The evolution of the maker landscape

31st August 2022
Paige West

David Sandys, Director of Technical Marketing, Digi-Key Electronics talks us through the evolution of the maker landscape.

Ever since I got my first computer in 1977 – a Commodore VIC-20 with only 3,583 bytes of basic program memory – I’ve been on a lifelong journey of problem solving and innovating through being a maker.

I get a lot of joy and satisfaction out of the process of making. Most engineers spend a good amount of time thinking about how to make things better and more efficient, and often have a greater technical scope. But makers simply ask, ‘How can I make this work?’ There’s a large spectrum of technical skill level and commercial aspirations when it comes to making. A lot of people start off small with fun projects like, say, creating a machine that cools a beer after they send a text that they are driving home from work. There’s no problem with starting small. And from that point, curiosity drives many to continue designing new things.

From ideating to hands-on work to programming, makers have a chance to see projects through until the end goal, troubleshooting along the way. In the maker community, there’s an underlying passion for learning and sharing that knowledge with others. After all, that’s why maker shows are often referred to as the largest ‘show-and-tell’ gatherings. And that passion is just one of the elements that differentiates today’s maker landscape from just 10 to 15 years ago.

Back in the day when someone wanted to start a 32-bit embedded design, it would take a huge amount of effort to just interface to memory. Unlike today, people needed to create their own controller because there wasn’t one already set up, let alone have memory integrated on-chip. From the in-circuit emulator to the development board and every seat for an integrated development environment (IDE), it could cost tens of thousands of dollars to just get started. But today, all of that can be had for less than $20, which has enabled so many more people to get into making.

Thanks to a continuous spirit of curiosity, learning and innovation, the maker landscape has evolved drastically in the last few years. With technologies becoming more inexpensive and user-friendly, making is now more accessible than it has ever been.

For example, with low-cost, high-performance microcontroller boards like Raspberry Pi’s RP2040 based Pico platform that can be programmed with MicroPython, or Adafruit and other 3rd party CircuitPython compatible boards, board managers are no longer necessary. People can write their program in simpler Python scripting code to control hardware instead of having to use complex low-level languages like C or C++, which makes them great for beginners. Instead of complex Integrated Development Environments and board managers to compile, connect and download executables, the boards enumerate as a thumb drive, you drag and drop a text file to it and the interpreter simply loads and executes at runtime.

The introduction of ecosystems like Qwiic from Sparkfun and STEMMA QT from Adafruit are also simplifying the design process. JST connectors on the end of these boards make it possible to daisy chain them, therefore making rapid prototyping easier than ever. Adafruit Feather is another flexible and powerful family of microcontroller main-boards (Feathers) and daughterboards (Wings) with a wide range of capabilities – once someone picks a Feather (the brain of the system), they can in theory, add whatever Wings they need for functionality like displays, wireless communications, data logging and more.

SparkFun’s MicroMod is another system that’s changing the game for serious engineers and makers alike. I like to think about it as a ‘Sous-chef’ for electronics. MicroMod leverages the M.2 form factor and allows individuals to create custom solutions by selecting only the blocks they want to use and adding them to main boards or control boards. Engineers and makers choose which MCU to use, which functions like LoRa or Single Pair Ethernet they need and what sensors or inputs/outputs they want, and everything simply connects via either an M.2 connector for MCUs and functions or a JST connector for Qwiic based sensors and other IO.  There is simply no easier way for a software engineer who doesn’t do design/layout or a hardware engineer who doesn’t have the time to get a rapid prototyping solution. From a maker standpoint, they can leverage MicroMod to create the exact functions they need to help bring their concept to fruition.

Micro:bit is a system on the opposite end of the spectrum that’s making it easier for young people interested in STEM to program by using code in a block format and then with one click, switch it over to Java. By leveraging Microsoft’s MakeCode, students can quickly and easily start leveraging LEDs and sensors to interface electronics with the world around them. What is even better is companies like Pimoroni, Kitronik, Seeed, SparkFun and Adafruit have really expanded the Micro:bit ecosystem and have developed tons of add-on solutions to help nurture the next generation of makers and engineers. Adafruit has even created the CLUE platform, which is footprint compatible with Micro:bit but adds additional functionality like a colour TFT display and a ton of sensors including motion, light, temp, humidity and sound. 

Resources to help makers are plentiful. Anyone can go to GitHub or Instructables and find files for just about anything. Digi-Key's provides information, projects, ideas, tools and more to help and inspire makers. There are so many great resources out there like learn or hookup guides that take projects step-by-step and help people get going.

Industries as well are embracing the maker movement. From GE to Google, a lot of large technology-based companies are supporting the creativity and innovation of their employees by providing their own dedicated maker spaces. And many of the new resources and maker platforms I mentioned earlier have been instrumental in rapid prototyping. The maker’s thought process of looking at something and seeing it in a different way is so powerful to problem solving, at all levels of a company. Makers are also leading the charge in areas like machine learning/AI and robotics. These are areas where makers are driving innovation forward.

Digi-Key also has a deep history in making. In 1972, Dr. Ronald Stordahl created a ‘Digi-Keyer’ – a kit for ham radio operators that helped transmit Morse code. That then led to him selling the leftover components – first to electronic hobbyists, and then to the commercial market. That maker spirit continues at Digi-Key today. For instance, during the pandemic when we couldn’t get our hands on a portable sanitizing machine, our engineers created a UV tunnel themselves to disinfect the thousands of totes that carry product through our distribution centre. The tunnel uses UV light to kill 99.99 percent of the organisms on the totes, including coronavirus – drastically reducing contact for employees.

From new technologies to extensive education resources, the next generation of makers and engineers are coming up in a time when innovation and creativity is truly at their fingertips – and I’m excited to see what they can achieve next. Bottom line is It’s never been easier for everyone, from makers to engineers, to build something. The key is to just get started.

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