Massimo Banzi is the co-founder of Arduino, the Italian manufacturer of the low-cost, open-source Arduino board driving much of the current Maker Revolution. In the following interview with 3DPI’s Davide Sher, Banzi discusses the foundation of Arduino, the Open Source movement, 3D printing and “making it” in Italy.
I remember when I first read about Arduino on Wikipedia in the beginning of 2012. The open source control board and programming environment had been introduced seven years earlier and, from what I could tell, it was an incredibly revolutionary tool, capable of powering the homemade robots – and thus the Maker robots (aka 3D printers) – of tomorrow. However I had never heard of it before. And it was an Italian made product, made by an international team of students and, then, Interaction Design Institute Ivrea (IDII) professor, Massimo Banzi, the company’s co-founder.
If the same had happened in another country, everyone in that country would likely have already known about it. In Italy, it took many more years and, only in 2014, Banzi’s efforts to spread awareness of Maker culture were repaid with a prime time TV appearance, just ahead of the extremely successful Maker Faire Europe in Rome. Although he continues to pursue his career as an Interaction Design professor at SUPSI Lugano (also as a visiting professor at CIID in Copenhagen), for all those involved in Making, Massimo is a bit of star.
He also founded the first Italian FabLab in Turin (which led to the creation of the Officine Arduino FabLab/Makerspace) and has been involved in promoting Makers through the Make in Italy foundation, which he and several partners founded with the long term goal of supporting FabLabs and Makerspaces throughout Italy. Most of all, though, his name is associated with Arduino and, thus, with a 100% open source way of doing business.
3D Printing Media Network: How does the open source business model work?
Massimo Banzi: Every product sold with the Arduino name is fully open source: all hardware, software and all the documentation is freely available under a Creative Commons Attribution- ShareAlike 2.5 license. We strive to remain as open as possible.
3DPMN: Is the success of Arduino a matter of smart branding?
Massimo Banzi: Branding is certainly a big part of it. Clearly there is the issue that, when your brand becomes very well known, there are those who begin cloning it. It is never an issue when people make products like Arduino, but when they copy the brand it becomes difficult to protect yourself. Sometimes a bad quality product uses the Arduino name and people buy it just to save a couple of dollars. Then, there are all the name variants, so that you never know which are real Arduino products and which are not. If you are Apple and you only make a couple of very expensive products, it is a lot easier to protect your name than if you make many inexpensive products like we do.
Fakeduino: it is not really CE compliant and not really carbon neutral but how can it be a good product if even the map of Italy is imprecise?
3DPMN: So, is it really worth it to remain an open source company?
Massimo Banzi: I think that, with open source, you have to be able to distinguish the economic aspects and the global impact you can have. Certainly the company is growing, but what gives us real satisfaction is knowing that we can provide a service for entire communities. Today, you can almost take Arduino for granted; it is like drinking water: you open the faucet and it’s there. You don’t think about the infrastructure that needs to be in place for that to happen. We love being part of something that is changing the world. Certainly, it would be nice if users sometimes bought more original boards.
3DPMN: Do you think that open source can work in other industrial sectors, such as medical research?
Massimo Banzi: Perhaps it is not called “open source”, but a lot of current medical research is already carried out at a university level by leveraging models based on shared knowledge and information. I think that the very nature of scientific research is full disclosure of all the achievements accomplished so far. It may take some time before this is implemented more at a corporate level.
3DPMN: Can mixed models also work?
Massimo Banzi: We certainly don’t regret choosing an open source business model, as that is what allowed us to stand out and get ourselves established in the beginning. Many Arduino users have adopted it because they know that they are not tying themselves to a specific closed technology, in case they decide to move on to do something completely different. It is also quite clear that many companies keep some of their products free and open because they would not work in any other way. For example, Thingiverse would not be as popular if there was heavy licensing involved.
The Arduino Materia 101 is the first 3D printer distributed by Arduino
3DPMN: How much do you follow 3D printing?
