News / Economy

Do-it-yourselfers Inspire Hardware Renaissance in Silicon Valley

Designers work at computer stations at TechShop in the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco, California, April 24, 2014
Designers work at computer stations at TechShop in the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco, California, April 24, 2014
Reuters
In the shadow of Internet monoliths such as Facebook, Google and Twitter , it's easy to forget that Silicon Valley got its start from hard-scrabble tinkerers building radios, microchips and other devices.
 
Now, a proliferation of high-tech but affordable manufacturing tools and new sources of funding are empowering a generation of handy entrepreneurs and laying the foundation for a hardware renaissance.
 
Inventors are working on projects as varied as drones, improved artificial limbs, smart jewelry and handheld devices for detecting gluten in food.
 
Google in January acquired four-year-old smart thermostat maker Nest Labs for $3.2 billion. Facebook in March spent $2 billion on virtual reality headset startup Oculus Rift, founded by a college dropout in his parents' garage. 3-D printer-maker MakerBot Industries was sold for $400 million in 2013 to Stratasys Inc. - just three years after it was cofounded by a former art teacher.
 
All of them embody the growing focus on hardware and the so-called “Maker movement” sweeping northern California and, in a smaller way, Europe and other countries. Renewed interest in tinkering with objects - versus apps or software - is attracting more money from investors and fostering a growing number of workshops, where aspiring inventors can get their hands on computerized milling machines and other high-end tools.
 
“Two-and-a-half years ago when we were started, it was rough,” said Jeremy Conrad, co-founder of Lemnos Labs, an incubator that provides funding, tools and guidance for startups working on physical products. “Now we have more relationships with venture capitalists who are interested in hardware than we have companies to fund.”
 
The growing wave of do-it-yourselfers may hold the key to manufacturing innovation. President Barack Obama sees children who are “makers of things, not just consumers of things” as a step toward rebuilding a withered U.S. manufacturing industry.
 
A decade ago, free, open-source code slashed the cost and complexity of starting a software company, sparking a boom in Internet and social media startups founded by 20-something, self-taught programmers. Now hardware is catching up to the open-source revolution, with common standards and a culture that encourages the sharing of designs and building blocks that save inventors the time and expense of reinventing the wheel.
 
Take the palm-sized “Arduino” computer board, ubiquitous in the maker movement. The roughly $20 item was developed for students, offering low price and relatively easy programming. Arduino lets do-it-yourselfers snap together and program interchangeable components such as GPS chips and motor controllers to run everything from robots to cocktail mixers.
 
Knitting to robotics
 
From families to entrepreneurs, growing numbers of people are rolling up their sleeves and discovering how much easier it has become to make things with their hands.
 
The advent of community workshops, often called hackerspaces, allow like-minded people to collaborate on everything from knitting to drones and often provide
A 3-D printer is pictured at TechShop in the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco, California, April 24, 2014.A 3-D printer is pictured at TechShop in the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco, California, April 24, 2014.
x
A 3-D printer is pictured at TechShop in the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco, California, April 24, 2014.
A 3-D printer is pictured at TechShop in the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco, California, April 24, 2014.
industrial tools - including laser-cutters and 3-D printers - too expensive for most people to buy on their own.
 
TechShop, one of the largest in its field, charges members a monthly fee for classes and access to tools, and has grown to nine locations around the country and 6,000 members since its first outlet opened in 2006.
 
While hackerspaces have existed for years in Europe and are expanding in Asia, northern California's technology legacy has made it a maker mecca.
 
Today's do-it-yourselfers follow a storied tradition in the San Francisco Bay area, where amateurs dabbled with early radios a century ago and electronics enthusiasts in the 1970s formed the Homebrew Computer Club, a group whose members included Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak.
 
Maker festivals have become major venues for hobbyists to show off their projects and hob-nob. In 2006, 22,000 people descended on magazine publisher Maker Media's first “Maker Faire” in Silicon Valley, a cross between a science fair and jamboree for adults. Since then, its events have expanded across the United States and into Japan and Europe with a total of 530,000 attendees at affiliated fairs last year. The flagship annual shindig in San Mateo, California, is on May 17 and 18.
 
Most makers are hobbyists, but a handful sell their wares to friends or online and an even smaller group aspires to win backing from investors, or from crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo, to manufacture their products.
 
Take theater technician Andrew Rutter, who took laser-cutting classes through the maker community in San Francisco soon after immigrating from Britain in 2010.
 
He used his new skill to build a high-end 3-D printer and soon after launched Type A Machines, which has grown to 21 employees and sold over 500 of the devices, assembling many of them at a former Caterpillar factory.
 
