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

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.

Aramburu realized the opportunity. He started picking up the skills he needed to build a tool for measuring soil conditions, and tapped the expertise of friends.

One tool was Arduino, an electronics development platform, which Aramburu said was easy to learn. He got a membership at TechShop, a kind of hacker space for people who want to make things, and took classes in laser cutting and 3D printing. They used a MakerBot Replicator, a desktop 3D printer, to cut some of the initial cases for the product. They also used another prototyping platform, Electric Imp, for the connectivity capabilities.

The Edyn garden sensor has temperature, humidity, light sensor and electrical leads built into the tip, which is inserted into the ground. It has a small micro-computer, is solar powered and uses Wi-Fi. When materials -- water, lime, fertilizer -- are added to the soil, their impact can be measured by how easy or difficult it is to transmit an electric current. From this data, the level of fertilizer, moisture, and acidity in the soil can be determined. There is an independent humidity sensor.

The on-board processor does some initial work, but the data is further processed in a cloud-based environment, and makes recommendations on whether to add water, fertilizer or compost. This system also taps weather data and soil conditions by region and returns recommendations on what to plant and what types of plants to group. There is also a separate valve that can precisely regulate the amount of water.

The arrival of platforms for electronic development, 3D printers and declining prices for sensors, is "making it a lot easier to develop hardware," said Aramburu, who compares its increasing simplicity with what's been going on in software. "Software has gotten to the point where you can pick up a language very quickly, even if you have limited computer science experience, and start building an app," he said.

Similarly, Cox used widely available tools to design and build the Flood Beacon. He got the idea when he discovered that one method for checking on flood conditions involved rowing out to markers to record the water height.

Flood Beacon measures water turbulence, via the accelerometer, and water depth with the ultrasonic sensors. The data is sent to Xively, an IoT-specific cloud, and is viewable on a mobile app. It took Cox about a month and half to produce a working prototype.

"We're just kind of really fortunate to live in this world that we do now, where we can make something for 400 (British) pounds or 300 pounds, get it tested and get it working," said Cox.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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