Hardware start-ups now look a lot like software start-ups

Joi Ito on the evolution of manufacturing.

Editor’s note: this interview with Joichi Ito is an excerpt from our recent report, When Hardware Meets Software, by Mike Barlow. The report looks into the new hardware movement, telling its story through the people who are building it. For more stories on the evolving relationship between software and hardware, download the free report.

Joichi Ito is the director of the MIT Media Lab. Ito, who is also co-chair of the O’Reilly Solid Conference, recalls sending a group of MIT students to Shenzhen so they could see for themselves how manufacturing is evolving. “Once they got their heads around the processes in a deep way, they understood the huge differences between prototyping and manufacturing. Design for prototyping and design for manufacturing are fundamentally different,” says Ito. The problem in today’s world, according to Ito, is that “we have abstracted industrial design to the point where we think that we can just throw designs over a wall” and somehow they will magically reappear as finished products.

The trip to Shenzhen helped the students understand the manufacturing process from start to finish. “In Shenzhen, they have a $12 phone. It’s amazing. It has no screws holding it together. It’s clearly designed to be as cheap as possible. It’s also clearly designed by someone who really understands manufacturing and understands what consumers want.”

Ito also sees a significant difference between what’s happening on the factory floors in Shenzhen and the maker movement. “We’re not talking about low-volume, DIY manufacturing,” he says. Instead, Ito’s students are working through the problems and challenges of a real, live paradigm shift — the kind of gut-wrenching upheaval described in Thomas S. Kuhn’s seminal book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. From Kuhn’s point of view, a paradigm shift isn’t a cause for celebration or blithe headlines — it’s a sharp and unexpected blow that topples old theories, wrecks careers, and sweeps aside entire fields of knowledge.

The existing paradigm — the status quo — favors companies whose products and services are based mainly on software because software can be scaled rapidly at minimal cost. The emerging paradigm favors companies whose products and services are based mainly on hardware because the cost of developing and manufacturing hardware is dropping precipitously.

Software and Moore’s Law go together like soup and sandwiches. Put less kindly, software made Moore’s Law look like a real law. Hardware is a different kettle of fish since it involves orchestrating and synchronizing dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of complex interlocking processes, such as product design, prototyping, sourcing raw materials, managing supply chains, setting up assembly lines, building or leasing factories, setting up distribution channels, packaging, shipping, and much more.

The innovators in places like Shenzhen are showing the world that hardware start-ups can look a lot like software start-ups. They don’t necessarily need tons of seed money or venture capital; they can be spun up relatively quickly; and if they fail, they can be broken down and sold for spare parts. That’s the paradigm shift — and the people who control large portions of the global economy and decide where to invest trillions of dollars, yen, yuan, won, or rupees are beginning to see hardware as the coolest new shiny object.

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