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A discussion on makers with Arduino’s Massimo Banzi

Arduino MKR GSM 1400

“It’s worth following the maker movement as it evolves,” says Massimo Banzi. As co‑founder of Arduino, Banzi knows what he is talking about. He’s been following the community for soon 15 years, and has been closely involved in developing much of the open source technology they use to power their projects.

If Arduino is known for anything, it’s for having popularized microelectronics, making it accessible to artists, designers, and makers and tinkerers of all stripes. At its core, Arduino is both a hardware and software development ecosystem. It’s most popular board, the Uno, lets developers read digital and analog inputs and process them using home‑written software stored on the board to control outputs such as motors or other actuators.

Since, it has given rise to a sprawling ecosystem, including hundreds of sensor boards providing sensing capability and shields extending its functionality, software libraries, and a maker community in the millions that shares its learnings on online forums.

Recently, Arduino launched its MKR GSM 1400 board fitted with the u‑blox SARA‑U201 cellular 3G module to give makers and smaller companies a head start in prototyping IoT devices with global GSM and 3G connectivity. And according to Banzi, there’s more in store, with further expansions of its IoT product range based on u‑blox modules in the pipeline.

Industrial do‑it‑yourself solutions
“Makers seem to be able to take parts of the digital world and make them cheaper and more accessible,” says Banzi. 3D printers and drones are two examples of technologies spawned by the maker movement before evolving into full‑fledged industries. So where is the movement headed next? Banzi sees organic farmers use Arduino boards to do interesting and crazy things for smart, sustainable agriculture. Biohackers building tools for DNA analysis, for example, are yet another new frontier.

Some argue that the maker movement may have passed its peak and is now moving away from microelectronics, but Banzi is not convinced. “Here in Europe, the maker scene is different from California where it is closely related to artists, hackers, and the local fringe culture. In Europe, there is a lot of overlap between makers and small and medium enterprises. A lot of these small companies run using maker methodologies. For instance, if they don’t have the money for expensive machinery, they build their own do‑it‑yourself solutions using maker tools.”

Because Arduino provides a starting point to build solutions that work, small and medium enterprises are also using them to simplify product development. The fact that Arduino is open source helps, says Banzi, as it offers people a solid starting point to build things that work because they can start developing a prototype using a tried and tested design. Ultimately, they can then base their product design on the same circuits and commercially sell their products. “This is clearly less economical for us, but it grows the size of the ecosystem, so it works,” he says.

While mission critical applications may continue to be carried out by dedicated industrial machines, Banzi sees companies use Arduino to retrofit machines, connect and remotely control machines, and collect data from them for predictive maintenance. It offers them a means of hacking normal industrial machines and connecting others that weren’t designed to work with each other.

Security built in
Ensuring security is a common stumbling block for budding companies, in particular in the IoT space, where devices are often rife with vulnerabilities. Arduino’s approach is to embed security into the platform as a given so that it is not added later as an afterthought. “We are embedding to our wireless products an encryption chip that allows us to authenticate devices with our servers without using credentials that are stored in the code using private keys. Our objective is that, when you build a connected product, it should be reasonably secure out of the box.” The fact that software is open source helps increase responsiveness when faced with vulnerabilities, he says. “There was a vulnerability that was discovered in Wi‑Fi last fall. The main open source Wi‑Fi wireless chip that makers use already released their patch to fix the vulnerability the following day, while all other producers were issuing press releases saying that they would soon be releasing a patch!” he says.

The maker movement is still has the wind in its sails, but there seems to be some diversification going on. For one, the community is increasingly overlapping with the economy from the bottom‑up, through the launch of startups and the uptake of maker methodologies in SMEs. At the same time, a top‑down trend is playing out, as more and more companies launch professional makerspaces to tap into the community’s creativity in a bid to bring about the next “big thing.” It may well be worth following the maker movement as it evolves.