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Embedded systems - IoT

Hardware engineering by the crowds


A bit of ancient historyIn 2004, when I was 20 and a 2nd year student in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, I took an opportunity – one of the few opportunities that the Romanian government was offering to top grade students (let’s call them geeks, for simplicity): I opened my first company. It was almost free, it was a lot simpler than it had been in the 1990s: there was significantly less bureaucracy.I teamed up with one of my colleagues, with whom I was sharing the university dorm room, and we immediately started designing & coding small web apps for local small and medium sized businesses. Then we did the same thing for some NGOs and NPOs and even for some politicians during the campaign for the parliament elections (the latter did not prove to be so lucrative, eventually driving our small business into a fence in 2008).The girlfriend of another dorm colleague was our accountant and other friends were occasionally stepping-in and helping us finish up tasks for which we had set deadlines that were much too tight: I remember one particular night, involving a case of beer, spent with 4 more people sticking the inside pockets of some presentation materials we had designed and printed just that day and that we had to deliver the next morning.Graphic design, programming, e-brand & e-product development had taken a huge step during those years: software, advertising and design companies were moving into dorms. Open source communities were gaining momentum, leveraging the advantages of the www. The web was becoming mandatory. The web was for the crowds.Few years later, this movement spawned some interesting businesses: Facebook is the most notorious product resulting from this “software by the crowds, for the crowds” movement. There are, obviously, many more out there.What changedhardware_engineeringWhat I would like to argue is that this decade, we are seeing a similar movement, but involving hardware. I just visited one of my good friends who is an architect and designer in Rotterdam – he had bought a 3D printer on kickstarter.com for an affordable price, in order to prototype his ideas more easily. He was able to walk me through the functioning principles with little knowledge of electronic engineering.According to Joi Ito in this TED conference, companies such as Samsung have now closed the loop between prototyping and manufacturing: within 24 hours, any designer can have a 3D print of their idea, embedding the electronics and software logic that is simply derived and integrated for their new project. The designers now work in the factories; they are no longer isolated on the floor of an office building, drawing up sketches of their ideas. Samsung is even selling these large scale industrial 3D printers on their website.Development boards are now extremely affordable, with prices starting at as little as 20 Euro for your basic Arduino kit. Raspberry PI and other ARM based development kits have aroused the interest of developers and they have allowed re-igniting the spark of creativity.While pure software products tend to get “big” and “hard to understand” (social networking, big data, cloud software), hardware devices are getting smaller and easier to program. C, a 40 year old programming language, is still rated as most or second most popular programming language, according to this study and others.I am eagerly waiting to see what this revolution will bring around – but building your own small R&D lab has never been so easy and neither has prototyping a physical product.

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