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

Hostage Crisis Could Divide Japan Over Plans to Boost Military

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday the government is working closely with the Jordanian government to secure the release of remaining Japanese hostage Kenji Goto More

Video Brussels Shaken as New Greek Leader Challenges Europe’s Austerity Drive

Country's youngest ever PM Alexis Tsipras, 40, sworn in Monday and says he will restore dignity to Greece by ending spending cuts More

Multimedia National Geographic Photo Camps Empower Youth

Annual mentoring program's mission is to give young people a voice to tell their own stories through photography 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.
Obama Urges Closer Economic Ties During Historic India Visiti
X
Aru Pande
January 26, 2015 9:33 PM
U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States and India must do better to capitalize on untapped potential in their economic relationship - by removing some of the roadblocks to greater trade and investment. As VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports from New Delhi, Obama spoke after participating in India’s Republic Day celebration.
Video

Video Obama Urges Closer Economic Ties During Historic India Visit

U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States and India must do better to capitalize on untapped potential in their economic relationship - by removing some of the roadblocks to greater trade and investment. As VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports from New Delhi, Obama spoke after participating in India’s Republic Day celebration.
Video

Video US, EU Threaten New Russia Sanctions Over Ukraine

U.S. President Barack Obama has blamed Russia for an attack by Ukrainian separatists that left dozens dead in the port of Mariupol and cast further doubt on the viability of last year’s cease-fire with the Kyiv government. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington.
Video

Video White House Grapples With Yemen Counterterrorism Strategy

Reports say the U.S. has carried out a drone strike on suspected militants in Yemen, the first after President Barack Obama offered reassurances the U.S. is continuing its counterterrorism operations in the country. The future of those operations has been in question following the collapse last week of Yemen’s government. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Kerry Warns Against Violence in Nigeria Election

US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Nigeria Sunday in a show of the level of concern within the U.S. and the international community over next month’s presidential election. Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Zoo Animals Show Their Artistic Sides

The pursuit of happiness is so important, America's founding fathers put it in the Declaration of Independence. Any zookeeper will tell you animals need enrichment, just like humans do. So painting, and even music, are part of the Smithsonian National Zoo's program to keep the animals happy. VOA’s June Soh met some animal artists at the zoo in Washington. Faith Lapidus narrates.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Saudi, Yemen Developments Are Sudden Complications for Obama

The death of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and the collapse of Yemen’s government have cast further uncertainty on U.S. efforts to fight militants in the Middle East and also contain Iran’s influence in the region. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports on the new complications facing the Obama administration and its Middle East policy.
Video

Video Progress, Some Areas of Disagreement in Cuba Talks

U.S. and Cuban officials are reporting progress from initial talks in Havana on re-establishing diplomatic ties. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State (for Western Hemisphere Affairs) Roberta Jacobson said while there was agreement on a broad range of issues, there also are some “profound disagreements” between Washington and Havana. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins has the story.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video S. Korean Businesses Want to End Trade Restrictions With North

Business leaders in South Korea are calling for President Park Geun-hye to ease trade restrictions with North Korea that were put in place in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship.Pro-business groups argue that expanding trade and investment is not only good for business, it is also good for long-term regional peace and security. VOA’s Brian Padden reports.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid

World Currencies

EUR
USD
0.8893
JPY
USD
118.31
GBP
USD
0.6660
CAD
USD
1.2459
INR
USD
61.427

Rates may not be current.