DIY movement expands distributors' resources and communities

February 1, 2014 OpenSystems Media

The maker movement is rapidly expanding its fleet of boards from a few big-name options like BeagleBone, Raspberry Pi, and Arduino, to dozens of others in various shapes, sizes, and capabilities, with more being created all the time. Distributors have quickly embraced the open source DIY movement, offering a wide variety of boards that can be classified as DIY, as well as creating their own boards and new business models to go with them.

The low-cost, easy-to-use board model is not new – in the late 1990s to early 2000s, for example, Avnet (www.avnet.com) offered low-cost FPGA and CPLD platforms for mass-market experimentation and prototyping. And distributors like Mouser Electronics (www.mouser.com) already strive to offer quick product availability, fast shipping, small-quantity purchasing, and affordable pricing, features that are important to the maker movement. But the extent of the current DIY movement – and the hobbyist community it brings with it – has led distributors to expand their knowledge and offerings to fit the needs of this new, non-corporate community that has sprung up around these DIY boards.

Expanding knowledge and resources for a new market

“With more DIY boards coming online, each will have advantages and disadvantages that come with it,” says Glenn Carlson, Supplier Program Manager at Arrow Electronics (www.arrow.com). “It is our job to understand those differences and propose the best solution for our customers.”

Distributors must also make this information available to their customers. Avnet, for example, offers a Design Resource Center that has tools to help match the right DIY board out of the many offered with what a customer wants. Mouser Electronics utilizes technology and application microsites to showcase the features of each offering along with related devices like daughter cards/shields/capes, cables, and powered USB hubs that users might need for their projects.

“We do tend to offer substantial information for DIY boards and their ecosystems because there is simply more documentation that comes with them,” says Kevin Parmenter, Director of Technical Resources at Mouser Electronics.

Understanding different board features isn’t the only important thing to consider. Newark element14’s (www.newark.com) Dev Kit Portfolio Manager Kim Majkowski notes “the difference is in the focus application, from the standard vertical applications over to the more consumer and hobbyist applications.”

Customer base changes

Distributors note that the DIY movement has expanded their customer base beyond professional engineers and large corporations to tinkerers, students, and those without formal engineering or professional experience.

“Our customer base has changed dramatically since the invention of these boards,” Carlson says. “We are working with multi-million dollar corporations on their latest products, and the three friends in the basement working on their concepts as well. The average person can now take their idea from concept to reality without having much education or training in engineering.”

Though we often think of DIY boards as belonging to the hobbyist realm, professionals – including professionals at Google and Fortune 100 companies – are using them too, albeit in different ways.

“The low price point of the boards make it too attractive for any designer to pass up,” says Jim Beneke, Vice President, Global Technical Marketing at Avnet Electronics. “You get some incredible value in these boards and they are a very low-risk way to test out a new idea or build a proof of concept.”

Despite their differences, these disparate groups of professionals and hobbyists have come together to form the very active DIY community.

Community is key

One addition that comes with the maker movement is an important sense of community. Newark element14 addresses an important point about speed and transparency for a population that puts heavy emphasis on community.

“This is a tight community and word gets around quickly,” Majkowski says. “When word gets out about a new product, we need to get it in stock immediately. Regarding transparency, if there is ever an issue with a product, or even a perceived issue, it is critical to get out in front and address it.”

Mouser Electronics monitors social media and social platforms to keep an eye on what the DIY movement needs, and has opened their site to comments and participation. They also offer local technical support around the world for a more personal connection.

Distributors are also building their own communities around DIY. Avnet has continued its how-to approach to tutorials and training, in addition to increasing its online product availability, training, and support to help less-experienced makers. On the other end of the spectrum, Avnet caters to the design veterans with advanced support and design examples that decrease time to market. Newark element14 has its own element14 community, as well as “the Knode” where people can exchange ideas as members of open source communities do. They offer project bundles and starter kits to help members of the community get started, host the Ben Heck Show – an online program featuring modding, console hacking, and other projects by podcaster Ben Heck – projects for all levels, Code Exchange, Ask the Industry Expert, webinars and training, a learning center, and other resources to foster the DIY community.

What the future holds

Distributors welcome the challenge the DIY community is bringing to the future of embedded developers and systems.

“We believe this market will only increase,” Carlson says. “New players will come into the market and it will yield inventions beyond your wildest dreams.”

Mouser Electronics sees the embedded industry as a whole shifting due to what they call the Open Source Hardware Movement, which is growing and becoming more sophisticated.

“The most obvious trend is one toward an increasing number of easy-to-use design platforms,” Parmenter says.

“DIY has traditionally been a back-of-the-magazine advertisement venture,” Parmenter says, citing the Heathkit offerings for hobbyists last century. “The Internet has enabled sharing of hardware ideas, and now semiconductor companies [like Intel and Texas Instruments] are paying attention, which for the humble DIY market is amazing to see.

“As the idea of ‘open source’ continues to gain popularity, more semiconductor manufacturers are joining the movement to create easy-to-use development platforms to attract more DIY designers to their licensed or proprietary core architectures,” Parmenter says.

As DIY boards grow in popularity and diversity, they are rapidly maturing from projects based around tinkering with home electronics into applications important to the traditional professional embedded community. Newark element14 sees a cloud computing trend taking off in the DIY market. Avnet has noticed DIY targeting the Internet of Things (IoT) and an increasing wireless connectivity and sensor integration, areas they forecast will see innovation driven by the DIY segment.

In all, distributors view the DIY market as a source of great potential in the embedded space and beyond.

“The DIY community will enable a whole generation of non-engineering educated people to create and design meaningful products that are applicable in the real world,” Carlson says. “These products will create new companies that we will look to become the trusted advisors in the future.”

Monique DeVoe (Managing Editor)
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