A new industrial age is being built on sensors, 3D printing and the cloud

Inventive minds are finding all the tools they need to make physical products at low cost

Before the Revolutionary War, sheets of tin imported from England were fashioned by people working at home into plates, cups and candle holders. These artisans shared production techniques with one another and collectively produced enough products to give rise to a distribution system known as Yankee Peddlers.

Today, the raw tools of individual production are sensors, circuit boards, 3D printers, open-source development platforms and cloud services. Kickstarter, not horseback peddlers, is providing the initial capital.

In time, the tin-making business created a foundation for a manufacturing economy. Idea generation was infectious as production capabilities improved and new companies were rapidly formed. The Silicon Valley of this industrial age was the Northeast. A patent expert named James Shepard determined that by 1899, one city -- New Britain, Conn. -- was at "the head of the inventive world" in terms of patents issued per capita.

That was 115 years ago. But something similar is under way today.

In San Francisco, Jason Aramburu is running a Kickstarter campaign for his product, the Edyn smart garden system. The campaign has raised more than $262,000 so far.

How he produced this system offers a road map to a new industrial age that will rely heavily on Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, the cloud and low-cost design and fabrication tools.

In the United Kingdom, there's Samuel Cox, who developed a device designed to measure water depth and help keep track of floodwaters in real time. He created it by equipping a floating shell that he built himself with a microprocessor, an accelerometer, ultrasonic sensors, a rechargeable battery and cellular GSM and GPS technologies. A prototype of the device, called the Flood Beacon, cost about $700 to make.

Aramburu and Cox each taught themselves how to build these systems, and what they are doing represents a broader trend that is getting White House attention.

The so-called Maker Movement, enabled by design software, desktop machine tools, laser cutters and 3D printers, is "enabling more Americans to design and build almost anything," and "represents a huge opportunity for the United States," said the White House in a statement this week at the start of demonstrations of the technologies.

Quantifying the size of this opportunity is difficult, but much of the development uses Internet of Things technologies, a market that Gartner estimates may deliver $1.9 trillion in global economic value by 2020. This market is made possible by rapidly falling prices, accessible tools and cloud services that process the information gathered by the physical devices that make up the Internet of Things.  

Aramburu studied ecology and environmental science -- specifically, soil science -- at Princeton and later in a Smithsonian research project. His first idea for business was a sustainable fertilizer funded with the help of a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In working with fertilizers, researchers needed a way to identify the fertilizer's impact. Soil conducts electricity and monitoring that current can tell a lot about soil conditions.

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