Power to the people: the democratization of engineering

-July 05, 2013

There’s a growing design trend, some even say there’s a revolution brewing, that’s beginning to have an impact on the world of design and how engineers go about innovating. Open source—buoyed by the likes of Raspberry Pi, Arduino, 3-D printing, embedded Linux, and strong community knowledge sharing and feedback—is coming to the world of hardware faster than many may think, and with it could come an increasingly democratized approach to the design cycle.

In the world of open source, hardware is years behind software, which is predominantly led by Linux. And there’s a key reason for the discrepancy: Hardware is physical, making it more costly and difficult to reproduce. Beyond that, licensing can still be nebulous in some cases, and concerns about IP theft and who profits also hold some back.

But the benefits—including the ability to prototype quickly off of existing, shared work, input from user communities, and low cost or no cost to entry—outweigh the concerns for many design engineers, makers, hackers, or hobbyists, as well as young companies such as SparkFun and Gadget Factory and even more established industry players. These benefits, for many, enhance professional engineering. And open-source hardware is finding its way into designs for everything from fun facial-recognition cameras that add mustaches to photos, to smart watches, to the technology used in the Red Bull Stratos space jump.

The definition of what is open source and what is not can be somewhat foggy, varying from company to company or engineer to engineer. According to the Open-Source Hardware Association (OSHWA):

Open-source hardware is hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design. The hardware’s source, the design from which it is made, is available in the preferred format for making modifications to it. Ideally, open-source hardware uses readily available components and materials, standard processes, open infrastructure, unrestricted content, and open-source design tools to maximize the ability of individuals to make and use hardware. Open-source hardware gives people the freedom to control their technology while sharing knowledge and encouraging commerce through the open exchange of designs.

What can’t be defined, however, are the spirit and passion that open-source hardware ignites in some engineers and developers. Such an excitement is evident at events such as Burning Man and Maker Faire, where creativity, often expressed through open-source hardware, is put on display.

Atmel Corp, for one, has for years been cheering on Arduino, a leading open-source electronics prototyping platform and community. The company continues with its traditional lines but has also begun incorporating Arduino into some products, and showed off its Arduino development boards based on Atmel AVR UC3, megaAVR, and SAM3X8 ARM processor-based MCUs at last month’s Maker Faire Bay Area.

Bob Martin, Atmel’s applications manager, hacks a hexbug and puts in an Atmel microcontroller so the bug has intelligence during Maker Faire Bay Area 2013 in May.

Open-source design wins for Atmel include the Agent Smart Watch, prototyped on an Atmel SAM7X-powered Netduino open-source electronics board. Built by Secret Labs and House of Horology and introduced on Kickstarter, Agent had received more than $850,000 in funding as of press time for this article, a whopping eight and a half times its original $100,000 goal. The smart watch is expected to ship this fall with a finished dual-processor design, using an Atmel SAM4S microcontroller and a tinyAVR.

The Agent Smart Watch, prototyped using an Atmel SAM7X-powered Netduino, offers two-way communication to smartphones, wireless charging, and long battery life.

Eric Weddington, open-source community manager at Atmel, notes that there’s been a major increase in the number of companies that are using Ardunio and open-source hardware for prototyping and then further on in product development. “Democratization of engineering: We’re already seeing that happen,” says Weddington. “Arduino has made it so easy to get involved in a complex subject, embedded engineering, which in the past has been the purview of engineers who have a wide range of skills, both hardware and software, in dealing with conflicting restraints and requirements, especially in deeply embedded systems. It has been a kind of very exclusive party of people who can work in embedded systems. But with open-source hardware and Arduino, and open-source software, it has become so easy to use that all of these people who have never had a chance to do [embedded engineering] before can be brought in. That, to me, is the story. It opens up a lot of creativity. People come up with all sorts of uses for the Arduino.”

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