"Hardware is the new software". I'm not sure if that exact phrase is in Chris Anderson's new book, but it should be. It's a trend that has interested me for a while: as hardware becomes more important, it's becoming easier to build. When I first fell in love with computers a zillion years ago, they were mostly hardware -- and scary. Poor, starving student that I was, every mistake learning or building hardware cost real money, and it wasn't until software came along that I could feel comfortable playing and learning new things at will: software was infinitely tolerant of the inevitable problems. Software development is a fixed investment: buy a computer and start writing; worst case you just reboot and start over if something goes wrong. Well, now hardware is beginning to look the same way.
Lower costs are one driver: 3D printers go for (sometimes a lot) less than $2,000 -- which by the way is about what my first computer cost. But even if that's too much, there are so many local shops that will lend you their equipment, either as part of Neil Gershenfeld's Center for Bits and Atoms worldwide bunch of fab labs (none yet in China or Seattle, unfortunately) or the hackerspaces all over or techshops or in Seattle we have Metrixcreate:Space and the new Makerhaus. Most of these places let you use this equipment on site for a reasonable cost (dozens of dollars, or maybe a hundred or two for a month), and usually have staff or other friendly people on hand to help. Chris Anderson points out that the original Square hardware was built in one of these shops. (I've been to the Seattle ones a few times -- they're great! )
But it’s more than cost. As hardware starts to imitate the flexibility of software, entire new businesses and ecosystems are possible. There’s Brickarms.com, by a Redmond Washington engineer who makes Lego-compatible toy weapons or OpenSprinker, a $199 lawn system that cost a total of $5,000 to invent and bring to market. Lego Digital Designer is a free CAD program that lets you design LEGO projects, then generate step-by-step instructions for how to build them. There is a huge gallery from users, and until early 2012 you could order (for a fee) complete boxed sets for whatever you created. There's even Local Motors, a street-legal car 430 horsepower custom car company.
Even biology is getting into the action with Do It Yourself (DIY) Bio like Josh Perfetto with his $599 thermocycler for cheap PCR and DremelFuge, a a 3D head you mount on a Dremel rotary tool to act like a 33Krpm centrifuge for a fraction of the price of the one used by "real" scientists.
Some of this is what Blogger Jason Kottke calls "small batch" manufacturing, how normal people are becoming empowered to become craftsmen, artisans, able to make custom products for people who know how to appreciate them. A classic example is TCHO Chocolate, the San Francisco-based boutique food maker founded by some Wired people.
To get started, there are great new marketplaces popping up from crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, RocketHub, FundedbyMe and more, enabling entirely new business models for funding and bootstrapping companies.
Chris Anderson, long-time journalist believes in this enough that he recently quit his job as Editor-in-Chief at Wired in order to go full-time into 3D Robotics, a new aerospace company with revenues that grew from $250K in the first year, to $3M in 2011. He started this literally in his living room, ran it as a side project using a social networking site to attract a community of users, until it was big enough that he decided to make it his day job.
It’s true, of course, that applying software business models to the world of hardware will bring about important changes in business generally and this book documents how open source and community-driven development will drive those innovations. But it will require more attention to marketing and PR than many would-be entrepreneurs appreciate. It’s one thing for the editor of a famous magazine to start a community and watch thousands of people join; it’s a much tougher proposition, at least at the beginning, for the rest of us.
There’s much more to say about this, but if you want to get started, here’s a great list of tools that Chris Anderson keeps for his own workbench:
- Inkscape is a Mac/Win open source version of Illustrator
- 3d scanning: Audodesk123D has a windows version
- laser cutting: see Autdesk 123D Make
Tools in his workshop:
- MakerBot Cupcake
- MakerBot Cyclops 3-D scanner
- Hitachi desktop bandsaw
- Dremel workstation/drill press
- Weller WES51 soldering station
- Picoscope USB oscilloscope
- Saleae USB logic analyzer
- Volleman Power supply / Multimeter / Soldering station
- Illustrator (for laser cutting drawings)
- Autodesk 123D
- Cadsoft Eagle (for PCB design)
- Arduino, Notepad++
- TortoiseSVN and TotoiseGIT for source code control