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.

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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 by 2020 in global economic value. This market is made possible by rapidly falling prices, accessible tools,and cloud services that process the information gathered by these physical devices.

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 by measuring what's going on it can tell a lot about soil conditions.

Aramburu realized the opportunity. He started picking up the skills he needed to build a tool for measuring soil conditions, and tapped the expertise of friends.

One tool was Arduino, an electronics development platform, which Aramburu said was easy to learn. He got a membership at TechShop, a kind of hacker space for people who want to make things, and took classes in laser cutting and 3D printing. They used a MakerBot Replicator, a desktop 3D printer, to cut some of the initial cases for the product. They also used another prototyping platform, Electric Imp, for the connectivity capabilities.

The Edyn garden sensor has temperature, humidity, light sensor and electrical leads built into the tip, which is inserted into the ground. It has a small micro-computer, is solar powered and uses Wi-Fi. When materials -- water, lime, fertilizer -- are added to the soil, their impact can be measured by how easy or difficult it is to transmit an electric current. From this data, the level of fertilizer, moisture, and acidity in the soil can be determined. There is an independent humidity sensor.

The on-board processor does some initial work, but the data is further processed in a cloud-based environment, and makes recommendations on whether to add water, fertilizer or compost. This system also taps weather data and soil conditions by region and returns recommendations on what to plant and what types of plants to group. There is also a separate valve that can precisely regulate the amount of water.

The arrival of platforms for electronic development, 3D printers and declining prices for sensors, is "making it a lot easier to develop hardware," said Aramburu, who compares its increasing simplicity with what's been going on in software. "Software has gotten to the point where you can pick up a language very quickly, even if you have limited computer science experience, and start building an app," he said.

Similarly, Cox used widely available tools to design and build the Flood Beacon. He got the idea when he discovered that one method for checking on flood conditions involved rowing out to markers to record the water height.

Flood Beacon measures water turbulence, via the accelerometer, and water depth with the ultrasonic sensors. The data is sent to Xively, an IoT-specific cloud, and is viewable on a mobile app. It took Cox about a month and half to produce a working prototype.

"We're just kind of really fortunate to live in this world that we do now, where we can make something for 400 (British) pounds or 300 pounds, get it tested and get it working," said Cox.

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This story, "A New Industrial Age is Being Built on Sensors, 3D Printing and the Cloud" was originally published by Computerworld.

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