The current boom in hardware development kits for making low-cost connected objects is giving rise to a generation of ‘makers’ who are often as innovative as engineering experts coming through traditional R&D channels.

A whole range of development kits now on the market provide customers with cheap, easily programmable small electronic chips that can be connected to your computer or the Internet via Bluetooth. Whether we are talking about the Arduino single-board microcontroller or the Scratch free programming language developed by the MIT Media Lab, the main target market seems to be youngsters and novices. However, this modern Do It Yourself (DIY) mindset – what Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson has dubbed the ‘maker’ culture – appears to be having a definite impact on innovation in traditional manufacturing as well. Basically this is all part of the ‘hacker’ movement, and its aficionados are out there competing with the traditional in-company R&D process. Nothing really new there when you realise that some of the world’s greatest inventions were the work of independent inventors at a time in history when high quality tools were still affordable. In the same vein, modern tech tools like Arduino, Scratch and 3D printers might perhaps give rise to new Innovation clusters created by groups of hackers rather than laboratories.

The era of low-cost programming kits

Among the kits on offer, the MbientLab is currently riding the wave of connected objects that work with your smartphone. The basic idea is to enable people to create a mother-board that could serve as a prototype for new wearable devices invented and put together by maker-customers. In fact, although wearable electronics usually come with a stiff price tag attached, the technology for tracking bio-data from the human body is now quite standardised. A number of sensors – buttons, meteorological sensors, RGB LED units, et al – have been incorporated into the low-cost MbientLab hardware kit. The company’s two founders are well aware that these items are very cheap to buy separately, and have basically selected the smallest common denominator items for the primary kit. For example they have integrated accelerometer technology into a small mother-board to make it more easily operational.
An early proponent of the Internet of Things (IoT), Joachim Horn started London-based SamLabs in 2013 in conjunction with other designers from the Royal College of Arts in the UK capital and then took it through the Microsoft Ventures Accelerator programme. The SamLabs idea is ‘DIY IoT’ – extending the IoT beyond R&D laboratories and making it easy for anyone to connect everyday objects to the Internet by programming electronic chips. The kit provides a platform for connecting up the hardware and relevant software. The connectors communicate via Bluetooth and the user can programme the various modules to react to each other. For example, a light-sensitive connector can be programmed to communicate with loudspeakers so as to increase music volume as the room lighting gets brighter. The programming kit, which is showcased on KickStarter at an early price of £45, is aimed particularly at children and novices, allowing them to create the equivalent ‘LEGO 2.0’, which they can use module-fashion without knowing how to code. Traditional games publishers have been giving the kit high marks – a good illustrating of how independent ‘makers’ can impact innovation.

Makers outdoing R&D departments?

Meanwhile the Tiny Arduino Compatible Platform from the TinyCircuits team, crowdfunded via KickStarter, is a miniature open-source electronics platform based on the easy-to-use hardware and software Arduino platform, which makers can incorporate into all their everyday objects. For instance, TinyScreen enables users to miniaturise computers for watches, glasses or video games.  The dozens of TinyCircuits products available – including sensors, processors, motors and LEDs – incorporate all the essential functions of a computer, from processors to memory. Ken Burns, founder and President of TinyCircuits, which is very much part of the ‘open source’ movement, wants to make digital and connected hardware available for everyone to work with. “People at all levels in an organisation will be able to create prototypes and test concepts, and no longer be imprisoned by the old R&D mentality,” he predicts. Young designer Samuel Matson has for example used a TinyCircuits micro-processor to create his ‘Immersion’ connected headset, which gathers data on the stress levels of video games players during the various phases of the game. This invention, based on low-cost circuitry, has come to fruition entirely independently of any industrial development agenda. 
These three open source/DIY/maker initiatives all illustrate a strong current trend: facilitating and accelerating the creative process by using ready-made kits. These hardware programming kits, which draw inspiration from the Arduino, help to shorten the decision-making chain from concept to prototype through to series production. The non-profit student project which originated the low-cost Arduino was simply intended to help more people to create software for controlling hardware, using a simplified language called ‘Processing’. Education is an obvious field of application, but professional engineers are also likely to benefit from achieving cost reductions on prototypes, especially now that the use of additive layer manufacturing (‘3D printing’) for this purpose has become widespread. Meanwhile Ken Burns argues that although manufacturers and research institutions are not about to stop carrying out big-budget research projects any time soon just because of the advent of the tech DIY movement, ‘makers’ will nevertheless henceforth have an increasing role to play in the overall innovation process in our society and we are likely to see a real resurgence in individual inventiveness. 
By Simon Guigue