I make things for people that can’t be bought off a shelf, and in the past several years I have gone through a lot of Arduinos. More and more, they are simply the right tool for both the job and the client. This wasn’t always the case; what changed?
My clients today still include startups and other small businesses, but more and more they’re artists, hobbyists venturing into entrepreneurship, or people who make one-offs like the interactive displays you find in museums or science centers. The type of people I work for has changed, and because of this, the right tool for their job is almost always an Arduino.
If Not Arduinos, What?
I was chatting with some new people at a local hackerspace, and we were talking about what we do. I told them I spent a lot of time making one-off devices, prototypes, or small production runs for people who know what they need, but can’t buy it off a shelf. I mentioned that I go through plenty of Arduinos as a result.
“What would you be using if it wasn’t an Arduino?” I was asked.
I thought for a moment and replied something about how I’d probably use an AVR on a board I designed, and roll that out when I needed a microcontroller to do things. I said this because that board was my go-to solution when I needed something for my own projects. There was a nod and the conversation moved on, but after thinking a moment more I realized I had to change my answer.
If I wasn’t using an Arduino, what would I use? Probably nothing. Because the job wouldn’t exist.
The Arduino is the Right Tool for Their Jobs
A lot of my work looks like this: the client comes in with an idea but it’s not quite there, and it needs some development before it can become a product. First I build a proof of concept, but then we often move to iterative prototypes where we do a lot of testing and measuring. What is learned from one prototype is rolled into subsequent prototypes in a continuous flow of learning and refinement. (The following saying applies to this process: “Developing hardware is just like developing software, except that every time you hit ‘compile’ it takes weeks and costs thousands of dollars.”)
Eventually, we reach the end of what’s possible with the Arduino and readily available components. Then it’s time for the engineers to design a solution: something focused directly around exactly what was discovered, with minimal waste. That engineered solution is not very likely to include an Arduino.
But until we hand the job off to the engineers, the Arduino was part of the solution. And a big reason for that is the comfort level of the client during this phase of iterative refinement. A lot of clients would throw up their hands at an AVR-ISP or a hex file but they know what an Arduino is. They are often comfortable uploading sketches and making changes to them, or even following a wiring diagram. They probably even prototyped their idea with an Arduino. Using an Arduino allows them to remain hands-on with the development of their idea, even as they outsource some of the work to consultants.
The Clients have Changed
Sticking with what the client knows and expects is often the right move but there’s another, deeper reason that an Arduino is even involved in the first place. Without the Arduino and the whole ecosystem of open and accessible hardware and tools that has grown along with it, many of my clients would probably never have even begun to develop their ideas. They certainly would never have gotten to the point of hiring me for my help.
The observation that I was going through a lot of Arduinos also made me realize that my clients had changed. I now work more with artists who are incorporating electronics into their work in ways that weren’t accessible just a few years ago, basement inventors who are taking the plunge to see if their idea will fly, people who need small production runs of 10-100 in a world where “small” often means thousands, and stage magicians who need someone to help them make the next great trick happen. (I hadn’t expected that last one, but you better believe that market exists.)
All of these clients need someone to handle the hard or time-consuming parts of something they otherwise grasp, or someone to make them something they can plug in to the rest of their work. They don’t always have much of a budget to work with, but they do have enthusiasm and they know what they want. They’re idea people who roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, and they weren’t around in the numbers that they are now.
There’s one more advantage to working with these types of folks: when people have experience with developing their own solutions and experience running into the roadblocks, they usually also have some understanding of and appreciation for the kind of time, work, detail, and costs that go into development. Those of you who have done professional development work will recognize what a boon that is.
I’ve done custom work for many people over the years, but change is constant. It’s a big world and I’ve only worked in and seen my piece of it. Have you found things to be as I described, or different? Is my experience somehow unique? Post up in the comments!