Have you ever seen little children, who have just learnt to sit up, grabbing a ball-point pen from their dad’s pocket, disassembling it and trying to put it together again? Do you let them meddle, or do you grab that pen, stash it back into your pocket and walk off? Well, this is the earliest sign of the do-it-yourself (DIY) craze in a person. Fostering it could transform the child into an innovator, an entrepreneur or simply a very resourceful person with unending excitement all lifelong!
While DIY exists in almost everything from music and crafts to plumbing and carpentry, it is especially interesting, developmental and community-oriented in technical fields like electronics and robotics. Here we attempt to figure out what makes electronics DIY so interesting and purposeful, how people go about it (is there a standard ‘route’), what they need and where they get the stuff, what boards or components they prefer, and how vibrant the community is in India.
Jayakrishnan T., CEO of Asimov Robotics, is a robotics DIYer who later built a company around his passion. He feels that very few people go the DIY route for cost-saving because DIY costs time and for most people that is more valuable than money. Most people do it because they are passionate about it. A lot of people walk down the DIY path to familiarise themselves with something they have always been apprehensive of doing, or they do it to quickly get something that is not readily available. Many a times, a DIY project might revolve around modifying or upgrading an existing solution to satisfy a specific need or to fix a problem associated with the solution.
This resonates with the thoughts of Nagasai Panchakarla, entrepreneur and co-organiser of a Bangalore-based Internet of Things DIY group (IoTBlr). Nagasai feels that “DIY is all about creation. In order to create something, DIYers will come across a lot of questions for themselves and explore their own potential… questions like what do I know, what do I not know, what resources do I have, who will work with me and how to get things done from constrained resources. This will bring in the entrepreneurial mindset of converting imagination into a product that one loves.”
Ken Denmead, popularly known as GeekDad Ken in the cyber-world, and editorial director of Maker Media, feels that the biggest positive aspect of DIY projects is empowerment. People should be connected to the things they own and use, and helping people feel empowered to make things themselves helps them achieve those connections,” he explains.
Nihal Kashinath, IoT enthusiast and founder of IoTBlr, feels that DIY results in democratisation of technology and design, which is a wonderful thing. Anyone can create anything, and no one needs to be satisfied with the products or specifications put forth by large-scale manufacturers, which, for commercial reasons, would usually cater to the lowest common denominator of their common market.
“With affordable electronics, 3D printing, support of the DIY community, etc, soon everyone will be able to make or modify things to meet his specific requirements,” says Kashinath.
“DIY projects have a psychological connect with the task at hand. The sense of achievement from making something yourself cannot be replicated in any other way. In addition, people learn faster from ‘hands-on’ experience and the knowledge gain is better than when watching somebody else doing it. Besides, DIY enables mass customisation and increasing personalisation as consumers become more demanding. This is a big motivation for DIY projects,” says Rajiv Bajaj, head-Manufacturing, Autodesk India & SAARC.
“It is amazing to see how individual entrepreneurs and design enthusiasts are becoming manufacturers themselves. This increasing affordability and accessibility has facilitated the rise of the ‘maker community.’”
A DIY trend may also be fostered to promote new technologies, as we can see from the example of the IoT-focused DIY group. “The IoT presents a new opportunity to the DIY community. It is an entirely Greenfield area of innovation where large organisations and individuals or DIY groups have similar levels of maturity. Platforms like the Arduino, MSP430 Launchpad and Raspberry Pi have democratised innovation and reduced the barriers to entry significantly, so even a high-school student with interest can get started making interesting projects or devices. Let us not forget that many great companies started as projects nurtured by the DIY community. One often-quoted example is the birth of Apple and its close connection with the Homebrew Computer Club,” says Sayan Chakraborty, a core member of IoTBlr, who is leading the effort to set up a physical hackerspace for the group.
Getting started—the first steps
Bajaj explains how it is done: “Every DIY effort starts with planning the course of action. Like any other planned activity, DIY projects start with ideation followed by budgeting, procurement of materials, cost management and finally execution. The scale of the project simply defines how much time and effort is required at each stage before final execution. A crucial stage of DIY is digital prototyping that is enabled by technology. The benefit of prototyping is that it helps to minimise errors and ensure desired results at the project planning stage. Any project that is evaluated well on these parameters can be converted into real objects.”
