ESC keynoter compares engineers and the maker community

April 14, 2016

Boston, MA. The maker movement is thought to have blossomed in 2005, with MAKE Magazine and the Maker Faire, but of course engineers had been making things long before that, said Kipp Bradford, a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab, speaking at the Embedded Systems Conference Wednesday.

Bradford got his start in embedded-systems design when he took a break from studying biomechanical engineering to work as a toymaker for what was supposed to be a few weeks. He stayed 10 years and developed such products as a baby doll that would suck on a pacifier or shake a rattle. The stint taught him the value of electronics and software in mechanical design.

The toy industry is low-mix, high-volume, and there is not a large community of toy designers, he said. It was prohibitively to develop a C compiler, for example, for some obscure chip that might be a good fit for a particular product. Consequently, he said, he started emphasizing off-the-shelf devices from companies like Microchip Technology and TI, for which design tools were available.

The goal of a CEO, Bradford said, is to predict the future. Since that’s impossible, the next best approach is to visualize the future we want and try to build it—the fundamental question is “What if?” Further, he said, building the future will not be achieved by pushing the limits of possibility with science and technology alone. Engineers must work in collaboration with artists, designers, and society as a whole. He added that video on demand may have seemed impossible in the days of dial-up modems, but now we take it for granted.

In the traditional design cycle, he said, the path from opportunity to product passes through engineering, marketing, finance, manufacturing, quality control, and so on. The magic can get lost along the way. In contrast, the maker movement strips away layers—only the maker stands between opportunity and product, and the result can be funky, creative, absurd, ridiculous, or even profoundly beneficial—such as Jerry the Bear, an educational companion for children with type 1 diabetes.

Bradford described four steps for designing like a maker:

  • validate (experiment) quickly,
  • build modularly,
  • standardize, and
  • share solutions.

You don’t want test code in a satellite or pacemaker, he noted, but for the most part that’s not the world in which the maker community lives. Sharing, he emphasized, is critical to let others build on top of innovation.

He cited the importance of tools. A good tool, like a hammer, melts into the background and becomes an extension of our bodies. He cited the success of the Chinese cellphone chip company MediaTek. It doesn’t build better chips than Qualcomm, for example, but succeeds because of the easy-to-use tools it offers.

The lesson from the maker movement, he said, is “reduce friction.” That comes from continually making tools easier to use. The tools must be intuitive, have a low barrier to entry, be accessible, and provide adequate headroom. He added that they should be designed not for a Ph.D. but a 12-year-old.

Analogous to mean-time-to-failure, he described “mean time to blink.” If you take your off-the-shelf microcontroller evaluation board and associated development tools out of the box and get an LED to blink in five minutes, that’s great. If at takes you a week, you’ve surpassed the “mean time to abandonment.” Conversely, if you have a five-minute mean time to blink, but the product can’t do anything else, you’re also on the way to abandonment—the product lacks headroom.

Bradford described some of his recent projects, including a wireless sensor network deployed in the Moscone Center in San Francisco and a point air-conditioning system that he built for his own comfort but that has found use in the Air Force to cool patients waiting for evacuation.

He closed by describing a wearable device that can spread an “electronic infection.” It can help predict the spread of real viruses based on real-world human interaction, which computer models can’t accurately simulate.

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