Wired on Open Hardware (plus Being an Open Design Geek)

Wired recently published an excellent article on Open Source Hardware entitle “Build It. Share It. Profit. Can Open Source Hardware Work?”

It’s a great summary of the current situation, and writer Clive Thompson cites the likes of Arduino, Adafruit, NYCresistor and Instructables as he recounts our journey from the gestation of Linux to the popularity of Netgear’s open source routers. Particularly, Thompson focuses on an interview with Arduino creators Gianluca Martino, Massimo Banzi, and David Cuartielles, and there are some interesting insights into the genesis of that project and where their business advantage actually lies:

“Because you’re the inventor, though, the community of users will inevitably congregate around you, much as Torvalds was the hub for Linux. You will always be the first to hear about cool improvements or innovative uses for your device. That knowledge becomes your most valuable asset, which you can sell to anyone.”

Arduino creator, Massimo Banzi by Matt BiddulphArduino creator, Massimo Banzi of Tinker.it by Matt Biddulph

My favourite quote however comes from MIT professor, Eric von Hippel:

“In a sense, hardware is becoming much more like software, up to the point where you actually fabricate an object,” von Hippel says. “That’s why you’re starting to see open source techniques in hardware. Design is largely going to shift out from manufacturers to the communities.”

What an exciting idea: a shifting of design work from the brutal world of commercial manufacture as we know it, to communities of people sharing knowledge. Is it only me who finds the choice a no-brainer? Isn’t this the future we’ve dreamed of making for ourselves?

Thompson writes of the difference that, as he puts them, ‘geeks’ have made to Arduino – it is their dedicated hacking that make Arduino and any successful piece of open hardware, well, successful. We as designers are the geeks of open design – and goodness knows I know a lot of geeky designers. I might go as far as to say that the reason you are reading this blog is that you might be a bit of a laser-cutting/digital manufacturing/design culture geek: design geeks have tools for open design laid out in front of us, and it is we who will shape our future products. We can only look to the open hardware movement as a role model for open design in general, as there really is an increasingly tiny difference. All it takes is some guts. Or some stupidity, if you take heart to Thompson’s final paragraph.

via Wired

Engraved Into Memory: Xylocopa’s Mad Scientist Alphabet Blocks

File this under ‘unique things to do with laser engraving’:

Xylocopa's Mad Scientist Alphabet Blocks

Xylocopa’s ‘Mad Scientist Alphabet Blocks’ are building blocks for the budding young maker/inventor, or those big kids. They sport such home-truths as G for Goggles, U for Underground Lair and Z for Zombies, all engraved with beautifully detailed illustrations.

They’re a beautifully executed product for the maker market, and the kind of low volume, high value product that perfectly suits on-demand production with a laser. Xylocopa is a husband-wife design team from Tucson, Arizona selling a range of really interesting jewellery, home decor and paper products, all using largely laser cut wood. It is design twists like this that can breath new life into previously ubiquitous products, thanks to the new-found economy of digital manufacture.

via Make blog.

Round and Round and Round: Ring Calendar by Sebastian Bergne

Icon magazine recently did a special feature on Ponoko with furniture and product designer of repute, Sebastian Bergne, and the results are available at his showroom on Ponoko. The feature has some great discussion as well as audio and video of Bergne and his experience with Ponoko.
Ring Calendar

I particularly like Sebastian Bergne’s Ring Calendar as it reinforces my perception of time as an eternally revolving thing: day follows day, week follows week, month follows month, on and on. This idea might depress some more sensitive souls, but as the showroom Spunique placidly puts it, the calendar may otherwise “give you the everyday satisfaction of interacting with its calm composition”.

Of course the other thing I like about the calendar is its elegant and technically simple design, completely laser cut from melamine faced MDF. The assembly appears to really exploit the accuracy achievable with laser cutting, as does Bergne’s other Ponoko product, the Bandit. Bandit is a playfully conceived 30cm ruler/rubber band catapult, that uses a living hinge cut into acrylic as a trigger mechanism. Most cunning. The Icon feature has more to say about the development of this part of the design.


Bergne is no small name, with a vast portfolio of furniture and products designed for a wealth of clients, many of which form part of the London Design Museum’s Collection. It’s great to see the established names mixing with the new names in the Ponoko marketplace!

via Ponoko and google search

Drawdio Brings New Meaning to Sketching with Hardware

The latest kit from Adafruit appears to be another banger. Ladyada writes on her blog about Drawdio:

“Originally designed by J Silver, when I first saw the Drawdio at Maker Faire I knew it would be a great project for beginners: A lot of fun with instant gratification! Essentially, its a very simple musical synthesizer that uses the conductive properties of pencil graphite to create different sounds. The result is a simple toy that lets you draw musical instruments on any piece of paper.”


