Made In China: Eric Pan and open source hardware


Maker culture is being remade in China. Along with pioneers like Bunnie Huang and David Li, of Shanghai hackerspace Xinchejian, Eric Pan and his open hardware facilitator, Seeed Studio
are accelerating the global maker movement by helping people source, design, produce, and commercialize their maker projects. And just as importantly, they are fueling a Chinese maker movement that is starting to take full advantage of both Shenzhen's awesome manufacturing capacities and China's shanzhai superpowers.

Seeed recently attended the Bay Area Maker Faire, where they received an Educators Choice Award and brought such delights as a BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) shield for building connections between Arduino and iOS devices, a critical enabling component for makers; their open source wearable solution called Xadow, enabling everybody to make add-ons for Google Glass, iWatch, etc.; the DSO quad, a pocket size 4 channel digital oscilloscope developed by a veteran engineer team in Guangzhou who did it for fun and open-sourced the design; and
a recent hot collaborative product, the Crazyflie nano quadcopter kit. Along with Boing Boing's Mark Frauenfelder, Eric will be keynoting the Tokyo Maker Conference on June 15th.

At the Institute for the Future where I'm a researcher, we've been tracking the co-evolution of makers in the U.S. and Europe, and their counterparts in China for the past couple of years. I caught up with Eric to talk about how, in just the past twelve months, the maker movement has reached a tipping point in Shenzhen — a place he calls "the Hollywood of hardware."

NewImageLyn Jeffery: Congratulations on being named one of the 30-Innovators-Under-30 by Forbes China! For open hardware innovation, it's just amazing.

Pan: [laughs] It's so not me…the cover picture. It was my second time wearing that suit—the first time was on my wedding! But they don't like me to wear a t-shirt, they wanted me to look more like a Forbes guy. That report was very helpful in triggering more interest in open hardware and the maker movement. The China Association of Inventors, a very traditional and official organization, even invited a bunch of us to Beijing to talk about the maker movement, and they had a very supportive attitude.

In April 2012 you organized the first maker event in China and there have been several more since then across China. How has the maker movement in China grown since last spring?

Pan: The really good boost is from Chris Anderson's new book, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, which came out in a Chinese edition. A lot of people who had been following Chris Anderson since his Long Tail theory have read this book and have come to an understanding of the maker movement. Even my father read it and called me to say, "Hey, I know what you're doing now." The book made it easy for him to understand.

So now a lot more people are interested, from common people to engineers to big companies. Like Xiaomi (Chinese high-end smartphone maker), they are playing with open hardware. Tencent is working with us to have some hackathons; it's like never before.

Another thing is that the internet startups are coming to very furious competition and the pressure is leading a lot of companies to look at the junction between software, hardware, and cloud computing. So it's good timing for people to know about hardware and to try to become a maker.

What kind of changes have taken place at Seeed Studio over the last year?

Pan: So many things have happened. Last spring we had just moved to the new office and we had forty people and it was mostly me pulling people forward. The main difference is that now we have grown to 110 people and we are more organized and have a way to make everybody move forward together. We experienced steep growth and we've finished climbing, now, to a platform. We've organized our departments to make them more aligned. So this is the biggest improvement and difference.

Our revenues have doubled since last year. We've also added a 1000 square-meter space for a new Agile Manufacturing Center.

Which countries are your partners from?

Pan: All over the world. The U.S is one–third to one-quarter of our revenue and we have a lot more from Japan and Europe and China. The maker movement is spreading to all over the world.

So you've reached this platform, you've got management in place. Where do you want to take Seeed in the next year?

Pan: We'll be improving efficiencies like cost, lead-time, and quality. And we'll also increase our capabilities, not only just making PCB boards but making some finished consumer-level, commercial products. We're also preparing a series of solutions about IoT for the body, the home and the city, that I was able to talk a bit in a recent conference in Tencent, slides shared here.

You founded the Shenzhen hacker space, Chaihuo. When I visited you in April 2012, the Shenzhen DIY Robotics club was at Chaihuo, but you were having trouble really gaining traction in Shenzhen. How are things now?

Pan: It's going great! Membership is increasing every month with the growing popularity of the maker movement. Chaihuo since early this year has moved to a new spot in the OCT Loft, which is the design neighborhood of Shenzhen. It's very artsy with a lot of designers, a very very interesting place and you can hang out for the whole Sunday afternoon. We finally convinced the owner that we belong to the neighborhood and they let us rent some space.

It's a studio area and we have a storefront to sell the maker-made products, like 3d printers and Arduino kits. We have regular meet-ups and salons and there are three or four start-up makers working there. We have workshops on Sunday afternoon to teach new makers to experience soldering, programming. Next step is we are working with a major Chinese blog to have a hardware show-and-tell every month. If someone has a new hardware idea they can pitch it and also find investors and get media exposure.

I see Chaihuo as so different from any other hacker space because it's in Shenzhen and the people here are more focused on not only making some fun projects but also in turning them into real products, to commercialize as a startup. We welcome makers from all over to visit us!

For additional reading on Chinese Makers, check out:

• Transfabric: a super-informed blog on all things hacker, open hardware, and China
• Bunniestudios: a blog by Bunnie Huang, the original China open hardware guru
Hoektronics: blog by Zach Hoeken Smith, Program Director for the HAXLR8R hardware incubator