The steps, of course, vary from person to person and project to project. Randy Sarafan, technology editor, Instructables, says, “I typically start with a spark of inspiration, and then immediately write it down (otherwise, I will never remember it). This is preceded by brainstorming, sketching, acquiring parts and general pre-planning. Some of the more complicated projects might also have a more formal design phase where the project is planned out using design software. From there I typically breadboard the circuit to make sure that it works as intended. Once I am happy with that, I build the project, stopping at the end of every new alteration to take a picture of the process. Finally, when the build is complete, I compile all of the pictures, software and circuit diagrams and write step-by-step instructions for others to be able to learn from what I have done. Even if I never iterate upon the design and make a second version, perhaps someone else can do that or apply what I have learned to their own efforts.”
Deciding what you need
“The barebones minimum set of tools one might need would be a soldering iron, breadboard, wire stripper and multimeter. Beyond that, the next big tool to invest in would be an oscilloscope. In the last few years prices of these tools have gone down considerably, and you can now find a pocket-sized digital scope for under $100. This puts this tool well within the reach of individual inventors,” suggests Sarafan.
• Assess parts, tools, materials
• Acquire these
• Design/plan steps
• Rough build/ breadboard
• Build (take photos of each step)
• Compile and upload all instructions and pictures for the community to improve upon
As for the software needed, Denmead says, “It all depends upon what you are basing your build around. VEX Robotics and LEGO Mindstorms EV3 have their own programming software. Alternatively, if you’re building a robot using an Arduino brain, you’d use the open source programming tools available for it.”
So when you choose components for your project, remember Denmead’s thumb rule: “Be aware of what you need, and what’s available to fit that need. You may not need the most expensive item for your project, and if you do your research, you can save some cost.”
Acquiring the components
When it comes to acquiring the components, you have the choice of either buying them individually or going for a kit. You could also opt to buy on foot or order online (suggestions in box).
Acquiring individual components in India can be quite tough, unless you know where to go. The cost of components can also be high, because most of these are imported.
“Very few components get manufactured in India, so barring some passive components, all others are imported,” says Neena Chopra, director, Kitsnspares.com, one of India’s leading electronics DIY kit sellers.
In fact, cost is one of the major stumbling blocks felt by Indian Arduino users too. Priya Kuber, managing director of Arduino India, says, “The majority of Indian users, students and prototypers have complained about the high cost. Arduino as a project was made to cost as much as a textbook in Europe but when converted to Indian rupees it costs slightly higher to the Indian masses.”
However, Kuber shares a good news too: “Arduino has decided to bring out official ‘made in India’ boards soon!”
Overall, it appears that in India, it is easier and safer to buy kits. There are kits available for beginners as well as experts. The range includes specific projects as well as general-purpose ones, based on specific boards. Kits‘n’Spares has DIY kits based on GSM, RF, RFID, VLSI, etc.
Asimov Robotics also specialises in DIY kits, with offerings ranging from robot manipulators and humanoid platforms to animatronics platforms and virtual reality interfaces.
A third dimension—make it yourself
While we wonder whether to buy on foot or order online, several lucky individuals in the West are hardly bothered about the components, all thanks to 3D printing!
“With the ability to manufacture their own products, DIY manufacturers can create adventurous, unique products that were previously done only by manual methods. Clearly, the distance between the individuals and the manufacturers is gradually eliminated, by increasing the availability and affordability of 3D printers. In fact, the cost of 3D printers has dropped significantly in the last few years. Now almost anyone can own a 3D printer—MakerBot Replicator 2 with about $2200—to create a 3D object in the real world,” says Bajaj.
The viability of 3D printing has emerged in tandem with the advancement and democratisation of 3D design or CAD software, which allows users to easily create a digital 3D model of an object and optimise the design before anything has been built. The combination of these two technologies—3D design software and 3D printers—means that it is easier for individuals to take an idea for a product and turn it into a physical object.
Although 3D printers are still quite expensive in India, you might want to co-invest in them with a DIY community. Plus, Bajaj feels, the prices are likely to go down as the market grows.
When deciding on the components and tools needed, you are most likely to face the question “which board to use for my project.” Kashinath says, “Among the group, members own several types of boards—Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Beagleboard, Stellaris, MSP430, etc. We basically use whatever serves our purpose for a particular project. However, choosing the right board (and hardware in general) is a recurring challenge for us and we are trying to develop a knowledge base around it. Not sure how easy it would be to keep it updated and accurate, given the rate at which new and improved board variants are coming out.”
“There are many different boards, each having strengths in different areas. There are significant differences between what an Arduino is good for, since it is a microcontroller, versus what a Raspberry Pi is good for, as it is a minicomputer that runs an operating system. Because of these differences, we tend to publish more Arduino/microcontroller projects as they are used more commonly as part of a variety of purposes,” says Denmead.