I am unfathomably excited by this project, combining as it does two loves of mine: abstract expressionism and atonality. Sorry, I mean sketching and music!

Ladyada posts a great video presumably taken at Maker Faire showing Mr. Silver and a whole host of people playing with the invention – there is a great social aspect to the experience too as users can create more possibilities by holding hands whilst interacting with each other’s doodles. It is worth noting that Jay Silver comes straight from that hotbed of maker talent, MIT’s Media Lab, specifically the Life Long Kindergarten group.

I wonder if there is potential for a Drawdio/Photomake mashup? You could certainly have any sketches that you think are worth preserving converted into a lasercut outline without much effort..

via ladyada’s ranting

Arduino fuel economy gadget seeks designer.

I’ve been keeping an eye out for Arduino projects that might require a bit of industrial design input, and then I found one where I should have started looking: The following, via the Arduino Playground seems a particularly well developed project.

MPGuino is “a reasonably low-cost device that will gauge your MPG, even for cars that do not have an OBD-II interface in their car… this device uses inputs from the Vehicle Speed Sensor(VSS) and one fuel injector control wire, both of which are easily found in just about all electronic fuel injected cars.”


More technical info can be found at Ecomodder’s forum, while the wiki carries some examples of existing enclosure solutions, mainly boxy off-the-shelf jobs from Radioshack et al. Perhaps combined with Flightsofideas’ Sketchup plugin [blogged here] or Curious Inventors’ method [blogged here] the indie designer community could come up with something more sleek for the discerning car owner. Even better, if any entrepreneurial Arduino-types would like to commission a design through Ponoko ID
via google search

Own it or Share it?

At first glance, Own-It did not seem like an endeavour that I would like. The London and North England based organisation define themselves in this way:

Own-it offers free intellectual property advice for creative businesses. Within your business or your practice, you’ve probably created a wealth of in-house ideas, designs, music, writing, images — in short, ‘intellectual property’ – which can make you extra money, as long as you give it the proper legal protection. Own-it will show you how.”

Firstly, there is the proprietary nature of its title. Secondly, the promise of ‘extra money’ generally switches me off in any context. However I was pleased to find that beyond the usual dogmatic advice to ring-fence all IP by default, Own-it have a good amount of information on Creative Commons, Copyleft and Open Source here, alongside informative articles on design IP mechanisms in general.

Own-it logoThere’s no doubt that Own-it offer a valuable service and I like the well summarised definitions on their website, but there still seems to be little comparative relation made between the reasons for protecting one’s IP by closing it off and reasons for freeing one’s IP by opening it up. The two will have to meet at some point, at which time, citing the collaborative and evolutionary benefits of open sourcing, and the need to financially exploit one’s ideas, while not addressing the inherent contradictions therein, will simply no longer suffice. Surely the likes of Own-it are best placed to explore this frontier, although they might have to change their name to ‘Share-it’ first to convince me.

Own-it sponsor Greengaged, which looks to be another exciting event partly from the folks over at [re]design. Greengaged is:

“a 7 day hub of events, debates, workshops, exhibitions, seminars and masterclasses bring together all sectors of the design industry to focus on sustainability issues, exchange ideas and carve out new roles for design.”

All taking place rather conveniently during this year’s London Design Festival, at the Design Council and on now.

In conversation with the Centre for Advanced Textiles (Part 2)

“We want to do things you could never do with mass production,” Andy McDonald tells me as we sit in the compact premises of the Centre for Advanced Textiles. From here, just five staff are delivering an on-demand textile printing service, retailing a range of classic designs on fabric, and exploring the boundaries of modern fabrication through several collaborative research projects.

One of the latter that Andy enthuses about is a project involving a “code-generated kimono”. For this Andy wrote a script that allows the user to arrange a pattern on a virtual diagram of a kimono, chossing exactly where to place elements of the design. The script then takes these instructions and translates them into patterns for printing on CAT’s digital printers, automatically calculating where seamlines should fall and making the patterm continue across them continuously (see bottom image).