Massimo Banzi: The RepRap community is something that I am very fascinated by. I have followed it from the very beginning and continue to follow it to know what people are inventing. Many pieces of the RepRap project are based on Arduino-compatible modules and many desktop 3D printers are powered by Arduino or Arduino-derived boards. There is a very interesting level of innovation in the community and it is clear that open source 3D printers have brought this technology within anyone’s reach. Before that, the large 3D printer manufacturers were not seriously thinking that so many people would have wanted to use a 3D printer at home.
3DPMN: Do you think that the larger manufacturers contribute to speeding up 3D printing innovation or do they slow it down?
Massimo Banzi: The issue is that much of their innovation is based on a series of patents that have expired and this allowed many low cost 3D printers to exist. In the global 3D printing community, there are sectors where new processes and technologies are invented. And, in the past, a companies have tried to patent them as its own. Episodes such as this can seriously hamper the further development of the technology in general.
3DPMN: Are you referring to the case involving MakerBot?
Massimo Banzi: I had met [MakerBot founder] Bre Pettis in the beginning, when he was a great fan of Arduino and an important figure in the open source community. When I visited them in 2009, they were laser cutting the panels of the first Cupcake 3D printers that were going to be sold. There was an amazing pioneering spirit. Then again, if you want to take home several millions of dollars, there are compromises you need to make.
3DPMN: Do you believe in the distributed manufacturing concept as envisioned by 3D Hubs?
Massimo Banzi: I believe that, first and foremost, we need to clearly define what we are talking about. 3D printing is made for a certain type of manufacturing. The problem remains: what do you build with it? Many people have a 3D printer just because they love the technology. They assemble them and disassemble them; what they build with them is secondary. I am, however, very fascinated by the new business models that some people are creating based on the new possibilities of having access to a low-cost 3D printer. For example, I know a designer in Copenhagen who makes a particular type of stool and uses 3D printed components to hold the parts together in a very interesting way. This is an example of something that already works.
3DPMN: What about FabLab-based local manufacturing?
Massimo Banzi: I participated in the opening of three FabLabs and I see that, especially in Turin where I was more directly involved, we have created a new generation of people who have begun to learn about personal manufacturing and now teach educational courses or work as consultants for companies. And they open new FabLabs, so people who maybe were unemployed now are able to create value for the community, by becoming micro-companies themselves.
3DPMN: What do you think of Spark and Autodesk’s ecosystem?
Massimo Banzi: I am not yet entirely familiar with the Spark platform, but we have worked with Autodesk since they acquired the guys that created the 123D Circuits App, whom we have known for a long time. I have had the chance to speak with Carl [Bass, Autodesk CEO,] at the Bay Area Maker Faire and it is clear that, being a Maker himself, he really believes in this revolution. Autodesk has been making very intelligent and forward-looking moves by – after having made a lot of money with a certain type of programs – giving away a lot of free software to help build interest for all of these new fields.
3DPMN: Is this also what you are trying to do with the Make in Italy foundation?
Massimo Banzi: I have to say that we really are all so busy that we have not yet addressed all the goals we had set. What we want to do is not so much help people open new FabLabs and Makerspaces as much as we want to help those who are already active to build viable business models. To do this, we have begun contacting all of the Italian FabLabs and have them choose one person to represent them in the [Make in Italy] foundation’s council. We also organized the exhibit on 50 Years of Italian Innovation at Maker Faire Rome and it will likely be carried over to the World Expo event taking place in Milan starting next May.
3DPMN: Does the process of developing a new consciousness about what possibilities lie ahead begin with education in schools?
Massimo Banzi: With the foundation, we are working on that as well, but it is not simple to develop a clear course of studies that can help the next generations truly benefit from these new technologies. You can teach about 3D printing or programming with Arduino, but that is not sufficient. You need to envision an objective, something concrete that you can learn these technologies for. In Italy, we need to help the younger generations develop a working consciousness and believe that they can be the ones to make the next big thing, not just imitate what others do. One objective of the foundation will also be to carry out lobbying activities to make sure that these possibilities are not hindered by other more powerful interests.