Century mark for this report is time to reflect on prototying, innovation changes since 2013—and what may be ahead
The category of electronics prototyping techniques and equipment has perhaps experienced the most change.
BY JEREMY LOSAW
I am proud to say that this is the 100th edition of Prototyping.
The first was way back in 2013. It has been a joy to cover prototyping techniques, materials and tools that have hopefully helped readers to up their prototyping game. I have also been fortunate to take you along on my journeys around the world from the Consumer Electronics Show, Collision Conference, Startup Bus, LEGO Brickfest, Ecuador, Vietnam and the Dominican Republic to bring you awesome new innovations and my experiences along the way.
Instead of taking a trip down memory lane in its purest form, I want to instead reveal my thoughts on how prototyping and innovation have changed (or not) during those eight years and what is ahead.
In 2017, I made this 3D print from a scanned Lincoln bust that was a form study for the Lincoln Memorial and took it back home.
Of all the prototyping categories, electronics prototyping techniques and equipment has perhaps experienced the most change.
In 2013, I was still using the now massively outdated Basic Stamp microcontroller for prototyping work. It was what I learned in college.
Arduino has since taken over as the de facto microcontroller for inventors. It is easy to program, with the key feature its asymmetric stacking header footprint that allows you to add accessories, and the huge library of example code.
What really changed the game was the rise of IoT and wireless devices.
In the past five years, low-cost Bluetooth, WiFi and cellular modules have become readily available. Development boards are one-third the size of the Arduino Uno, and they can run many of the same libraries to control sensors and actuators that Arduinos use.
So it is now easy for people to develop web- and app-enabled devices with very little coding knowledge, thus democratizing IoT development.
IoT is great. But AI and machine learning are gaining traction. There are many Raspberry Pi- sized boards that can run advanced algorithms to support artificial intelligence devices for driving electronics development for years to come.
It took about 90 minutes to build this IoT device that triggers a valve for a cooling system in my greenhouse. It uses a Particle Photon chip and can be controlled via an app without having to do any app development.
This is a term given to tools and equipment such as 3D printers that can live and work in a small area.
There has been an explosion in powerful yet low-cost options in this space. There has never been a better time to be a prototyper; you can now turn your garage or spare room into a small factory.
The first and only 3D printer that I bought for myself was a Printrbot Pro. It cost nearly $1,000 and came as a kit of laser-cut parts and electronics that I spread out across my kitchen floor and assembled in 10 hours. It is a fine printer and still works today.
Printrbot has since gone out of business, but there are a plethora of filament-style printers that are less than $500 with material costing just $20 per kilogram.
Another exciting development in 3D printers is the rise of resin-based 3D printing. Resin printers use a liquid that cures when exposed to UV light from the laser inside the machine.
This technology used to be only available to professionals in machines that had a $100,000 sticker price and required a maintenance program. Now there is a range of high-quality options available, from a few thousand dollars to small, off-brand versions that are less than $500 and easily fit on a desktop.
Desktop manufacturing is not limited to 3D printing. Machines such as laser cutters, routers and CNC mills have also been shrunk to bring these capabilities to the home inventor.
These machines allow for parts to be made from metals, wood and production-grade plastics that do not have the voids or structural issues that plague some 3D prints. Depending on the capabilities of a given machine, mills and laser cutters suitable for the home inventor can be bought for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
My Printrbot Plus, despite its makery appearance, is still making great prints after eight years in service. 3D printers are one of many types of desktop manufacturing devices available on the market today.
What people are inventing
During the past 100 months, there has been a massive shift in the types of things people invent.
Back then, a lot of the development projects I worked on were purely mechanical in nature. If they did have electronics, they used simple parts such as motors, heaters and LEDs.
Now, nearly 75 percent of the development portfolio where I work at Charlotte-based Enventys Partners has electronics—and much of it has above-average complexity with advanced sensors and one or more types of wireless communication.
I believe there are three main drivers for this trend. One is that the technology is easier and cheaper to deploy and is therefore accessible to more applications.
The second is that data have become more valuable in certain applications than devices, which are just a vehicle to generate the data.
Finally, we have seen easier paths to launch these types of devices through platforms such as crowdfunding and the availability of angel funds, the latter demonstrated in the TV show “Shark Tank.”
This confluence of trends means inventors have been able to bring complex smart devices to market quickly and create massive value for their companies. It is harder to build value and create a wide customer base for purely mechanical products in a data-driven world.
Product development philosophy
As prototyping tools have evolved, so has my philosophy of how to turn prototypes into products.
I have always believed that it is important to invest heavily into the discovery phases of a project and use materials and processes to support fast prototype iterations. These techniques never fail to generate good solutions to create the DNA of a product.
Where my thinking has evolved is when to launch the product and get feedback from customers.
Earlier in my career, I felt the design should stay behind closed doors until all details were worked out. However, now that crowdfunding has become an important launchpad, and seeing how early feedback from potential customers is so valuable, I believe in a more Goldilocks approach to product development.
In other words, enough engineering effort should be put into a product to make people believe that it is real and looks the part, and no more. It should be “just right” so that early feedback can be garnered without expending the massive effort it takes to work out all the details—which may be time spent to build features that no one wants.
With the amazing developments in prototyping tech during the past 100 months, I am hopeful for even more great breakthroughs and evolution in the next 100.
My big wish is for 3D printing speed to approach the velocity of innovation, as it is currently still too slow for fast, iterative prototyping. I want parts in minutes, not hours.
I am also looking forward to seeing how AI and augmented reality enhance both the product development process and the types of products we create. However, no matter what new gizmos make it into the prototyping shop, nothing will ever supplant passion and purposeful learning to develop your prototyping skills.