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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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  • by acidfast7 ( 551610 ) on Thursday July 19, 2012 @01:44PM (#40701461)

    I want it like it was back in the early days of the c64 demoscene. Too much formality/expense is a bad thing. Personally, I also think it needs to happen where a strong social system is in place, so that unemployed people can dedicate all of their time to it.

    Becoming too formal/organized/expensive is something that I don't want to see :(

    • It's funny you should say that. Several months ago I visited my local Hackerspace on its open-house night, just to see what it was all about. I learned that a lot of activity happens during the day, when most people are at an office job. The hackerspace charges dues in order to stay open, and yet they even have events and classes that sometimes require fees, plus there are charges for consumables. I understand that they want to stay open without going commercial, but my first thought was: "Hey, all these pe
      • I was thinking more along the lines of long-term un/underemployed "hackers" subsidized by the state.

        A converse way of think about it would be a professor who is subsidized to design (through salary support and funding for consumables).

        I think the distraction of a job or the necessity to make "a return on an investment" will stifle monumental innovation and promote incremental, albeit still important, refinements.

        • I was thinking more along the lines of long-term un/underemployed "hackers" subsidized by the state.

          A converse way of think about it would be a professor who is subsidized to design (through salary support and funding for consumables).

          I think the distraction of a job or the necessity to make "a return on an investment" will stifle monumental innovation and promote incremental, albeit still important, refinements.

          2 obvious problems:

          "State subsidization," i.e. unemployment benefits, are limited in amount and duration; unemployment checks barely pay the essential bills, if that, and for an extremely limited time frame. Also, unless the person receiving those benefits makes a concerted effort to find gainful employment, their support will be removed. The whole process is gamed towards forcing those receiving benefits toward re-entering the workforce, and rightfully so - there's no legitimate reason why I, a gainfully

        • I was thinking more along the lines of long-term un/underemployed "hackers" subsidized by the state.

          A converse way of think about it would be a professor who is subsidized to design (through salary support and funding for consumables).

          I think the distraction of a job or the necessity to make "a return on an investment" will stifle monumental innovation and promote incremental, albeit still important, refinements.

          So perhaps we as a country should also invest in local inventors, the same way we issue arts grants? At least these physical hackers are learning valuable skills.

  • The big change is... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by houstonbofh ( 602064 ) on Thursday July 19, 2012 @01:49PM (#40701519)
    The big change is that now, playing with "stuff" is cool. It used to be software, or games or music... But that was just data. Now that mentality is in the real world. People are actually interested in learning how to weld, for example. We need this in our culture, (Speaking from a USA centric view of "our culture" here) and we have not wanted to actually make stuff for some time. We have been exporting actually making stuff to a single region of the world for far too long.

    Who knows... This might actually do something about the balance of trade. Soon you may be able make a spoon or a door knob for less trouble than getting a Chinese one from WalMart.
    • by Guano_Jim ( 157555 ) on Thursday July 19, 2012 @02:04PM (#40701731)

      If 3D printing progresses as fast in the next five years as it has in the last five, people will just skip over the "learn to weld" step and just do everything in software.

      I'm waiting for high-end 3D printing to show up at Home Depot, so I can finally print my life-size Game of Thrones toilet.

  • Purdue tried that and had huge backlash.

    We are Boilermakers, not Makers.

    Apologies in advance to international, or even national readers who are not familiar with the university.
  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Thursday July 19, 2012 @02:05PM (#40701747) Homepage

    Oh, please.

    I spend a lot of time at TechShop, and I'm not that impressed with "maker culture".

    The RepRap is a piece of crap. Yes, the live-in-their-parents-basement crowd can make RPG figures with one. That's about all it's good for - little plastic decorative junk. Melting pieces of ABS string together can only take you so far.There are better machines at higher price points that can make working parts, but you have to spend upwards of $5000 to get anything good.

    As for making electronics, that's never been easier. Custom board-making services are cheaper and easier to use than ever. (Making boards yourself using iron-on toner transfer is obsolete - the pro shops do a much better job, can do plated-through holes, and end up being cheaper than DIY jobs.) Digi-Key has almost every part in existence and can deliver in 24 hours. Good electronic CAD programs are available for free. You can even get free auto-routing. SPICE will run on most desktop computers, so you can debug analog circuits in simulation. Surface mount reflow has filtered down to the hobbyist level.

    The reason more people aren't building their own electronics from parts is that you can usually buy a cheap consumer product to do whatever it is you want to do. You need both a lot of theory and assembly technique to build new electronics. Writing an iPhone app is much easier. Building your own audio system or TV to save money hasn't made economic sense since the 1960s.

    TechShop has a few different groups of users. There are artists, who are usually turning out decorative stuff on the laser cutters, vinyl cutter, CNC embroidery machines, or silk-screen machines. There are pro machinists, who are doing jobs for pay on TechShop's equipment. There's a small group with the motto "designed in Silicon Valley, made in Silicon Valley", which makes little plastic iPhone stands. (As a long-time Silicon Valley resident, I see this as pathetic. The high-tech stuff comes from China and we make cheap plastic accessories for it.) There are people who are just there to be on their laptop, because it's cheaper than Starbucks. There are people working on cars. There are a few people doing live-steam model railroad builds. A few people are building robots, but the ones that are any good are from people who do robots as their day job.

