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Hardware Hacking Build

Report From HOPE: The State of Community Fabrication 32

Four years ago, there were around ten hackerspaces across America; today, Hackerspaces (Techshops, Makerspaces) are within driving distance of a good chunk of the population. The RepRap can be assembled for a moderate price, and those with a bit more cash to burn can get one preassembled from multiple sources. Makerfaires are held in most major cities, sites like Instructables and Hackaday are thriving, and all things "Maker" are cool. Far McKon was at HOPE 9 giving an update on how far community fabrication has come since his 2008 presentation at the The Last HOPE (mp3 of the talk), what threats lie on the horizon, and where we might find ourselves in another four years.

Update: 09/20 21:02 GMT by U L : There's an audio recording of the talk available.

Much has improved in the last four years. 3D printers for one have gone from being rare and expensive items to something you can build with a reasonable effort, or purchase for a mere arm & leg instead of your first born. The copyleft nature of the 3D printer community and active competition between folks selling them is certainly reminiscent of the early days of commercial Free Software (making things quite exciting).

Hackerspaces have spread like wildfire, encouraging cooperation and granting access to DIY manufacturing tools to the masses without forcing everyone to shell out lots of money.

McKon admits that electronics kits are only a bit more accessible than they were in 2008 — Arduino, Beagleboard, Raspberry Pi, et al are certainly welcome — but we're nowhere near the "building hardware being as easy as software" dream McKon predicted in 2008. He predicts that four years from now will see about as much incremental change; hardware is hard.

On the other hand, Laser cutters haven't really budged in cost (they were around $8000 then, and ... surprise, $8000 now). But, hey, what's your local Hackerspace for? McKon speculated that laser cutters have been produced by entrenched proprietary vendors which have no profit-motive to decrease prices. Entering the market is far more challenging than jumping into a market with open hardware participants, something echoed later in the talk when McKon noted that Open Source ideals more easily infiltrated upcoming industries than entrenched ones generally (where's my Open Source fridge?).

Software for 3D printing still sucks. OpenSCAD is workable but difficult, Blender isn't really suited for the task, and in any case the bar to generating a model that can actually be printed is way too high. During the Q&A someone mentioned that Autodesk was adding features aimed at 3D printing; McKon noted that Open Source design tools were encroaching on Autodesk et al's turf. Proprietary software packages are going to have to improve (great for their users), but Open Source development has distinct advantages that, at least in this area, are leading to ever-accelerating development. Still, he emphasized that the only way Open Source tools would win is if people contributed. So go and contribute, or else.

The Hackerspace community has spread the ideals of Free Culture into device manufacturing. McKon sees two business models: Seed and Feed. In the Feed model, you are a consumer and the device is closed. You can see this in proprietary additive printers where the extrusion material often comes in closed cartridges ala inkjet printers and the manufacturer doesn't release information on controlling the device. The Feed model prevails in the world today.

The Seed model is a mixture of DIY and peer to peer sharing of knowledge. Makerbot Industries might sell you an additive printer, but what you do with it is produce, and everything is out in the open so you can make your own repairs, source your own supplies, etc.

The Internet had the promise of expanding P2P and Seed culture, but has become more about consumption (a theme that proved prevalent at HOPE9). Home manufacturing similarly pushes us toward a producer culture; the change this may bring is not all so rosy.

Four years ago "You wouldn't pirate a car would you?" was an absurd parody of itself; now replicating an army of RPG miniatures isn't really stretching the imagination. This poses a possible threat to the revenue models of some rather profitable businesses; and thus the threat that we may see lobbying from those entities similar to what the RIAA/MPAA have done for the last decade.

The pace of innovation in open hardware might be threatened by patents in the way they have affected software: as the twenty year term seems infinite in the software world, the pace of development in the hardware world seems to have caught up. McKon especially feared a patent arms-race like we've seen with Smartphone companies leading to crippling lawsuits for everyone. Luckily, McKon reports that this certainly has not begun, but notes that a few "hey, we've got these patents and you might be violating them, thought you might want to know" letters have been received by some.

Right now Makerspaces and Maker culture are the hot thing; McKon believes that Maker culture is well on its way to the peak of inflated expectations, and that a crash is inevitable. Some funded hackerspaces may lose funding, some will disappear, device manufacturers will consolidate, etc. But, eventually things will level out to a sustainable Hackerspace population. What that level is remains to be seen, but what is known is that something is brewing.

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Report From HOPE: The State of Community Fabrication

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