CAT's code-generated kimono

CAT's code-generated kimono- detail of seam

More recently, CAT is working with local design heroes Timorous Beasties, a small enterprise specialising in unique wallcoverings and surfaces for home furnishing. JR cites the Beasties as just the size of business that CAT would like to target and who can benefit the most from digital on-demand processes. The business employs 12 people, screenprinting all their own surfaces by hand in batches, probably the most recognisable design being their very modern Glaswegian take on the 18th century ‘toile‘ style. In their forthcoming collaboration, CAT are exploring new ways for customers to commission designs, using computerised interfaces to give the customer an experience which can then be captured uniquely in the product they take home. It is this factor of ‘experience’ that CAT see as the crucial value in digital manufacturing.

“Timorous Beasties’ strength is in the aesthetic. We can take that digital, building interactions between the customer and, say, the ‘toile’ scene.” In facilitating the customer in creating their own unique pattern, say as a character in their own pastoral scene, JR and Andy hope to create high value products that the customer has an experiencial, traceable link with and therefore will never want to dispose of.

CAT customisation survey

The results of one experiment in customisation hang in CAT’s offices

For Andy however, his work isn’t about customisation:

“Mass customisation has sidetracked the debate for 10 yrs or so – multi-production builds in flexibility from the core.”

Similarly to Ponoko, Andy’s vision is of completely decentralised manufacturing, fully exploiting the reduction in design, storage and transport overheads that the digital age allows. He sees the future for CAT as the first of many platforms for small businesses, that would then be able to offer their own web based fabrication experiences to customers. Accordingly, fabrication would become similarly localised and distributed, a system he tentatively calls ‘cloud manufacture’.

It’s an exciting discussion that brings us round to the rather more traditional example of tartan weavers – local purveyors of technical skills for whose customers negotitation and customisation were easy. And there are few things longer lasting and more globally pervasive than a good kilt!

In conversation with the Centre for Advanced Textiles (Part 1)

CAT logoA couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of a very extensive discussion with the guys at The Centre for Advanced Textiles (CAT) in this very city of Glasgow. CAT is a combined commercial/academic organisation housed within one of the Glasgow School of Art’s design school buildings. It currently provides digital textile printing services to small and medium sized enterprises, whilst also quietly plotting a revolution in digital fabrication! I was speaking with researcher and interactions man, Andy McDonald, and surface designer JR.

The centre currently has 2 large inkjet textile printers, as well as the use of the small laser cutter down in the product design workshop. We talked about digital processes for textiles in general, the pair’s various projects in using digital processes for customisation, and the state of on-demand manufacturing.


Aurora mixer recently both available and unavailable

Aurora mixer esploded diagram

I’m a bit slow off the mark with this one – Make reported last week that the Aurora mixer (posted on Ponoko previously here) is now being distributed, and before I knew it the first batch had already been snapped up. The first batch was of 3 fully built mixers though, so its scarcity is unsurprising given the kind of enthusiasm there seems to be for this product. One of the first batch went out to Peter over at http://www.createdigitalmusic.com who wrote this thorough discussion on the item.

On its open architecture Peter writes this:

“… it’s a really remarkable piece of hardware, and one you can get right now and immediately open up and reprogram / repair / rework if you wish. The real test will be to see how people respond to its open-source design, whether that translates into people using it creating some of their own solutions to housing, customization, and software operation in the way they have with some other open projects.

“In other words, Aurora isn’t perfect, but that’s actually kind of terrific, because it’s something more important: open. …”

“… Bottom line: it can’t be understated that this not only a unique controller, it’s a controller you’d have no problems taking apart physically or in terms of software to change something. And that’s a very exciting thing, indeed.”

Looks really positive for this well conceived product. The makers are currently accepting group orders only.

Gift box from Cereal box and other Instructables news

Had to post this rather tasty Gift box from a cereal packet Instructable by Blightdesign, that is Ben Light, a multi-talented (Sculpting, ceramics, web animation, graphic design, painting) web developer from NYC. I particularly like that it uses the entire cereal box, but gives no outward sign of its origins! So you have pretty much a standard used material in a pretty much standard format, just needing folding and gluing to give it a new lease of life. Neat.

Gift box from Cereal box by b.light

Ben also has some lovely bits of wood turning, carpentry and rubber dipping displayed on his site.
If you’re really into making Instructables you could do worse than reading this one on How to draw illustrations for instructables. Or it could easily be renamed ‘How to draw illustrations for design pitches/design reviews/manuals’ in my opinion!

Instructables will soon be releasing their first book, The Best of Instructables Volume I containing over 100 Instructables chosen by a panel and by the Instructables community, out this October.