Welcome to the age of indie hardware

The shifting economics around manufacturing is fueling an indie hardware movement.

Editor’s note: this is an excerpt from our new report When Hardware Meets Software — download the free report here.

All trends rise and fall. A new generation of smart techies has emerged to challenge the false duality of the hardware versus software paradigm. The spiritual heirs of the ham radio operators and homemade rocket enthusiasts of the 1940s and 50s have coalesced to form a maker culture that is quietly subverting the standard industrial model of product design and development.

Even if they aren’t the actual grandsons and granddaughters of the original hobbyists, they apply the same kind of grit, smarts and do-it-yourself confidence as earlier generations of inventors and tinkerers who labored in basements, backyards, and garages all over the world.

Unlike their predecessors, whose audiences were limited mostly to friends and family members, the new generation is sharing its inventiveness globally and selling gadgets through maker-friendly e-commerce markets such as Tindie, Make, and Grand St.

“We’re increasingly seeing people who are able to support themselves — or who at least are close to supporting themselves — by selling technology they’ve created,” says Julia Grace, head of engineering at Tindie. “Most of our sellers are people who started off as hobbyists, doing this on nights and weekends. As demand has grown, however, and as our sellers gain access to facilities and manufacturing techniques that were previously available only to people working in large companies, they’re able to produce their items faster and sell more of them.”

Grace compares indie hardware markets like Tindie to Etsy, the successful e-commerce website specializing in handmade artisanal products. On Etsy, you can shop for handcrafted ceramics and jewelry; on Tindie you can shop for a Doomsday Clock Shield with Rotary Encoder or Tapster, a robot designed to play Angry Birds.

Indeed, Tapster is one of indie hardware’s major success stories. Designed originally for gamers, it’s been upgraded and adopted by large manufacturers as a low-cost machine for testing mobile apps.

Tapster was invented by Jason Huggins, a software developer who uses open source hardware technology such as Bitbeam, a modular building system similar to Lego Technic. What’s especially interesting about Bitbeam is that it can be made with a 3D printer, which means, of course, that it is potentially scalable. When something works and can be produced in large numbers easily, watch out.

For the moment, much of what’s made by the maker community is consumed largely by other makers. But the winds of change are blowing. If a handful of visionary Fortune 500 firms are using Tapster, more will surely follow in their footsteps tomorrow.

Two or three years from now, Tapster (or something like it) might be seen in retrospect as the Altair 8800 of the indie manufacturing era. If that’s the case, then the Commodore 64 and Apple I of the new era are already in the wings and waiting for their cue to take the stage.

It’s also quite possible that the next cool thing produced by the indie manufacturing culture won’t be a computer. Grand St., launched in late 2012, is also an online market for nifty products based on cutting-edge tech. In addition to providing a market for sellers, it serves as a platform for design and development.

“We offer three types of products,” explains Amanda Peyton, Grand St.’s CEO and co-founder. “First, we have a traditional marketplace for products that are finished and ready to ship. Second, we have a ‘beta’ marketplace for products from makers who want feedback from people who aren’t friends and family. Third, we have a pre-order marketplace for products that aren’t ready for shipping, but will likely ship in the next six months. It’s a way to test demand for a product before it hits the market. Sometimes there’s an actual prototype and sometimes there’s just a rendering.”

Grand St.’s model offers potential consumers a view into the previously hidden universe of product design and development. In a very real sense, Grand St. pulls back the curtain, creating transparency in a process that is usually shrouded in secrecy.

The new approach isn’t just about lifting the veil and showing consumers how it all works. It’s based on shifting economics. “The capital requirements around product development have really changed,” says Peyton. “Previously, you needed a lot of money up front to fund an entire product development process. Now you can engage with your audience much earlier, and you can forecast the demand for products before they’ve hit the market.”

In the world of consumer electronics, for example, the impact of this new approach means that smaller teams — and fewer resources — are required for launching new products. When you only need a couple of designers and developers working on a project, time-to-market cycles can be compressed dramatically. More importantly, you don’t need to raise gazillions in fresh capital to set up an assembly line.

Read more in our free report, When Hardware Meets Software

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