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A new industrial age is being built on sensors, 3D printing and the cloud

Patrick Thibodeau | June 27, 2014
Inventive minds are finding all the tools they need to make physical products at low cost.

Before the Revolutionary War, sheets of tin imported from England were fashioned by people working at home into plates, cups and candle holders. They shared production techniques with one another and collectively produced enough products to give rise to a distribution system known as Yankee Peddlers.

Today, the raw tools of individual production are sensors, circuit boards, 3D printers, open-source development platforms and cloud services. Kickstarter, not horseback peddlers, is providing the initial capital.

In time, the tin-making business created a foundation for hardware manufacturing. Idea generation was infectious as production capabilities improved and new companies were rapidly formed. The Silicon Valley of this industrial age was the Northeast. In one city -- New Britain, Conn. -- a patent expert, James Shepard, determined that by 1899 this city was at "the head of the inventive world" in patents issued per capita.

That was 115 years ago. But something similar is under way today.

In San Francisco, Jason Aramburu is running a Kickstarter campaign for his product, the Edyn smart garden system. It has raised $262,000 so far.

How he produced this system offers a roadmap to a new industrial age that will rely heavily on Internet of Things technologies, the cloud and low-cost design and fabrication tools.

In the United Kingdom, there's Samuel Cox. He assembled a microprocessor, accelerometer, ultrasonic sensors, rechargeable battery, cellular GSM and GPS into a floating shell that he built himself. A prototype of the device, called the Flood Beacon, cost about $700 to make and be can positioned to measure water depth. It was designed to help keep track flood waters in real time.

Aramburu and Cox each taught themselves how to build these systems, and what they are doing represents a broader trend that is getting White House attention.

The so-called Maker Movement, enabled by design software, desktop machine tools, laser cutters and 3D printers, is "enabling more Americans to design and build almost anything," and "represents a huge opportunity for the United States," said the White House in a statement at the start of demonstrations this week of the technologies.

Quantifying the size of this opportunity is difficult, but much of the development uses Internet of Things technologies, a market that Gartner estimates may deliver $1.9 trillion by 2020 in global economic value. This market is made possible by rapidly falling prices, accessible tools,and cloud services that process the information gathered by these physical devices.

Aramburu studied ecology and environmental science, specifically, soil science, at Princeton and later in a Smithsonian research project. His first idea for business was a sustainable fertilizer funded with the help of a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In working with fertilizers, researchers needed a way to identify the fertilizer's impact. Soil conducts electricity and by measuring what's going on it can tell a lot about soil conditions.

 

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