It's September, which has unofficially become “maker” month in the engineering community.
Kick-started by the three-day Labor Day weekend (perfect for tackling do-it-yourself (DIY) projects) September led into the Open Source Hardware Summit at MIT last week and brings World Maker Faire toward its end.
A maker, if you are unfamiliar with the term, is someone who explores new and unique applications of technologies, and encourages invention and prototyping through the learning of practical skills applied creatively.
Sounds a lot like an engineer, doesn't it? There's often a disputed line between what makes someone an engineer and what makes them a maker. In my mind, all engineers are makers but only some makers are engineers.
An engineer dedicates their profession, and often other aspects of their lives, to creatively exploring new and unique applications of technologies, but for many makers, such explorations are more on the hobbyist level, with projects often completed faster through use of kits or open-source electronics prototyping platforms.
The hobbyist status of these folks doesn't mean they are to be ignored or treated as sub-level potential customers. In fact, quite the opposite.
The growing number of makers — World Maker Faire alone is expecting 70,000 attendees and more than 650 exhibitors — combined with growth of the maker mentality and influence on professional engineers has brought a surge in kit and open-source platform marketing. Basically, if a kit or platform gets a project engineered faster and easier, it's hot.
Examples of suppliers that have wised up to this include Atmel, a proponent of the Arduino platform, and Texas Instruments with its BeagleBoard line. Distributors are also putting their design-chain stamp on this trend. Take Avnet's ZedBoard, for example
ZedBoard, from Avnet Electronics Marketing, is a community-oriented development kit for the Xilinx Zynq-7000 All Programmable SoC that just passed its first birthday over the summer and is growing in popularity (here's an infographic on just how popular ZedBoard is getting).
When we spoke with Jim Beneke, vice president of global technical marketing for Avnet Electronics Marketing, about ZedBoard, he was audibly excited about the board and dev kit, and understandably so. According to Beneke, thousands of customers have jumpstarted their Zynq-7000 AP SoC-based applications with ZedBoard and help from the design community found on ZedBoard.org.
Since its launch, Avnet has sold more than 3,000 ZedBoard kits. Additionally, Avnet has trained 2,400 customers globally in SpeedWay seminars and another 3,000 through its online course.
The ZedBoard.org website has received more than 250,000 visits, supported 50,000 downloads, and has more than 3,000 postings from customers and engineers in its questions forum. A quick look at the site’s forums shows newbie makers and experienced engineers alike helping each other and trading design concepts, with Avnet's small team of folks dedicated to ZedBoard offering support as needed.
As for the technology, features of the ZedBoard include: Xilinx Zynq XC7Z020 device; 512 MB DDR3, 256 MB QSPI Flash, 4 GB SD card memory; on-board USB-JTAG programming; 10/100/1G Ethernet; USB OTG 2.0 and USB-UART; PS & PL I/O expansion; multiple display output capability; and I2S audio codec. Not bad, considering the production-grade version of the ZedBoard is available for $395.
The ZedBoard kit includes the ZedBoard, power supply, USB cable, and pre-configured SD card containing a bootable Linux reference design.
As with many design-chain efforts, ZedBoard is a win-win for Avnet. The company gets to help share design knowledge and foster innovative thinking, while also promoting products from its line card.
This ZedBoard effort certainly won't be the last distributor-lead design-chain move in terms of kits or maker mentality.
With makers and kits growing in popularity, and with a potential 70,000 additional customers at World Maker Faire this month, one has to wonder if makers and kits are key to tomorrow's success for design-chain savvy distributors and suppliers? Do they open up new growth opportunities beyond the established, professional engineers, or is the maker movement more simply a nice, but small, addition to sales? Share your thoughts below.