hardware the new software?

26 March, 2007

The first part of the O’Reilly Radar Executive Briefing mainly dealt with the way manufacturing of hardware is changing. It started off with a talk about the Make: magazine with the editor and publisher Dale Dougherty. Basically what is happening is that a some people like to hack hardware to make new things. This could be a trend in the future. However, at the same time the observation was that in US education (and probably in more places) hands-on learning is happening less often. Already ‘shop-class’ where you learn how to build things disappears because of liability issues.

The session continued with Brian Warshawsky of Potenco, who showed some prototypes of a power supply for the ‘One Laptop per Child’ project. The way they are working has changed dramatically through the use of (real) rapid prototyping. With the use of contract manufacturing in China and prototyping devices like 3D printers they are able to get working prototypes of their ideas within a week.

Bunnie Huang, working on the Chumby, told a similar story. He added an open source hardware model to the picture. A common perceived problem with manufacturing in China is the potential problems with IPR. When he moved part of the manufacturing to China, the companies started offered to sign NDA’s. His reply was: “no need, all blueprints are on this URL”. In this case, the businessmodel is based on a subscription model for the widgets running on Chumby.

Simon Wardley also joined the stage and put forward the idea that hardware is become more and more malleable. Would it even go so far that it might become more malleable than software in the future? Also, this provokes the question whether if there should be ‘hardware compilers’. A compiler should be able to make decisions on how to put together products, and what materials (and manufacturing) should be chosen. The end goal of this ‘agile’ manufacturing is not to move to China, but to get manufacturing into the home, let people make their own stuff.

Of course the discussion also moved into the area of printing electronics. Not just for the sake of quick prototyping, but for the virtues of this technology. It should become possible to print (conference) bags with solar panels. One step further would be to have 3D printers that can also include the electronics into the printed models.

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