The Ongoing Democratisation of Technology

28-08-2018 |   |  By Mark Patrick

Over recent decades, astounding engineering advances have brought us exciting new products that are ever more powerful, smaller, slimmer and lighter. The hidden price of this progress has been a tendency for full ownership of the relating technology to move out of the reach of the average person. In most cases, modern high-tech products are tightly-sealed and deliberately made difficult to open or repair, some components are almost too tiny to hold, and interface specifications are kept as closely-guarded secrets. For too many years, there has been a notable loss in the capacity of individuals to tinker with equipment, to repair and modify it, or to build their own similar and compatible devices.

Yet today, paradoxically, continuing progression in technology has begun to bring control of that technology back into the hands of the individual. New tools, new products and a rapidly growing global counter-culture are once again offering ordinary people the chance to build hardware without professional engineering skills or access to an industrial or laboratory environment.

Affordable tools like Arduino and Arduino compatible boards, Texas Instruments’ (TI’s) Launchpad, MikroElektronika add-on boards and Sparkfun modules are making it easier for everyday geeks or semi-geeks to get into technology. In fact, these new tools are enabling all kinds of people to join the community of makers and DIY enthusiasts. Perfectly in tune with the times, DIY technology is even environmentally-friendly, as it enables and encourages owners to re-use and repair their existing products, instead of dumping them in a landfill site.

   

The extent to which things can be taken is seemingly limitless. One high school student and exponent of DIY movement was recently able to design and built an integrated circuit amplifier in his garage - effectively employing similar photolithographic processes to those used in billion-dollar chip fabrication plants. Of course, this was not what could be described as a typical maker project, but even so, the fact that he had gained access to the knowledge and tools to make it possible is a direct result of the spread of maker philosophy.

While such pioneers push the limits, the real heart of the maker/tinkerer community is a dazzling variety of fascinating projects, many of which are genuinely useful, but still surprisingly cheap and easy. How about a simple Arduino Uno-controlled ‘Drinkbot’ that makes and mixes perfect cocktails with unfailing precision (as it never gets drunk) and costs only around $100 to build. Or perhaps try a more sober project - such honing your horticultural skills by implementing a wireless mesh connected soil moisture monitor built around TI LaunchPad microcontroller development boards. For beginners looking for a gentle introduction, projects like personalised bicycle safety lights driven by the ubiquitous 555 timer chip are ideal.

The maker movement represents a significant fork in the road for technology manufacturing. Mass-market consumer electronic devices continue to become even more inscrutable for tinkerers, while DIY platforms/devices are taking another path, offering almost unlimited potential to experiment, learn and build. Profitable small businesses are beginning to appear based on limited production runs of a few dozen/hundred useful niche devices built around Arduino, Sparkfun and similar products - often largely hand-built by individuals.

In a sense, technology is returning to its roots. Before the industrial revolution, practical technology tended to be the product of individual craftsmen - such as carpenters, blacksmiths, glassblowers, and so on. Often one person, or a very small group, would be responsible for almost the entire production process, from raw materials to the finished product.

Later, as volume production methods were developed, far greater efficiencies and economies of scale were achieved. However, the downside was the loss of personalization and a rise in the relative cost of niche products compared to mass-produced items. This was a ‘one size fits all’ approach epitomized by production-line innovator Henry Ford’s famous quip to car buyers that they could have any colour they liked “as long as it’s black”. Seen through the lens of history, the maker revolution almost runs the industrial revolution in reverse.

A sharing, open source perspective - in relation to hardware, software, documentation and tool chains - has been the key driver of the maker movement. Perhaps this also has a partial echo in a historical context. Although traditional craftsmen would zealously guard their secret methods (rather like many modern consumer electronics manufacturers design products that are sealed units unserviceable by their owners), once a discovery was leaked or reverse-engineered, there was often little legal protection to prevent the ideas being widely used.

 

Benefitting wisdom from the crowd

The current democratization of technology is being powered by an increase in device and component price-performance ratios and a huge improvement in documentation and community support, as much as from a general lowering of the intellectual and experiential barriers to entry. “Give [technology] to a huge expanded group of people who come up with new applications, and you harness the ideas and the creativity and the energy of everybody. That’s what really makes a revolution,” says one early cheerleader for maker culture, Chris Anderson, the long-serving editor of Wired magazine.

 

Patience is a prerequisite

While all these new tools for invention and creativity are accessible to almost anyone, new makers should be prepared for a challenge. Adopting an engineering mindset and developing an overall understanding of the technology is an important step towards making noteworthy achievements in the current maker and DIY environment, even though the tools and components on offer are constantly becoming more powerful, better documented and easier to use.

Thankfully, a huge, active and helpful online community is ready with advice, project descriptions and tuition for newcomers. In many cities, shared workspaces provide access to more costly devices like 3D printers, and are also a source of one-on-one mentoring from more experienced makers. Finally, board and tool vendors provide a wealth of information - blog content, how-to videos, articles, etc.

 

A virtuous circle - The maker movement boosts traditional manufacturing

Today, the DIY movement is actually proving itself to be of surprising benefit to mass-market manufacturers - allowing them to be more flexible, creative and responsive to consumer demands. In factory workshops and labs, engineers are now using devices based around maker-oriented development boards, like Arduino and Sparkfun, to swiftly prototype new products and components and to build ad-hoc testing and development rigs. Meanwhile, small groups of makers are stepping up into larger scale production themselves - by reaching out to potential customers and using crowdfunding campaigns to outsource manufacturing of devices that they have personally prototyped and developed.

In an even more direct form of community/manufacturer interaction, companies like HyperLoop and Local Motors have turned to makers for inspiration. For example, advanced manufacturing firm Arconic engaged with the global maker community by crowd-sourcing the development of a critical aircraft component - seeking out new ideas and providing a cash reward for the best concepts. With more than 300 proposals submitted, the company was able to gain unique perspectives by “tapping into the knowledge base of people from different cultures and a variety of industries,” a representative said. The community contributors including a sculptor, a woodworker, and one who came from an automotive racing background, with the final component using the best ideas from a variety of sources.

 

Read more: What’s all this game-changing MRAM gizmo-tech about – anyway?


By Mark Patrick

Mark joined Mouser Electronics in July 2014 having previously held senior marketing roles at RS Components. Prior to RS, Mark worked at Texas Instruments in applications support and technical sales roles. He holds a first class Honours Degree in Electronic Engineering from Coventry University.

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