Sunday, 04 December 2011

More than just digital quilting

The Economist has some interesting coverage[1] on the Maker movement and talks about the do-it-yourself culture, open hardware and open source and how it can foster innovation and spur science and technology.

A few choice blurbs from the article:

The maker movement is both a response to and an outgrowth of digital culture, made possible by the convergence of several trends. New tools and electronic components let people integrate the physical and digital worlds simply and cheaply. Online services and design software make it easy to develop and share digital blueprints. And many people who spend all day manipulating bits on computer screens are rediscovering the pleasure of making physical objects and interacting with other enthusiasts in person, rather than online. Currently the preserve of hobbyists, the maker movement’s impact may be felt much farther afield.

Start with hardware. The heart of New York’s Maker Faire was a pavilion labelled with an obscure Italian name: “Arduino” (meaning “strong friend”). Inside, visitors were greeted by a dozen stands displaying credit-card-sized circuit boards. These are Arduino micro-controllers, simple computers that make it easy to build all kinds of strange things: plants that send Twitter messages when they need watering, a harp made of lasers, an etch-a-sketch clock, a microphone that serves as a breathalyser, or a vest that displays your speed when riding a bike.

Such projects are taking off because Arduino is affordable (basic boards cost $20), can easily be extended using add-ons called “shields” to add new functions and has a simple programming system that almost anyone can use. “Not knowing what you are doing is an advantage,” says Massimo Banzi, an Italian engineer and designer who started the Arduino project a decade ago to enable students to build all kinds of contraptions. Arduino has since become popular—selling around 200,000 units in 2011—because Mr Banzi made the board’s design “open source” (which means that anyone can download its blueprints and build their own versions), and because he has spent much time and effort getting engineers all over the world involved with the project.

Applying the open-source approach to hardware has also driven the development of the maker movement’s other favourite piece of kit, which could be found everywhere at the Maker Faire in New York: 3D printers. These machines are another way to connect the digital and the physical realms: they take a digital model of an object and print it out by building it up, one layer at a time, using plastic extruded from a nozzle. The technique is not new, but in recent years 3D printers have become cheap enough for consumers. MakerBot Industries, a start-up based in New York, now sells its machines for $1,300. The output quality is rapidly improving thanks to regular upgrades, many of them suggested by users.


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