    It's a hobby shop. It's not about changing the world.

    • by HWguy ( 147772 ) on Thursday July 19, 2012 @02:35PM (#40702117)

      Experiences must vary. Maker culture isn't overrated in my experience. A project at my local hackerspace just got some NASA funding. Other projects there include some pretty amazing art installations with heavy-duty FPGA-based circuitry and algorithms. The sharing of expertise is really useful and helpful. And it's heartening to see those with a lot of experience as engineers mentoring those who are new to electronics or mechanical design.

      I've found 3d printers useful for prototyping plastic parts. One just needs to understand their limitations. Many people are just playing around with them now but they will continue to evolve and just like the evolution of the PC a wider and wider group of people will find the technology useful for solving real-world problems.

      Sparkfun has created a fantastically successful business encapsulating electronic technology in a way that is useful for people to design their own custom electronic systems. The boom in inexpensive or free easy-to-use IDEs and cheap dev boards is bringing embedded computing to a huge audience. I still use expensive dev tools and environments for some jobs but it's really easy and fast to program an Arduino to do something simple. Spend some time looking at a site like hackaday or even instructables and you'll see a wide breadth of very creative maker creations.

    • by Smidge204 ( 605297 ) on Thursday July 19, 2012 @03:03PM (#40702469) Journal

      What is your definition of "working parts?" I spent ~$800 on my machine and it is perfectly capable of producing functional items from gadgets and tools to toys to parts for other things. Just because a lot of people make trinkets with it does not mean that's all the machine is capable of.

      I will say, however, that getting high quality pieces requires skill and patience to tweak the machine *just right.*

      If the extruder type machines aren't your bag, there are open source sintering machine designs out there, complete with open source powder and binder formulas.

  • I'm sorry, I guess I'm just stupid, but when I read a story titled "Report from HOPE", I expect to find a link to a video of the presentation, or a transcript, or something. Probably I missed it -- maybe the audio link that I took for the 2008 presentation? I didn't get past the lame apologies. This has happened before: can't slashdot have an asterisk or something to indicate THE MAIN LINK REFERRED TO IN THE STORY TITLE???!! Sorry, bit frustrated here, even tho, yes, the wiki article on open source hard
    • Unfortunately, neither video nor audio nor transcripts nor slides of the presentation have appeared yet. They aren't likely to for at least another week... there might even be a quick story on it when most of the talks are online.

      Blame Canada.

  • Let me know when I can print out a Lucy Liu bot.

  • by guttentag ( 313541 ) on Thursday July 19, 2012 @02:42PM (#40702229) Journal
    What the heck is RepRap?

    "RepRap is humanity's first general-purpose self-replicating manufacturing machine."

    I know what you're thinking. Prior art, right? Of course your mind thinks about prior art first... This is slashdot. You're thinking "didn't mother nature already create a general-purpose self-replicating manufacturing machine?" Sort of, except rabbits aren't really general purpose. They are specifically bred for the purpose of breeding again, like Tribbles. What about lawyers, you ask? Again, they are specifically manufactured for the purpose of manufacturing demand for more lawyers. The key here is that "general purpose" means RepRap can be useful for other things. Even good things. That's why it's exciting.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      What the heck is RepRap?
      "RepRap is humanity's first general-purpose self-replicating manufacturing machine."

      The truthful version: RepRaps are hobbyist 3D printers incapable of making anything but rather low-quality plastic parts from a handful of thermosetting plastic compounds. They do not, in any sense of the phrase, self-replicate. Even if you put aside their total inability to assemble things, RepRaps can make only a tiny fraction of the parts needed to build another RepRap. They can't build transistors, microcontrollers, capacitors, stepper motors, wire, and so forth.

      In short, the existence of RepRaps is

    • Except it's not first, not by a long shot:

      * Using a stone axe to cut handles for more stone axes predates it by about a million years. And, no, a RepRap can't copy *all* it's own parts, only the plastic ones, so only being able to make the handles does not disqualify the axe from being first.

      * Where did medieval blacksmiths get their tools? Generally they made them using blacksmith's tools. In fact, if you don't have any tools, you can make them from nothing starting with ore and charcoal in a furnace.

  • by DanielRavenNest ( 107550 ) on Thursday July 19, 2012 @05:17PM (#40704327)

    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.

    Not only is the answer for a car "Hell yes! I would if I could.", but here is a place you can do it legally:

    http://opensourceecology.org/wiki/Wikispeed_SGT01 [opensourceecology.org]

  • ...what you think it means. You have maker and repraps, nice and clean places where politicians and 'community leaders' are welcome. Places where people would not seriously consider smoking weed or breaking the law. Your places buy furniture from IKEA. Our hackerspaces are in rundown buildings with fat Net connections, with wierd lights and music, found furniture and v-ger'd computers, old console games and circuit bending, law bending, beer drinking, funny hair, places that smell like stale beer and burnt

Karl's version of Parkinson's Law: Work expands to exceed the time alloted it.