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

Missouri Town Braces for Possible Racial Unrest

Situation in Ferguson hinges on whether white police officer will be indicted for August shooting death of unarmed black teen; decision could come Monday More

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of 1930s Deadly Famine

President Poroshenko compares Soviet-era ‘genocide’ to current tactics of pro-Russia rebels in Ukraine's east More

S. Philippines Convictions Elusive 5 Years After Election-related Killings

Officials vowed to deliver justice as the nation marked the anniversary of the country's worst political massacre that left 58 dead, more than half media 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.
New Skateboard Defies Gravityi
X
November 21, 2014 5:07 AM
A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Gay Evangelicals Argue That Bible Does Not Condemn Homosexuality

More than 30 U.S. states now recognize same-sex marriages, and an increasing number of mainline American churches are blessing them. But evangelical church members- which account for around 30 percent of the U.S. adult population - believe the Bible unequivocally condemns homosexuality. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender evangelicals are coming out. Backed by a prominent evangelical scholar, they argue that the traditional reading of the bible is wrong.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Mexico Protests Escalate Over Disappearances

Protests in Mexico over 43 students missing since September continue to escalate, reflecting growing anger among Mexicans about a political system they view as corrupt, and increasingly tainted by the drug trade. Mounting outrage over the disappearances is now focused on the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, accused of not doing enough to end insecurity in the country. More from VOA's Victoria Macchi.
Video

Video US Senate Votes Down Controversial Oil Pipeline - For Now

The U.S. Senate has rejected construction of a controversial pipeline to transport Canadian oil to American refineries. The $5 billion project still could be approved next year, but it faces a possible veto by President Barack Obama. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the pipeline has exposed deep divisions in Congress about America’s energy future.
Video

Video Can Minsk Cease-fire Agreement Hold?

Growing tensions between government troops and separatists in eastern Ukraine further threaten a cease-fire agreement reached two months ago in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Critics of U.S. policy in Ukraine say it is time the Obama administration gives up on that much-violated cease-fire and moves toward a new deal with Russia. VOA's Scott Stearns has more.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Ferguson Church Grapples with Race Relations

Many white residents of Ferguson, Missouri, say they chose to live there because of the American Midwest community's diversity. So, they were shocked when a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager in August – and shaken by the resulting protests and violence. Some local churches are leading conversations on how to go forward. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid

World Currencies

EUR
USD
0.8050
JPY
USD
117.90
GBP
USD
0.6376
CAD
USD
1.1259
INR
USD
61.655

Rates may not be current.