Sarafan appears to be an Arduino fan too. “I am a fan of Arduino because it is the most user-friendly and approachable. It has the same limitations as something like a Raspberry Pi, which also makes it more approachable to a more generalised audience. It is by no means the most powerful piece of hardware, but it is the most powerful in enabling absolute beginners to hit the ground running,” he says.
Beagleboard, a credit-card sized, low-power, open hardware computer maintained by Texas Instruments, is another viable option for DIYers. You can use it to experiment with Linux, Android and Ubuntu, and start developing the solution in five minutes with the included USB cable.
Citing network connectivity, multimedia and community as the top three factors that make Raspberry Pi best suited for DIY projects, Eben Upton, executive director of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, explains, “There aren’t many devices that let you connect to wired Ethernet for $35. Also, the chip we use in the Pi was originally intended as a mobile phone graphics accelerator, so people wanting to do things that connect to a screen, play video or render 3D graphics find it ideal. We have sold over 1.5 million Raspberry Pi’s, so we have a massive community that people can tap if they want help in bringing their creation to life.”
Regarding the desirable features in a Pi, he says, “I think a lot of people in the DIY world would like analogue input, more GPIOs and Wi-Fi. The first two are served quite well by connecting an Arduino via USB. As for Wi-Fi, there are a lot of wireless dongles you can use with the Pi. We are considering to incorporate some of these features on a future board, but we need to be careful: Part of the reason for the Pi’s very low price is that we’ve been careful not to add more than is absolutely necessary to the board.”
• Raspberry Pi
• MSP430 Launchpad
• Telos B
• Wire stripper
• A 3D printer (if you can afford it or invest in it as a group)
Listing the top reasons for Arduino’s popularity in the DIY world, Kuber says, “Arduino is popular because it was one of the pioneers in the open source hardware domain. I would credit the widespread popularity to the fact that it has a great founding team. They had all the elements to make this project a success—a robust hardware design, an experienced professor taking care of documentation, a software person to write an easy-to-use IDE and an efficient manufacturer. Furthermore, the active forums and the hand-to-hand customer support have brought Arduino this far. It invited developers of all experience levels—novices to professionals to hobbyists. Every person working for Arduino answers support queries in the mailing lists, be it the CEO of Turin office, or India office or the creator of Arduino himself! If the problem goes too vast, and if it is found to be common, we would then point it to the forums. As far as tutorials and workshops in India are concerned, we are working to organise them in a more hands-on orderly manner.”
Kuber also discusses things on DIY users’ wishlists: “People usually compliment the robustness of Arduino. However, some of them want to take insurance on the pins, which is currently not provided. Another complaint is generally regarding the IDE, but the people who complain over that are mostly advanced software engineers. Considering the masses, the most ‘wanted’ feature in India at least is the drop in price.”
Learn and collaborate
There are excellent learning resources for DIYers these days (see box on next page for online resources). From step-by-step instructions to videos showing how to go about a project, from basic conceptual learning resources to discussion forums, you have several avenues for getting your doubts cleared at any stage of your project.
Concerning IoT DIY, Kashinath says, “In terms of learning, obviously the best entry point is a Google search, as there are several tutorials, videos and communities dedicated to IoT on the Web. There are also some good books on the subject and some course material from universities teaching IoT. In India, since many of our challenges are unique to us, the global forums may not have the answers we seek. So one of the best resources you can get is a local group of enthusiasts who can work and learn together. Most cities should already have local groups. If you are in Bengaluru, join IoTBLR. If there is no such group in your city, why not start one?”
Sarafan also recommends Google search. “Honestly, I am partial to Google image search. Simply search for whatever you are trying to build and throw the word ‘schematic’ at the end. You should visually get lots of useful information quickly,” he explains.
Above all this, it is the ‘community’ that makes DIY possible—and the key factor that sets today’s DIY scenario far ahead of the yesteryears.’ (See box ‘No DIYian is an Island.’)
No DIYian is an Island
Like open source software, DIY is also greatly driven by the community—both online and physical. In fact, it is the community spirit that has made DIY so tangible today
“I think the biggest positive aspect is the community that has grown around DIY projects. It is not so much the individual projects being generated by this new DIY resurgence that are particularly novel. People have always pursued their passions, tinkered and innovated unique solutions to their everyday problems. What is currently so powerful about DIY projects is that these people are no longer operating alone. Even if you are the only person in your town who does this sort of thing, you can go online and connect with people all over the world who think like you do. Collectively this community has pushed innovation much further than people ever could have working alone in their basement,” says Randy Sarafan of Instructables.
