Disrupted Manufacturing – customised personal manufacturing disrupts mass production

Could makers reinvent electronics?

The ‘maker’ is the future – or so they say. Those people who used to be seen as ‘hobbyists’ and  ‘tinkerers’ are set to change innovation. It is thanks to them that we will have what Chris Anderson calls the new industrial revolution. As maker-designed products move into the mainstream, they’re driving changes that dilute the stranglehold of mass producers. Perhaps more importantly, in doing so there’s a very good chance that they will bring about a change in the very essence of electronics.

Some of the more forward thinking corporates are embracing the movement. Cisco have described makers as the future of rapid prototyping, while GE are working with maker organisations to launch co-branded app enabled gadgets and are providing space and equipment in GE ‘Garages’ for makers to use.

A number of trends have converged which enable the maker in electronics:

–          Development kits and single board computers like the Raspberry Pi have put the power of cutting edge semiconductors in the hands of individuals who don’t have access to complex production equipment (believe me, these are not components you can solder in your basement!).

–          Open source software stacks and reference designs let the maker leverage and  build on others’ learning to programme what they’ve built and avoid reinventing the wheel for common pieces of functionality.

–          3D printing allows them to create the physical form.

–          Crowd funding lets them have finance, based on a captivating idea rather than a formal business plan.

However, there is then an interesting crunch point where this brave democratised new world is forced to take its crowd-sourced funds to the big guys in the old world, and that is driving some amazing new innovations, which could mean massive disruption to the status quo in electronics.

Translating a hand crafted electronic prototype into a production-ready design takes some doing. It often means a major redesign, handing things over to a professional design house to create bespoke printed circuit boards (PCBs) and designing-out as much cost in the components as possible. But the maker movement is pushing up the curve; it is hungry to own more of the process, and sooner or later – likely sooner – we’ll hit a tipping point.

There are already some great products out there, which can print simple circuit boards using technology such as conductive inks, that can print on all sorts of materials. Others that can double as soldering ovens are also available.

Right now what they can do is pretty limited compared with conventionally produced multilayered PCBs loaded up with components by robotic pick and place machines. However, they are pushing the boundaries. It’s what’s likely to come next to overcome these limitations that is really exciting.

I’ll give you two recent examples.

Functionalize has just launched a kickstarter campaign to fund a new, highly conductive, substrate that will work with 3D printers. It’s being pitched as letting innovators print their own electronics in one go. Granted this is their Kickstarter pitch, but it’s still pretty interesting.

Even more interesting, as part of the recently launched ESPRC National Facility for Innovative Robotics Systems, the University of Leeds currently has one of just three 3D printers that can print circuit boards better and faster than conventional methods by laying down multiple build materials in a single piece, which is again moving towards the possibility of printing finished electronics.

If we do get there, the traditional processes of mounting components on a PCB become redundant and the maker’s hands are truly untied. Even if only part of that vision is realised, what that could do to a multi billion dollar global industry is staggering.


Posted by Kevin Yapp