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Bench Talk for Design Engineers

Bench Talk

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Bench Talk for Design Engineers | The Official Blog of Mouser Electronics


Maker Movement Disrupts Electronics Sector Steven Keeping

In its pomp the electronics retailer RadioShack enjoyed years of big profits from nerds looking for components for their next electronics project. (Two of those nerds used the company’s diodes and transistors to build a “blue box”, a device that tricked the phone system into letting them make free long-distance phone calls. Later those same nerds, both named Steve, went on to found Apple.) But then RadioShack changed its identity, lost its core constituency and, after years of struggle, filed for Chapter 11 in 2015.

 

The sad thing––especially for ex-employees––is that if RadioShack had stuck to what it was good at, the company would now be enjoying the good times again. The last decade has seen the rise and rise of the Maker Movement, a group of designers, tinkerers, hobbyists and inventors who use their spare time to meld electronic components, software and 3-D printed packaging into fun, often useful, and occasionally commercially viable, devices. It’s a big community; according to USA Today, for example, makers contributed about $29 billion to the world economy in 2014.

 

Today’s makers are a little different from the geeks of the 70s and 80s. While the breadboard, soldering iron, 8-bit processor and RS232 cable still have their place, makers are far more sophisticated than the amateur engineers of old who poked around in poorly-lit sheds trying to cobble together an intruder alarm. Today, shared information and purposefully simple-to-develop hardware and software allow makers to work on projects that were the sole domain of professional engineers with the resources of a large company behind them, only a few years ago.

 

In fact, many professional engineers are makers in their spare time. Texas Instruments (TI), for example, has embraced the Maker Movement and the company hosted its third annual “DIY with TI” event late May 2015 at the chip company’s Dallas headquarters. Twenty TI employees demonstrated their projects including a plant irrigation system, a robot, a smart hat, a popcorn machine that tweeted when it was ready and sports team badges with a noise-activated light.

 

The Internet is chiefly responsible for the Maker Movement’s rude health. Like-minded individuals share ideas, ask questions and solve problems on community forums around the world. And the advent of hardware such as Arduino and Beaglebone (streamlined, cheap single board computers) together with accessible low-power wireless technologies such as Bluetooth Smart and ZigBee allow Makers to develop ‘smart’ electronic product hardware in short order. Add a splash of open-source software and a 3-D printer to make a casing and a credible consumer electronics prototype can emerge from the bench top of a domestic kitchen in a matter of days.

 

Of course, not every would-be maker has the resources or knowledge to embark on a project to build a robot vacuum cleaner or something similar, but a solution comes in the form of “Maker Spaces” equipped with tools, equipment, supplies, workspace and often something even more valuable – mentors (often professionals like the TI engineers described above). Such spaces help establish the sense of community and sharing of ideas that are essential to the Maker Movement.

 

For blue-chip electronics companies well-versed in shifting millions of units to sophisticated industrial customers, catering to a tinkerer who wants ten wireless chips is not something that comes naturally. And senior executives break out in a cold sweat at the phrase “open source” when they’ve spent years safeguarding intellectual property. Yet major technology companies like Atmel, ARM, Intel, TI, Microsoft and many others are falling over each other to join the Maker Movement party. Why are they bothering?

 

The Maker Movement is emerging just as OEMs, faced with increasing competition and tightening budgets, are limiting R&D and consolidating product lines around popular sellers. Such a situation makes it possible that the next “killer app” is just as likely to come from a 17-year-old maker working in a classroom in Manila than from engineers in a development lab of a Silicon Valley computer company.

 

Further disruption promises to result from the blurring of the line between the Maker Movement and technology start-ups. Crowdfunding makes it easier to finance initial production and online selling makes the device available to the world without investment in physical premises. With the right idea and a few lucky breaks, it’s possible for a fledgling company to be shifting thousands of products a month in less time than it takes a mature company to come up with a snappy name for its next invention. That’s why the electronics supply chain is sitting up and taking notice of the Maker Movement.


 

U.S. President Barack Obama meets makers at the White House. (Source: whitehouse.gov.)

But it’s not just semiconductor companies that have reacted to the community’s growth. Governments in western nations are seeing the groundswell as a way to encourage schoolchildren to take an interest in technology – with a long-term view to addressing the pressing shortage of scientists and engineers. U.S. President Barack Obama has hosted a Maker Faire at the White House and noted that, “Today’s DIY is tomorrow’s ‘Made in America’”. And in Britain, the national public broadcaster, the BBC, is distributing over a million tiny wirelessly-equipped computers to 11 and 12-year-old schoolchildren to give them a head start in coding. The micro:bit, as the computer is known, has the enthusiastic backing of major electronics and semiconductor firms such as ARM, Cisco, Freescale (now NXP), Microsoft, Nordic Semiconductor and Samsung.

 

The Maker Movement is powering a source of innovation that’ll result in significant disruption to the established order of electronic product design and manufacture. And if you think this notion is a little far-fetched, you’d do well to remember that Britain’s industrial revolution got started by workers doing piecework in their kitchens.




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Steven Keeping gained a BEng (Hons.) degree at Brighton University, U.K., before working in the electronics divisions of Eurotherm and BOC for seven years. He then joined Electronic Production magazine and subsequently spent 13 years in senior editorial and publishing roles on electronics manufacturing, test, and design titles including What’s New in Electronics and Australian Electronics Engineering for Trinity Mirror, CMP and RBI in the U.K. and Australia. In 2006, Steven became a freelance journalist specializing in electronics. He is based in Sydney.


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