Being part of a community helps DIYers to collaborate with like-minded individuals to build their projects faster and better. Sometimes, it also becomes possible to combine modules into a bigger solution. Moreover, since larger DIY solutions are often multi-disciplinary, collaboration is indispensable since one person rarely has all the skills required for the fruition of an idea.
While online communities are a great boon and beneficial to people living in remote areas, it also helps to have physical gatherings if there is a DIY group in your town. Sayan Chakraborty, who is working towards setting up a physical hackerspace for IoTBlr, says, “Meeting and working in person is very important for the DIY maker/hacker community as we are mostly dealing with physical things, whether it is electronic devices or artwork or product designs. In addition, some of the skills and capabilities being acquired and exchanged between the community members require active participation and discussion while interacting with physical devices at the same time.”
The IoT Bangalore, Computer Club of India, Jaaga and HasGeek are some of the groups that are quite active in Bengaluru. These groups run regular group buys for components or make runs to the local electronics component market. In addition, there are constant barters or donations to specific member projects.
“Our meetings are very informal and in the spirit of the makerspace/hackerspace culture we actively encourage collaborative learning. Interesting project ideas and implementations are discussed openly and voted on. Teams are formed based on the interest of the members. One of the key concepts we are dealing with these days is the evolving 802.15.4 wireless standard. We have had a session on the pros and cons of open standards (like 802.15.4) vs proprietary wireless standards. We have also had a very fruitful session on hardware platforms ranging from the well-known Arduino, MSP430 and Raspberry Pi to the relatively less-known but extremely energy-efficient EFM32. We all come from different fields and these sessions enable us to learn new things and share ideas.”
Great products and often thriving companies are born of DIY projects. There is no dearth of examples in this space.
Sharing his favourite Pi-based projects, Upton says, “The high-altitude ballooning that Dave Akerman has been doing in the UK (http://www.daveakerman.com/) remains my favourite, but there are lots of others, from the Siri-activated garage door opener (http://www.raspberrypi.org/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=63&t=25118&p=231345) to the Raspberry Pi bartender (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/partyrobotics/bartendro-a-cocktail-dispensing-robot). What’s great is that many of these projects start off as DIY efforts and then turn into small-scale businesses (for example, http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/tubecore/tubecore-duo, which just got funded).”
Kuber shares, “There is a new device called ArduSat. It’s an Arduino Satellite wherein Arduino users can test their code in space (http://blog.arduino.cc/2013/08/12/ardusat-successfully-launched-in-space/). It is exciting to know that now Indian students would be able to have the same access to space! ArduSat has tied up with Dhruva Space India and we are partnering with them to teach space-oriented experiments in a very fun and educative way (http://www.spaceschool.co.in/?page_id=561).”
• Electronics for You (www.electronicsforu.com)
• Make Magazine (http://makezine.com/)
• Instructables (http://www.instructables.com/)
• Arduino website (http://arduino.cc/)
• Raspberry Pi website (http://www.raspberrypi.org/)
• Beagleboard (http://beagleboard.org/)
• Popular Mechanics DIY (http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/how-to/)
• DIY (https://diy.org/)
• Adafruit (http://www.adafruit.com/)
Regarding popular projects in his group, Chakraborty says, “There are a number of interesting projects and we encourage people to form their own teams based on their interest or capabilities. Some of today’s popular themes include automation for home, retail, medical, agriculture and location tracking. My current favourite is a pollution monitoring and reporting system that uses GPS location tracking and mesh networking between the nodes.”
Guarding against pitfalls
The DIY scene is generally charged with enthusiasm and positivity. Despite that, DIYers need to be aware of the potential pitfalls and how to guard their project against them.
Denmead warns, “The biggest pitfall is perhaps that sometimes doing a project yourself may not be the most economical way to achieve it.”
Corporate DIY: Jet Fuel for Innovation
Industry leaders are encouraging a DIY culture amongst their employees. We took a peak at some of the DIY stuff displayed at ARM’s recent tech fest and discussed how DIY helps a company grow…
ARM was all ablaze with excitement as it celebrated ingenuity and innovation at the recently held Technofest 2013. Krishna Kumar Ranganathan, principal engineer, ARM India, had some interesting stuff on platform stabilisation and demonstrated a miniature ‘Segway’ kind of mobile device at the event. “I have a bigger prototype at home and I am keen on building a cost-effective human transportation device,” he said.
