DIY Electronics is Changing the World
Recently I met Randy Schafer, CEO of EarthLCD. He shared with me some of the work he is doing with the Arduino community and how his products add into the mix. He also discussed the importance of Arduino and how it relates to STEM. Arduino is an open-source electronics platform based on easy-to-use hardware and software. It's intended for anyone creating interactive projects.
From young kids to seasoned professionals, these DIY electronic platforms are changing the world. It is inspiring and empowering people to create electronic products that they can imagine—and some are even reaching the commercial marketplace. Be sure to check out the included video at the end of this interview for more information on Arduino.
Barry Matties: Tell me a little bit about your company and what you guys do.
Randy Schafer: We've been in business for 21 years. We got started in the LCD industry by actually buying overstock inventory from LCD manufacturers. I don't buy that much surplus anymore, but I am always reminded of what Thomas Edison said, which was, "All you need to invent is imagination and a pile of junk."
I literally used to go to my warehouse and pull out LCDs and build products out of them. After that ran out I started building LCD products—monitors, touch screens and things of that sort. About four years ago, I went to the Maker Faire in San Mateo and I met Massimo Banzi, one of the co-founders of Arduino, an open-source, microcontroller, hardware, software project with boards you can buy for as little as $20. The software you download is free. It was designed by artists for designers, mechanical people and students, to easily develop computers that controlled things like lights, control relays, motors, etc. Your low-cost 3D printers were first based on Arduino and many of them still are.
All it is really is a microcontroller that's made by a Silicon Valley company called Atmel, but with a simplified programming environment that a novice can understand, and more importantly, a set of libraries that are like Lego building blocks to do different functions. Whether it's to do Ethernet or talk to a sensor or control a relay or control a motor to build these embedded things, as we call them. A lot of people have got caught on to this Internet of Things and yes, you can buy an Ethernet shield. There are over 400 shields you can plug into the back of an Arduino. Now, where my company is unique: About 10 years ago I started building smart LCDs because with 21 years distributing LCDs, I realized they were still difficult to hook up. If you weren't a big company with multiple engineers, designing a touchscreen into your product was still a very difficult task, and expensive. We took the concept, an LCD, a touchscreen and put a computer behind it with some software that's dedicated to just running the user interface portion of their project—to create buttons, widgets, be able to download bitmaps and fonts to create a user interface.
So back when I was first talking to Massimo Banzi, I had a product, the smart LCD product called ezLCD. And when I saw the Maker Faire and I met all the creative people and all their cool things they were doing with it, I said, "Massimo, I want to do a project combining Arduino with a smart LCD." That's what we did and the product's called the arLCD. It's $99 retail but understand, it includes technology that we sell for about 50% more to regular OEM customers. It's a full touchscreen. It has its own processor driving an LCD and creating graphable elements like buttons and sliders and meters. With that, you can basically create any kind of user interface.
You take that and you combine it with the Arduino and now you can take a touchscreen and control anything—motors, relays, make a thermostat, make a CNC machine—and even make a 3D printer with a touchscreen. The possibilities are endless and it's great because the Arduino is so easy to use. As I said before, it's like Legos. There’s basically a bunch of libraries which are just groups of software that do functions, read centers, drive motors and different devices, and then we add the touchscreen LCD. The cool thing about what we do is that there are touchscreen LCDs that they put in Arduino, but they take the 8-bit processor in the Arduino to draw it and the Arduino shield, the I/O boards, stack onto the back of Arduino like a pancake.
Well, if you put an LCD on, an LCD shield that has no smarts, it will take all those pins and make the stack an inch tall. By the time you put on the board to do the interface to the mode or whatever, now you're at an inch and a half, two inches. With our products—Arduinos combined with a smart LCD—it can draw graphics fast because there's a separate processor. It's really pretty sophisticated for a $99 product. In short, it's a great way for people to learn about building LCD interfaces to talk to things and to run one.
Matties: Part of what we're working on is around the STEM program and it seems to me that a product like this and what you're doing at the Maker Faire fits really well with inspiring young people. How do you see that in schools? Are they adopting this?
Schafer: Absolutely. Schools are using Arduinos. There are some classes with Arduinos and there are a lot of kits that are sold with Arduino that have the LEDs, the resistor and maybe a motor and things like that, to let kids go through the different examples. There's actually a lot of stuff online. The website Instructables.com has a lot of projects that use Arduinos.
I do run the OC Arduino plus Raspberry Pi meet-up out of my office once a month and we have a variety of engineers, retired engineers, people that just want to learn. I mean, we have a lawyer that's built a product to plug into a keyboard. He does a shortcut on the keyboard and it puts a whole paragraph in the document.
Now he's working a way to keep track of files around the office with RFID. We have a kid, he's probably in his mid-20s, never touched a computer or did programming in his life other than just data processing, and he's built an Arduino with two sensors to put on a person's knee to help them do their physical therapy the right way. He's a physical therapist and he's building a prototype.
That's really what Arduino is about and it's fun because it crosses over into engineering. Because Arduino builds everything like Legos and building blocks, so if you had a concept and you wanted to build it rapidly, you'd grab Arduino stuff. If you wanted a touchscreen LCD on it, you'd grab an arLCD; it's really easy to take an idea to reality.
The power is not that you can do things quickly. The power of Arduino is the online community; there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of applications online. But what you're really doing is introducing the technology of building things with electronics to people in other disciplines—and all of the great ideas and inventions easily come when you cross-pollinate different disciplines.
Matties: And you empower people.
Schafer: Exactly. I ran the Microcomputer Users Group of Western Colorado and this is just as fun as that. Now, the maker movement as it is, honestly there's some good marketing that went into it by Make Magazine which used to be owned by O'Reilly, and they've combined a lot of things. If you go to a Maker Faire you'll see some Arduino stuff, you'll see some 3D printers, and you’ll see some steampunk. I went to Detroit and they had jet powered go-karts. In San Mateo, you see electric-powered bicycles and guys riding around in cupcakes and electrified bands shooting lightning bolts. It's just a gathering of creative people who said, "I want to make something."
The fun ones are the ones they just wanted to make just so they could do it, to show their friends or just an idea they had. Then there's a whole range of people that are educators that are teaching students, or people that have a vision of building a product, maybe to sell in the maker market or use the maker market tools and contacts of engineers, because about 25% of makers at these maker events are professional engineers.
That is the reason why, even though I'm a commercial touchscreen LCD company, I did a maker product. Because they'll use my maker product and if they need something bigger, faster, or if they're doing it at home and they need to do something at work they'll say, "Hey. Why don't I call EarthLCD? They did cool stuff with arLCD, I'm sure they have other LCD solutions." That's really what we are, an LCD solutions company.
Matties: It sounds like you guys are doing a lot of good things.
Schafer: It's a lot of fun, and you know what? If you can't have fun why do it?
Matties: Exactly. Thanks for talking with me today.
Schafer: Nice talking with you, Barry.
Visit EarthMake for more details: EarthMake.com
For more information, watch the following TED talk with Massimo Banzi: