This shiny new thing is the possibility of:
- Having a brain wave.
- ordering some cheap parts online,
- Going through a creative process to produce
- a circuit diagram,
- a materials list and
- parts list,
- a printed circuit board
- a circuit diagram,
- before finally assembling an item
Whilst designing what turned out to be my Bird Symbiot, a prototype of a system for outdoor sound generation, I visited and contacted lots of people in different occupations. It's not the most essential of applications but I do know a bit more about what happens between me recording some music, and it being played by a device, and about how it can be powered in a more sustainable way. As a project it spanned acoustics, mathematics, electronics, world music, sound generation and clay making. I had a lot to learn.
One of these visits was when I got help assembling my first circuit (a lady ada sound shield) from Marcus Valentine. He has been working in electronics for many years and has a home workshop for electronics design. The circuits he designs - usually the pieces in a larger pool, are sent off as diagrams and parts lists to process. They come back in a way similar to construction sets, with 200 or more mini circuit boards all printed together from the same slab of plastic.
This then, in a typical small electronic item's production process, goes back to a large company which then manufactures thousands of them.
At another point while making my Maker Faire exhibit, I needed some good solar panels, and synth maker Tom Bugs offered to give me some that he had ordered but never managed to use. He runs Bugbrand, which is an online shop, and also a small workshop in the area, doing electronics design of sound making devices. On the borders with open hardware, Bugbrand items are designed mostly in this mini Stokes Croft factory, and an online shop deals with the sales. Selling crazy music making electronics and boards seems very fitting in a place with as much experimental music in it as Bristol, and he also runs workshops internationally, where people make them themselves. I saw in his workshop a PCB printing work area for creating small runs or prototypes of circuit boards. He confessed he hadn't used it much. A colleague built the boards while he pretty much ran around concieving new boards, answering forum questions, ordering parts and selling the finished products online.
It was only much later, by speaking to other inventors and hackers at the Maker Faire, that I got to see more of the true Open Hardware manufacturing approach. Open Hardware makers will work alone as needed, but will often team up with small shops or other projects to order parts or design aspects of their work. The landscape of this creativity is really a friendly ecology of helpers, a small world where people begin to know each other.
Of course, the main benefit of open hardware is the supposed availability of plans and designs for the good of everyone else, but there is still no equivalent of the GPL or CC license when it comes to actual objects and things.
The open hardware approach seems to be going towards ordering components, then assembling and selling items in online markets in a semi bespoke manner. It's true, some are starting to do more: Feral Trade sells Cube Cola, which once amazed the BBC when they once sent for many litres of it. The order was neatly placed at the centre of their huge van, in a tiny concentrated bottle.
Cube Cola is published under the GPL, but beyond that, it has hit on a brilliant distribution method centred on the ready availability of sugar and fizzy water to dilute and prepare it with.
There is a convergence between the green and the techy in open sourcing Hardware - as seen in projects like the Reprap or larger open source cousins that can cut or shape metals or even precious stones. But this is not a typical aspect of it's lifecycle.
We have to begin cutting down on this politically, monetarily and ecologically fragile, long distance distribution network occurring at either end of this beautiful creative centre.
Another problem is the predilection for and reliance on high wattages. Maybe this is just the "macho" side of electronics - typically a men's world. There is little use of freely available energies that can be channelled to help these processes.
For the bird symbiot I realised pretty early on that making something audible at low power would mean using natural amplification. This turned out to mean using clay - something whose production I found to be readily available by using an old rag, some sticks and by ordering basic materials from a few miles outside Bristol, and a firing process used cooperatively in a local art studio.
But there is also a bias in some aspects of the tinkerer world, towards a repulsion ("ugh - knitting!") for what is seen as lesser "craft" rather than a welcoming of other disciplines in order to collaborate towards creating a device. But I hope this is only a marginal problem, and that some healthy partnerships can emerge soon. It will be significant to see some of the main open hardware proponents start to work in projects with larger scope than just the basic circuits, and requiring a wide range of skills and work shared by many different kinds of people.
At the Maker Faire in Newcastle, some of the biggest attractions used a tremendous amount of electrical power. Lots of the items I saw seemed to use a lot of money and electricity to run. I recently saw a lot of people turn their backs on what I thought was an interesting bike power project because people see it as not enough power to do anything useful. The bird symbiot uses the equivalent in solar power of 2 AAA batteries, and can burst into song with some good sunlight flying by it. A 3v fan on an oven or a wind powered pump for some water can mean the difference between a gruelling existence and a plentiful life.
But I think a basic flaw in the current open hardware lifecycle is just that: We rely still on the generation of power as if it had to be something separate from the rest of the device. It's excluded from the design process as soon as it ceases to be about electronics. So it all needs a more holistic and inclusive approach.
I also have some problems to do with why circuit design has evolved to be flat, and this makes the BEAM robotics world so fascinating - because they stich parts directly to each other creating a device that is by it's nature 3d and doesn't particularly need a board.
What will we do if with vanishing fossil fuels and the need for technologically aided alternative power, we can't make a transistor? A semiconductor? A resistor? - this new open hardware lifecycle needs to green itself at all levels.
So how do you do these things locally and sustainably?
If modern telecommunications and technology is to avoid a crash or stagnation due to whatever natural or man made catastrophes, there have to be freely available applications and designs of every type of electronic item. From vital to domestic, electronic ideas and inventions should be available to the public regardless of their wealth or place in the world. I think this is probably even a human right, linked directly to the right for an education - we have to know how to create and evolve the technologies that our lives and cultures depend on.
All aspects of modern electronics need thorough re-examination so as to find and document cheap ways to recreate them openly in light industry at a local scale, anywhere in the planet.