If anyone had somehow got the impression that the days of electronics hardware design were numbered, they need to think again. Hardware seems to be alive and well and is now attracting specialist incubators such as Highway1, set up by electronics manufacturing specialist PCH International to go hand-in-hand with its alumni all the way to the factories in China.
The hardware industry seems to be currently experiencing a real renaissance. Among the 84 projects incubated at American seed accelerator Y Combinator in 2012, seven focused on the development of physical electronic products. And with Lemnos Labs, Haxlr8r and Bolt, the number of specialised hardware incubators is growing. “The popularity of Apple devices illustrates the role of support and the importance of design centred on user experience. In addition there is an increasing consumer demand for smart portable sensors,” explains Aymerik Renard, Vice-President of Highway1, PCH International’s new accelerator. Highway1 has been set up to help startups make the move from the prototype stage to being a firm capable of delivering products on a world scale. The incubator is offering a four-month programme which begins in San Francisco and ends in Shenzhen, China.
Frisco to Shenzhen: from design to mass manufacture
Based in San Francisco, the new accelerator will start by giving startups space alongside the technical engineers from Lime Lab, a design company which PCH acquired last year. However, when the time comes to move from a small-scale startup to mass production of electronic items, a young company faces many risks. “Although quite a few startups have chosen to go to China, their lack of local knowledge can lose them an enormous amount of money,” warns Renard, explaining: “That’s why we’re offering our entrepreneurs the opportunity of using our supply chain directly. They’ll spend two weeks at the factories in Shenzhen, the main hub of the world’s electronics manufacturing industry, so that they can get into the ecosystem and gain a sense of how things really happen.”
‘Maker’ movement set to shake up the hardware industry?
The inaugural programme starts in October and already has a number of projects registered, one of which is littleBits. Set up in 2011, littleBits aims to transform anyone and everyone into an inventor by providing an open-source library of electronic modules that snap together with magnets so that people can easily construct innovative prototypes in just a few seconds. The promising start made by this young company illustrates the surge of the ‘Maker’ movement, which is encouraging DIY fans to create their own inventions. “The Kickstarter platform has clearly given this phenomenon a bit of a boost, but the children who grow up in the ‘Maker’ era will bring radical change to the hardware industry in the future, because inventing will by then be something which everyone has the chance to do,” predicts Aymerik Renard.