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Arduino, Makers and New Manufacturing

by on March 17, 2012

It was not long ago that many of the electronics we bought were black boxes. People commonly complained that they no longer knew how to fix their stuff when it broke, nor how to alter it to better suit their needs. It seemed that the things we used on a daily basis were once removed from our selves. They were so complex that access to their internal functions was beyond a general consumers knowledge. Access to this knowledge was tied to a corporate/university production and knowledge structure which only those willing to spend years in EE degrees could access. But this relationship is changing. Through the efforts of a loosely linked group of hobbyists, engineers, artists, intellectuals and activists the knowledge and tools needed to become makers, tinkerers, hackers, augmentors and creative destroyers of electronics (and many other mediums for that matter) is becoming more accessible to anyone who has the time and will. This new population of makers have found holes in the ivory walls of the University/Corporate citadel of technical knowledge, some coming from within the institutions some from far a field. If makers can sufficiently exploit these holes a major change in the relationship we (consumers come makers) have with our daily objects is bound to come about.

One of the objects most representative of this movement is the Arduino. “Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software.” (Arduino website) The ease of use and low barrier to entry (i.e. low cost) of this platform has allowed many who want to experiment, learn, create, recreate, re-purpose, inject, or otherwise enter the world of electronics to do so. The range of projects based on this platform is probably already larger than what is sold on the shelves of Best Buy or the catalogs of Amazons on-line electronics’s store. Electronic garden controls, helicopters, game controllers, electronic textiles, a multitude of useful, and gleefully useless robots, represent a small list what is being built on this platform. These objects are being designed and built by an amazing array of people, from Electrical Engineers to artist and PhDs to middle school students. The Arduino’s accessibility is helping to pry open the area of knowledge around electronics.

The question I was asked to address in this writing though is how might the Arduino affect the world of manufacturing. On a purely development cycle level the cheapness and ease of use of the Arduino allows for fast prototyping which will lower costs. Lower development costs can move innovation outside the well financed and well guarded labs of electronics’ giants. This in itself can allow for greater diversity of electronics to be designed and built by greater diversity of sources for a greater diversity of purposes. But what will have an even greater impact on manufacturing is the personalization of electronics that the Arduino, and the maker movement in general are bringing about. The amazing diversity of projects already based on the Arduino platform are bringing electronics into many new and unexpected aspects of human life. The personalization of electronics through individual tinkering or tradesman like development shops is embedding electronics into everything imaginable. From bicyclist gloves with embedded turn signal LEDS, to belts which use a compass and a tactile interface to inform its wearer of north direction new ideas and more useful implementation of old ideas are being created everyday. The final assembly of electronics is moving into the consumer makers hands for more individually useful or whimsical purposes. In this way the Arduino is a wedge in the ivory University/Corporate walls that will alter the structure of manufacturing. By giving access to the internals of what were black boxes before the Arduino is changing how a generation thinks about and interacts with electronics.

The Arduino, along with the maker movement, has a chance to greatly personalize the technologies which the electronics and other consumer products giants have helped create. This personalization will require a larger group of people to be stepped in the knowledge of designing, fabricating, manipulating etc the materials and ideas that have been the preview of engineers. It will also require a remapping of who designs, fabricates and assembles things. IT seems that large capital companies will still have a major role to play in this hypothetical economy, making the components and tools that are used in final products. But final assembly of many products may move much closer to the final user of items, if not to the home of the final user themselves.

The Arduino and maker community in general , a highly educated and hungry group, represent a new phase of electronic and information age people. They they have made technology an integral parts of their lives yet don’t rely on the gate keepers of electronics to come up with how they will interact ideas. The infinite possibility of what electronics and information can do is being opened up by millions in their home workshops, hacker spaces, class rooms, and grudgingly in some forward looking commercial labs and their training grounds universities. The technologies used by makers have been created by massive capital and control regiemes which stand to lose a grip on these technologies through the vast amount of tinkering that is going on. If product design and final manufacturing are becoming something that can be done at home by a great many people large consumer electronics corporations may find it hard to be the cutting edge of electronics. Their massive structures will not allow them adapt quick enough as smaller maker collectives, networks, or even some brilliant individuals will bring out more useful products or ways of using technology. Large capital will be able to incorporate improve and reduce cost but will not be able to be the forefront. Think of having millions of Wozniaks and Jobs in their garages with even more resources trying to solve an even greater array of problems but, hopefully, with a democratic ethic! I am excited.

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