“There is a large percentage of people out there who have ideas and want to make stuff, but they lack the training and access to equipment to do it,” the 33-year-old said.
 
Ann Miura-Ko, a self-professed tinkerer and partner at Floodgate, which invests in early-stage startups, believes nostalgia for the Valley days of old plays a role in the Maker boom.
 
“Just the same way you have kids who have been coding for 10 years at the age of 16, you're going to see kids who have been making stuff for 10 years at the age of 16. If you see that, you'll know we're ready for the Mark Zuckerberg of hardware.” Miura-Ko said.
 
The end game?

 
To be sure, funding for software startups - from enterprise application developers to more consumer-friendly mobile apps - dwarfs hardware investments.
 
It may take years for hardware to excite investors the way it once did. Dealing with suppliers, assembly lines, transport, warehousing and retailers still make the hardware business daunting compared with software for many would-be entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.
 
But interest is rising. According to the National Venture Capital Association, investments in various categories of computer- and electronics-related startups grew 24 percent last year to $843 million after falling 26 percent in 2012. The group does not track a specific “hardware” category.
 
Kickstarter is another popular venue for makers seeking funding. Since the crowdsourcing platform's 2009 launch, more than $116 million has been raised for more than 1,400 technology-related projects, of which the majority have been hardware gadgets.
 
Eric Migicovsky cobbled together a prototype of his Pebble smartwatch using an Arduino board and an old cellphone screen. Released in 2013, Pebble devices helped set the tone in an emerging smartwatch category and competes with products from tech heavyweights like Samsung Electronics and Qualcomm, and it raised over $10 million on Kickstarter.
 
Kickstarter funders also backed Oculus Rift.
 
Semiconductor companies including Atmel, ARM Holdings and Intel Corp now sponsor maker events and workshops, hoping perhaps to happen upon the next Steve Jobs.
 
Even the White House is planning its own maker-meetup this year. It wants public schools to create more hackerspaces, and for universities to let students submit maker projects as part of their applications, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology started doing last year.
 
Products of the do-it-yourself movement - better 3-D printing, laser cutters, water jets and other tools - will help the United States safeguard and extend its lead in advanced manufacturing, said Christine Furstoss, who is in charge of manufacturing R&D at General Electric.
 
“We're proud of our manufacturing heritage, but we don't invent everything,” Furstoss said of GE, which has opened some of its patent catalog, including technology for cooling jets and computerized scooters, to inventors. “The spirit and tools of the maker movement are something we want to engage with.”

You May Like

In China, Mixed Signals on Ebola Controls

How authorities are monitoring at-risk individuals remains unclear, including whether there are quarantines for Chinese health workers returning from West Africa More

Video Women Voters Anxious Ahead of US Elections

Analysts say if women are focused on national security, it could be bad news for Democrats More

Solar's Future Looks Brighter

New technology and dropping prices are contributing to a surge in solar power More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Women Voters Anxious Ahead of US Electionsi
X
October 31, 2014 4:10 AM
Public opinion polls show American voters are deeply dissatisfied with their government and anxious about threats from abroad. This is especially true for a key voting group both Republicans and Democrats are trying hard to win over: women. Analysts say if women are focused on national security, it could be bad news for Democrats, with majority control of the Senate at stake. VOA’s Cindy Saine looks at the crucial role women voters will play in deciding the elections.
Video

Video Women Voters Anxious Ahead of US Elections

Public opinion polls show American voters are deeply dissatisfied with their government and anxious about threats from abroad. This is especially true for a key voting group both Republicans and Democrats are trying hard to win over: women. Analysts say if women are focused on national security, it could be bad news for Democrats, with majority control of the Senate at stake. VOA’s Cindy Saine looks at the crucial role women voters will play in deciding the elections.
Video

Video Victorious Secularists Face Challenge to Form Government in Tunisia

Official results from Tunisia show the Islamist Ennahda party has failed to win the second free election since the so-called "Arab Spring" uprising in 2011. Ennahda, which handed power to a government of technocrats pending the elections, lost out to the secular party Nidaa Tounes. Henry Ridgwell reports from London that the relatively peaceful poll offers some hope in a volatile region.
Video

Video Africa Tells its Story Through Fashion

In Africa, Fashion Week is a riot of colors, shapes, patterns and fabrics - against the backdrop of its ongoing struggle between nature and its fast-growing urban edge. How do these ideas translate into needle and thread? VOA’s Anita Powell visited this year’s Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Africa in Johannesburg to find out.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.

All About America

AppleAndroid

World Currencies

EUR
USD
0.7893
JPY
USD
107.68
GBP
USD
0.6238
CAD
USD
1.1214
INR
USD
61.185

Rates may not be current.