Peter Semmelhack is the first to admit that when he founded New York City-based BugLabs in 2006, mechatronics was the furthest thing from his mind. Providing easily integrated mix-and-match hardware modules, along with a software development kit, he thought it was a perfect fit for hobbyists. It was essentially open-source hardware, riding on the boom of open-source software.
It didn’t turn out that way. “We have had an enormous amount of response from both the commercial and the educational sectors, wanting to use our modules for sensor networks, industrial automation, and robotics,” says Semmelhack, citing interest from everyone from the Department of Defense to students to entrepreneurs. “All of them are attracted to the idea that they can innovate in hardware in a way they haven’t been able to do before.”
What’s all the fuss about? A series of six hardware modules designed to fit together easily as the basis for a hardware device, along with a software development kit (SDK) for controlling them. They include:
? BUGbase, the $249 anchor module, is a programmable computer with CPU, RAM, lithium-ion battery, USB, Ethernet, micro-SD memory card with serial interfaces, and an LCD with button controls; it has four slots in which to plug the other modules;
? BUGview, a $119 LCD screen with touch input;
? BUGmotion, a $59 motion detector and accelerometer;
? BUGlocate, a $99 GPS receiver;
? BUGcam, a $79 2 megapixel digital camera;
? BUGvonHippel, a $79 USB 2.0 port (with both male and female connectors); it was named for MIT professor Eric von Hippel, author, not surprisingly, of Democratizing Innovation.
At CES earlier this year, BugLabs announced a new group of modules, including a mini-projector, an audio module with speakers; a GSM radio; and WiFi and Zigbee wireless modules. Bundles of modules start at $549. For a video look at the BugLabs products, visit its Web site
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While Semmelhack was initially surprised, now it looks like a natural fit, especially for the mechatronics market. “People need to innovate and iterate in hardware quickly. If you want to replicate a design 100 times and roll out a limited pilot, that’s expensive.” But companies are coming to BugLabs to develop quick-and-dirty but functional prototypes. “Then, if they want to roll out 100, they can replicate a device that’s already created. We’re seeing companies get to market twice as fast and at half the cost.”
Semmelhack insists that’s a worse-case scenario. “Usually it’s much better than that. We have a customer in the mining industry dealing with extremely customized and expensive robots. They can integrate our devices onto their robots and add features in weeks rather than months, and for thousands, not millions, of dollars.”
Clearly, BugLabs is riding the wave that open-source software movement has launched. “We’re benefitting from the mindset change,” he says. “The new generation believes in a community-based approach to innovation. If you graduate today, you expect to find open-source technology for literally no cost.”
Accordingly for this generational shift, BugLabs offers 15% student discounts on its products. It’s also launching an educational curriculum for mechatronics and engineering professors that will be available for the next school year.
BugLabs is not alone in the world; it competes with companies such as Arduino and others. But Semmelhack says his biggest competitor is public incredulity. “We get a lot of raised eyebrows because people can’t fit open-source hardware into their paradigm of the world.”
That’s bound to change. For mechatronics engineers, BugLabs and its ilk may represent a tearing down of the economical barriers to entry that make product development so difficult. In five years, Semmelhack says, “If we do our job correctly, anybody will be able to go out and economically explore their idea. We’ll see more new ideas tested and explored, and the result will be a lot more new, cool devices.”