I just finished an amazing weekend hosted at Seattle’s Maker Haus and organized by Startup Weekend Maker Edition (SWME). During the weekend, I feel that I gained a much deeper, perhaps even profound, understanding of the significance of the emerging technologies surrounding the Maker Movement (3D printing, customizable electronics, etc.).
I now feel that we are on the verge of a disruption in the way that people relate to the manufactured products around them. We are about to see an explosion of highly customized physical artifacts and a much more rapid development of useful things, driven by the needs of their end users rather than the requirements of manufacturers. This rapid evolution of manufactured products will come largely from innovators who are adopting the values of the open source software movement.
I broke a lot of the rules about how you’re “supposed” to participate in a Startup Weekend – but I hope this summary of my experience will give back to the community some of the valuable experience I gained by being there.
How to Fix a Slipping Zipper
I joined the team led by Martha Young (a recent employee of Startup Weekend, in fact) who proposed a seemly simple problem – how to “fix” a failing zipper. She uses a garment washing bag to protect delicate washables – yet the zipper it uses slips open, ruining her clothing during a wash cycle.
The zipper is a highly refined artifact which is the product of modern manufacture. It is precisely made, and intricate in detail.
This raises a fundamental issue for modern society:
In a world of highly refined manufactured goods, how is the individual empowered to customize or interface to the objects we encounter in our daily lives?
Our present system, is geared to the needs of the large scale producers and corporations; providing highly efficient means of production and distribution on a large scale, but largely lacking in end-user influence over the form and function of the products we use every day.
Take the example of the mundane zipper; an object that practically disappears from our consciousness since we are so used to it being a component in our clothing, handbags, and luggage. Yet a failure of this component to meet our individual needs lie outside our ability to take any positive action (a totally failed zipper usually requires disposing of the entire product of which it is a part).
In the software realm, the open source movement has addressed this problem by allowing consumers of technology to have complete access to the design and modification of the software that they use.
We are now on the cusp of having this capability in the manufactured goods arena. In just a few hours, we were able to carefully measure the dimensions of a zipper with an accuracy of 100 microns (1/10th millimeter), including it’s width, thickness, wire gauge, and pitch (distance between individual teeth).
Using open source (free) 3D modeling software, we could then design a component using the same precision and tolerances of the manufactured good, to achieve an adaptation that interfaces at the same level of refinement as the manufactured product.
The ZipSnap zipper lock, can snap onto a manufactured zipper and precisely engage the individual wires on the outside of a zipper to prevent it from slipping. The ridges needed to provide this locking capability had to be accurate at the sub-millimeter dimension to work properly. Our prototypes were perfectly functional and could be produced by our 3D printer in 10 minutes.
The parametric model files we created are now available on the Internet as open source and can be used to create a similar device for a zipper of any width, thickness, and wire pitch – all just by modifying a few numerical parameters in the model source file.
Riffing on a Theme
After creating the underlying zipper-accessorizing technology, we then were able to rapidly extend and adapt a variety of different products based on the zipper-interface idea.
The toy train was modeled by Dafna Bitton, (who volunteered her help even while working on another team), and learned to use the modeling software after a single 10 minute lesson. The paint job was completed by Joanna Lu who volunteered her time to decorate it.
I believe the most rapid evolution of a technology comes at the intersection of a freely-shared idea, and a large receptive audience. We’ve seen this in the software world, where rapid innovation in the open source community, has outstripped the ability of closed-source (proprietary) producers to out-compete them.
With the new tools of 3D-printing and customizable electronics modules, we are at the same stage where the personal computer began the revolution in computing we’ve been experiencing over the last 30 years.
The tools exist now to enable anyone with a computer and Internet connection to design and build their own objects, and then share them back with the community at large to further adapt and refine them for new purposes and functions.
I expect an industry of a size and scale comparable to the IT industry to emerge.
A Closing Note about Startup Weekend
I got so much out of this (my 4th) Startup Weekend experience. Yet I broke a lot of the rules, and hacked it for my own purposes.
I joined a team in the sense that I adapted their initial problem domain, yet I largely worked independently of the team in pursuing the problems that interested me most.
I didn’t help with gathering user feedback, developing a business model, or helping to promote ZipSnap as a business idea.
I wasn’t involved in the final presentation, and in fact the team didn’t choose to use any of the work I did during the weekend (though I did send Martha home with the solution to her original problem – clips that could be used to lock her washer bag).
I spent more time talking with people not on my team than those on my team (other participants, mentors, organizers, and our Maker Haus hosts).
I feel great about what I got out of the experience, and only regret that I wasn’t able to share more widely with the SWME audience what I had felt I had learned; hopefully this post can be my way of giving something back to those that enabled me to have such a rich experience over the weekend.
If everyone did what I did, Startup Weekend could devolve into a deeper chaos. But I think Startup Weekend allows for this kind of “event hacking” on a small scale – I built a customized experience around the venue and people that were there and got a great deal out of it for myself. I hope my participation was valued by others regardless of my non-conformance.