Another group of employees showcased a Smart Aquarium project. Their product involved an Android app that could help one remotely monitor an aquarium and program the feeding time.
“ARM has always encouraged employees to innovate and explore the world of technology beyond their regular daily routines. The company provides mbeds to employees to conduct their projects,” says Ranganathan.
The mbed kit is a single-board microcontroller with associated tools for programming the device. It is a rapid prototyping platform that helps complete microprocessor-based system prototypes in a significantly short period of time. The mbed project was initiated by two ARM employees, and later became an official research project within ARM. It is now run and maintained by ARM to help MCU Partners provide their customers with the best way to prototype designs using their microcontrollers. mbed began with NXP LPC 1768 (ARM CortexM3) but now includes NXP LPC11U24 (ARM CortexM0) and FSCL Freedom Board (ARM CortexM0+). ARM also collaborates with universities and high-schools and provides mbed kits to students for learning and experiments.
Apart from mbed, if the employees need any other components or software for their projects, ARM readily funds the projects if it is satisfied with the purpose. For instance, DIY enthusiasts at ARM are now working on building a robot that can navigate its way through their office collecting coffee cups.
Ranganathan explains, “Let’s say I’m at my desk, and I need a cup of coffee. I just have to go to the intranet and request a cup of coffee. The robot will recognise my login and hence know where I am. By default, it comes to my desk but I can also mention if I am elsewhere in the office. The robot goes to the vending machine and brings the cup of coffee that has already been prepared. The robot is basically a smart mobile platform with wheels. The idea is that the robot will navigate from place A to place B within the office avoiding all obstacles and knowing the destination as well. It can also go about collecting empty mugs.”
DIY enthusiasts team at ARM is also interested in adding video conferencing capabilities to the robot.
Guru Ganesan, managing director of ARM India, explains, “DIY projects benefit the organisation as well as the individuals. These help individuals by encouraging them to think out of the box. Some of these projects might actually enhance daily operations, which is beneficial for the company. ARM has always encouraged such employee-led innovation ideas that help them co-create for a shared purpose.”
“In India, DIY is more or less confined to academic interests and hence it is highly constrained by the goals and timelines. Another aspect is how we perceive DIY for engineering problems. It may not be always possible to build a big project from scratch to end in DIY mode. Deterred by this thought, people drop highly-technical projects and go for simple ones. However, the solution is to learn how to modularise or segment a big project to be able to take up a part of it in DIY mode,” says Jayakrishnan.
He also feels that people should get out of the mindset that DIY must involve hardware development—developing an algorithm or finding solutions to mathematical bottlenecks can also be DIY activities!
“I think the largest pitfall is that you often think that if you have built something and have it sitting in front of you, people online would like it and you immediately have a product for sale. Building the prototype of a singular unique item is not necessarily the same as designing a product for mass market, nor does having an audience mean that people will pay the actual cost of production once the product hits the market,” explains Sarafan.
Kuber adds, “India has a very brilliant DIY community. But Indians have to nurture their documenting and publicity talents. A small desktop experiment, if video-documented well and uploaded to the correct social media with correct tutorial instructions, would be a great gift to the spirit of open source.”
DIY in India
“India has a long tradition of ingenuity and a strong technical base. The DIY/maker ethic is tremendously strong here. We consistently see new and exciting projects from India,” says Denmead.
Sarafan says, “Having never been to India, my observation of the DIY community in India can only be based on what I observe on Instructables. However, that said, it seems to be pretty vibrant. We run hundreds of contests on our site every year for DIY projects, and India ranks within the top 10 countries throughout the world in terms of the number of winners. I’m also impressed by the number of children from India who regularly contact me for help in their electronics projects. There seems to be a thriving DIY scene, especially amongst younger people.”
That said, the people actually getting their hands dirty have mixed views on the Indian DIY ecosystem. “DIY has never been big in India,” moans Kashinath. “Not all schools can boast of a ‘workshop’ where students can get their hands dirty working with metal, wood, electronics, etc. There is no famous hobby shop that promotes DIY either. As a result, it just isn’t something that kids are exposed to. Some TV channels and schools today are leading the effort in this, which is heartening to see. I was lucky to have a workshop in my school, and I do believe that it contributed significantly to my present-day interest in this area. That said, it is promising to see how things are evolving here. Information and ideas are accessible globally, hardware and prototyping costs are reducing, local communities are forming and the momentum is increasing.”
The author is a technically-qualified freelance writer, editor and hands-on mom based in Chennai