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Accidental Revolutionaries: How Arduino’s Creators Unleashed a Business Revolution Powered by Passion, Generosity, and Unintended Consequences.

By Lee H. Goldberg,  Senior Correspondent, Technology Innovation Channel,
lgoldberg@green-electronics.com

Alf-Egil Bogen set out to build a better microcontroller.  Massimo Banzi set out to build an easier way for his students to turn their ideas into reality. Neither of them set out to produce the tools that are at the heart of a fourth industrial revolution. TINC correspondent Lee Goldberg met up with the unlikely duo at Maker Faire for a chat about the origins of the Arduino platform, how it’s changing the way the tech industry develops, makes, and markets products, and the future of the open hardware movement it helped ignite.


Massimo Banzi has a Google app on his computer that produces a daily summary of new web entries containing the word “Arduino”. During a recent interview at the New York Maker Faire, Banzi, co-creator of the Arduino open-source hardware platform, said he is still surprised every morning when he reads about the latest developments in the unintended revolution he helped trigger. During the same interview, Alf-Egil Bogen, creator of the AVR microcontroller that powers the Arduino, also expressed amazement at how it’s changing the rules of the tech economy.

The inexpensive Arduino microcontroller board and its rich crowd-sourced ecosystem act as an amplifier for creativity, allowing individuals or small groups to develop, produce and get disruptive products (such as ultra-low-cost 3D printers and open-source robotic components) into customers’ hands before the emerging markets are even noticed by traditional manufacturers.

By a quirk of fate - or some act of cosmic symmetry - the Arduino ecosystem also owes it existence to a string of unlikely, and unintended, consequences. When Alf-Egil Bogen began to sketch out the architecture for his AVR microcontroller, all wanted to do was come up with an inexpensive 8-bit device with a bit of flash memory whose guts could efficiently digest compiled C code so it would not have to subsist on a fussy diet of hand-written machine language. He couldn’t foresee how quickly the AVR's rugged constitution and good manners would win it a large fan base within the unruly hacker/maker community. And it would be a few years more before he learned that it had attracted the attention of Banzi, a professor, who was teaching design at a University in Italy.

When Professor Banzi chose Bogen’s AVR to power the little board he cooked up to make it simpler and cheaper for his students to use silicon intelligence in their design projects, he did not expect to touch off a revolution. But once he posted the Arduino’s design specs, easy-to-use software development tools and tons of sample “sketches” (a.k.a. software modules to non-Arduinans) on the Web, it was quickly adopted by the Maker movement  and other DIY communities as a general-purpose controller for nearly any application. The home-made 3-D printers that hobbyists used to create toys, baubles, and board game pieces have quickly evolved into equipment that’s precise and fast enough to produce engineering models, prototypes, and even limited-volume runs of parts for commercial products – but priced at 10% or less the cost of a conventional unit.

Low-cost Arduino-powered 3D printers and precision machine tools were among the first products to make the transition from the hobbyist impact on the tech economy. Bogen notes with pride that products based on the the Arduino and other open-source hardware now account for over 70% of the projects recently funded on Kickstarter. To illustrate their point, Banzi and Bogen ticked off a number of recent unexpected Kickstarter projects their platform made possible, including an Arduino-powered open-source gene sequencer, a DIY networked sensor platform for crowd-sourced environmental monitoring, and a 3-axis autopilot that can transform a large model helicopter into an autonomous drone that can deliver medical supplies and other critical resources to remote villages.

Despite its popularity, Prof. Banzi had difficulty getting anyone at Atmel, the company that produces the AVR microcontroller, to notice. During the interview, Banzi explained that that he tried unsuccessfully for several years to contact the chip maker about arranging to purchase the AVR chips directly, instead of paying the substantially higher prices charged by distributors. But once the connection was made by an Arduino fan (who also happened to be an apps engineer for Atmel)  Banzi and Bogen quickly developed a close, ongoing collaborative relationship that is helping shape the next steps in the Arduino ecosystem’s evolution.

But the revolution’s only begun. Bogen shared a few plans to expand Atmel’s AVR family to include higher-powered 32-bit processors, as well as smaller, lower-powered, and even less-expensive chips that will add intelligence to everyday objects such as light bulbs, medicine vials, and sneakers. Banzi also sees a bright future ahead as a new generation of collaborative development tools and application stacks for nearly every type of wireless application become available to the Arduino community.  He’s also very excited about several educational initiatives that use the Arduino platform to teach grade-schoolers how to design, build, and program their own creations. After all, it’s the kids that who shape the world with the next generation of unintended consequences.

Bios:

Massimo Banzi co-founded Arduino, which makes affordable open-source microcontrollers for interactive projects, from art installations to an automatic plant waterer. He is an Interaction Designer, Educator and Open Source Hardware advocate. He has worked as a consultant for clients such as: Prada, Artemide, Persol, Whirlpool, V&A Museum and Adidas.  Massimo started the first FabLab in Italy which led to the creation of Officine Arduino, a FabLab/Makerspace based in Torino. He currently teaches Interaction Design at SUPSI Lugano in the south of Switzerland and is a visiting professor at CIID in Copenhagen

Alf-Egil Bogen is one of the three inventors of the AVR microcontroller architecture. Mr. Bogen has served as Chief Marketing Officer of Atmel, responsible for all aspects of strategic marketing, new business segment development and repositioning of go-to-market strategies, since March 2011. He has two United States patents and has been working in the semiconductor industry since 1991 in various design engineering, and marketing roles. Mr. Bogen holds a Master of Science (EE) degree from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and a Bachelor of Science (EE) degree from Trondhiem University College

 

Lee Goldberg Rocket Scientist-turned-Tech Journalist, Lee Goldberg, has spent nearly two decades creating stories that give his audience a front-row seat at the frontiers of technology, environmental issues and the human experience. A self-identified techno-geek and environmental advocate, Goldberg brings his infectious enthusiasm to stories that provide both industry insiders and “civilians” with thought-provoking coverage of the open-source hardware movement and green technologies ranging from renewable energy and eco-vehicles to sustainable manufacturing.

As a “recovering engineer”, Goldberg brings his insights from designing microelectronics and interplanetary spacecraft to his second career as a journalist. While writes about everything from advanced cryptology to Steam Punk culture, his primary focus is on renewable energy and energy conservation technologies, the emerging 4th industrial revolution based on open-source hardware ecosystem, and other issues involved in creating a vibrant, sustainable future. He is currently a contributing editor for Hearst’s Electronic Products and a correspondent/on-air personality for the Technology Innovation News Channel (TINC).

 
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