ employees, and generates more than $30 million in annual revenues. Seeed’s current offerings include not only parts, but also what Pan calls “0.9 kits,” which aim to get buyers “almost to 1.0,” while still allowing the option to change every single layer: from firmware, to circuitry, to enclosures.

Seeed Studio sponsors Chaihuo Maker Space, who, along with the Taiwan Robot Combat League, attracted 16 teams from all over Asia to compete at Maker Faire Shenzhen 2016.
Seeed Studio sponsors Chaihuo Maker Space, who, along with the Taiwan Robot Combat League, attracted 16 teams from all over Asia to compete at Maker Faire Shenzhen 2016.

Q. Are we approaching an era of “indie products,” similar to indie films?
A. I think so, and it’s coming from two directions. Because of the maker movement, people can better understand the possibilities and get access to the tools to create independent products. Second, the demand is more diversified than before. People don’t just want mass-produced products; they’re interested in more specialized items, in new niches.

Q. What are some common mistakes you see new maker pros make?
A. Many makers try to do everything, but existing businesses have too much know-how. If you want to make a new keyboard, you are competing with existing keyboard makers. It’s hard to compete, but you can collaborate with them. You can work with keyboard manufacturers to invent new functionalities and designs. This is easier, of course, if you’re both working with open source technologies. The goal isn’t revolution, it’s collaboration and evolution.

Seeed produces the ReSpeaker, a voice-control extension.
Seeed produces the ReSpeaker, a voice-control extension.

Q. How about mistakes people make when they start working with manufacturers?
A. There are a lot of surprising issues that come up at the manufacturing stage, such as with the supply chain. There’s not a lot of knowledge out there about the manufacturing process. That’s why we should open source not only design and layouts, but also other parts of the manufacturing process: how to test, how to do quality control, and so on. As the knowledge domains become more complete, it will get easier.

Q. Manufacturing in the U.S. versus China: has anything changed?
A. Not yet, but it’s coming. More synergies in manufacturing are emerging across countries, so that it’s becoming more decentralized, more like a service. In the future, more manufacturing will happen next to the consumers and clients. The future will not be bigger factories, but smaller, more agile ones.

Seeed's office
Seeed’s office

Q. You see hundreds of maker products on their way to the marketplace every year. What do you think are the most promising areas for maker innovation?
A. There’s always a demand for continuous improvement in the Internet of Things. When you look closely at IoT, it’s really the combination of software and hardware — it’s the convergence of these two fields. That’s where a lot of benefits can be generated.

Q. You’ve been talking about adding artificial intelligence to IoT.
A. Many great products allow us to make connections, but makers should be thinking about more than that. Think about the consumer, about products that provide benefits for them. And AI can add that. Our ReSpeaker is a modular, open source, voice interface that allows us to hack things around us, which adds benefits to consumers. It’s about more than screens. It’s about personal assistants.

Combat drones at Maker Faire Shenzhen
Combat drones at Maker Faire Shenzhen

Q. Many makers think manufacturing in China is for big manufacturing runs. Thousands of units. Does it also work for small runs of products?
A. We’re trying to change that perception. Over the last few years it’s gotten easier and easier to manufacture items in China in small batches.

Q. If you can’t get to China, what would you advise those who want to manufacture in China.
A. What really matters are your delivery demands. If you have a huge market to satisfy, and you have tight delivery times, you should come to Shenzhen. If you are doing a smaller project, and you have more time, you can make it happen via email and shipping samples back and forth.

Q. Seeed Studios has been around since 2006. How have you evolved?
A. We’ve evolved by getting people closer to solutions. Originally we sold parts, components. Now we sell many kits we call “0.9 kits,” meaning we get them almost to 1.0. If you know what purpose the customer is trying to achieve, you can get closer to making it happen. But you can leave them many options to change things, if they want. For example, on many kits a customer can change every single layer, from firmware, to circuits, to enclosures.

Q. The Open Source Hardware Association recently announced an open source hardware certification program. Do you think that will make things easier for makers?
A. Yes. This will allow everybody to trace contributions to products, and that will encourage more products that are shared.

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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
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