Chip Industry and the Enigma of the Maker Movement

March 21, 2016 by Majeed Ahmad

The new startup era centered around economic hardware is creating a world of new possibilities and that calls for semiconductor firms to take a stand.

The new startup era centered around economic hardware is creating a world of new possibilities and that calls for semiconductor firms to take a stand.

The Maker Movement is thriving at the confluence of electronics, art and craft, and its rise is somewhat reminiscent of the advent of the open-source movement in the late 1990s that spawned a software revolution and a myriad of successful startup companies. According to USA Today, the new hardware movement with a DIY mindset made up a $29 billion community in 2014.

However, despite an unprecedented rise of the Makerspace since 2005, when programmable DIY electronics kit Arduino was first made public as an open-source hardware platform, the new hardware movement doesn't fit well in the traditional electronic supply chain that is accustomed to dealing with millions of products. Why, then, are chip firms like ARM, Atmel, Intel and TI embracing this open-source hardware platform with product batches that span hundreds, not millions?

Arduino Uno low-cost board uses AVR ATmega328 MCU and comes with a USB port to simulate mouse, keyboard and serial port

That's because the Maker Movement is increasingly becoming synonymous with hardware startups, and the semiconductor industry can't afford to ignore this community of creators and innovators originating from multiple disciplines—fashion, music, sports, environmental causes, and more. Take Atmel, for instance, the company that powers Arduino boards with its AVR- and ARM-based microcontrollers. Atmel has been one of the first silicon vendors that recognized the cultural shift in the hardware world that has turned the electronic design into child's play.

Atmel's senior marketing executive Sander Arts says that his company has embraced the Maker Movement in the spirit of bridging the chasm from Makerspace to marketplace. The San Jose, California–based chipmaker has made significant investments in reference designs, software libraries and production-ready development tools to help the Maker Community quickly and efficiently turn a proof-of-concept into a high-tech product.


Atmel's Maker Moment

Atmel's Arts adds that silicon vendors need to provide development platforms that do more than merely help Makers prototype.

"Atmel recognized the need to not only make design easier but also to make the transition from prototype to production easier."

Arts noted that while the Arduino environment is intuitive and easy to use for prototyping, it has limitations that make it unsuitable for taking a project all the way to production.

Atmel provides free software development tools that let Makers import an Arduino project directly into the company's Studio debugging environment, which natively supports Arduino libraries. Next, Atmel offers a full suite of microcontrollers at varying cost and performance levels along with components for connectivity, security, and touch interfaces.


Quin Etnyre, a young Maker, who owns a Kickstarter-funded business, with Atmel's Sander Arts

Arts, who calls Atmel a media company that sells semiconductors, has been one of the most prominent advocates of the cross-industry hardware movement. And Atmel's bid to join this new technology threshold seems to be a timely move. All of the winning projects in the 2015 Hackaday Prize—and 80 percent of the finalist designs—were powered by Atmel-based Arduino boards.

Texas Instruments is another notable semiconductor firm to have joined the Maker hardware party. In May 2015, the company organized the third "DIY with TI" event at its Dallas headquarters, where TI engineers showcased projects ranging from robot to smart hat to popcorn machine.

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    Heliophagus March 30, 2016

    Agreed. Atmel’s support of the maker and small company market has been outstanding. This makes Atmel’s recent acquisition by Microchip deeply concerning. Microchip is the polar opposite of Atmel, with expensive compilers crippled with DRM and buggy to boot, poor documentation, indifferent technical support and a user community consisting mostly of hardcore engineers who dream in binary and can’t be bothered to answer questions in forums. How these opposing cultures will merge is a real concern for small companies who simply need an inexpensive, flexible, well-supported development platform.

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    • Majeed Ahmad March 30, 2016
      My hope and view is that Microchip does realize the importance of the maker movement and one of the takeaways from Atmel's acquisition could well be a traction in the Maker world. It's hard to imagine that Microchip will want to lose all that Atmel has gained in the makerspace over the years.
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    Inspironator April 05, 2016

    Ahh, but where Microchip may shun the maker community, TI could easily fill the gap, and potentially do it better and faster than Amtel.did.  There could be more vertical growth in compatible processors and tools.  The maker community also has knowlegeable people who’s hobby is an extension of their day job knowledge, skills and abilities.

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