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

Karzai's Legacy: Missed Opportunities?

Afghanistan's president leaves behind a much different nation than the one he inherited, yet his legacy from 13 years in power is getting mixed reviews More

US Urges Restraint in Hong Kong Protests

Protesters angered by Beijing's decision to only approve candidates that it sanctions for Hong Kong's leadership elections in 2017 More

Archive of Forgotten UCLA Speeches Offers Snapshot of History

Recordings of prominent voices in social change, politics, science and literature from 1960s, early 1970s now available on YouTube 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.
Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenyai
X
Gabe Joselow
September 29, 2014 6:20 PM
Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Iran's Rouhani Skeptical on Syria Strikes

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed skepticism Friday that U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria could crush Islamic State militants. From New York, VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports the president was also hopeful that questions about Iran’s nuclear program could be resolved soon.
Video

Video US House Speaker: Congress Should Debate Authorization Against IS

As wave after wave of U.S. airstrikes target Islamic State militants, the speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives says he would be willing to call Congress back into session to debate a formal, broad authorization for the use of military force. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where legislators left town 10 days ago for a seven-week recess.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Video

Video Ebola Robs Liberians of Chance to Say Good-Bye to Loved Ones

In Liberia, where Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people, authorities have worked hard to convince people to allow specialized burial teams to take away dead bodies. But these safety measures, while necessary, make it hard for people to say good bye to their loved ones. VOA's Anne Look reports on the tragedy from Liberia.
Video

Video Reconstruction? What Reconstruction? Life After War in Gaza

It’s been a month since Israel and the Palestinians agreed to a ceasefire to end 52 days of an air and tank war that left 60,000 homes in Gaza damaged or destroyed and 110,000 homeless. Sharon Behn reports that lack of reconstruction is leading to despair.
Video

Video US, Saudi Arabia and UAE Hit Islamic State's Oil Revenue

The United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have bombed oil facilities operated by Islamic State militants in Syria. It was a truly collaborative effort, with the two Arab countries dropping the majority of the bombs. The 12 refineries targeted were estimated to generate as much as $2 million per day for the terrorist group. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb has the story.
Video

Video Russia's Food Sanctions Raise Price Worries, Hopes for Domestic Production

Russia retaliated against Western sanctions imposed for its actions in Ukraine by halting food imports from the West. The temporary import ban on food from Australia, the European Union, Norway and North America has Russian consumers concerned that they could face a sharp increase in food prices. But in an ironic twist, the restrictions aimed at the Kremlin have made Russia's domestic food producers hopeful this can boost their business. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Washington to Pyongyang: 'Shut This Evil System Down'

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is calling on North Korea to shut down prison camps and other human rights abuses following a United Nations Commission of Inquiry into "widespread and systematic human rights violations." VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid

World Currencies

EUR
USD
0.7866
JPY
USD
109.25
GBP
USD
0.6139
CAD
USD
1.1120
INR
USD
61.428

Rates may not be current.