Born in Sichuan, China, Eric Pan (潘昊) graduated with an Electrical Engineering degree from Chongqing University. He founded the wildly popular Seeed Studio in July 2008 to help Makers transform their ideas into actual products, subsequently establishing the first organized Maker Community in Shenzhen. Known as Chua Huo, the MakerSpace facilitates interaction among DIY Makers, while encouraging dialogue and cooperation with both industry and academia.
Eric is understandably enthusiastic about the open source movement, as he also organized the Shenzhen Maker Faire and established the hardware incubation project “HAXLR8R” with Cyril Ebersweiler. In 2013, Eric was named one of the “Top 30 Entrepreneurs” in China by Forbes, which prominently featured the engineer on the magazine’s front cover.
Recently, the staff of Bits & Pieces had the opportunity to sit down with Pan for a wide-ranging interview covering a number of topics including the rapidly evolving open source movement, Atmel-basedArduino boards, Atmel-powered 3D printers such as RepRap, the Maker Movement and Shenzen, a major city in the south of Southern China’s Guangdong Province.
Bits & Pieces: How are Atmel-based Arduino boards and 3D printers such as RepRap helping to inspire the design and prototyping of new products in China?
Eric Pan: Hardware development has traditionally been perceived as a complex process, with a product lineup often taking years to improve and perfect. However, tools such as Atmel-based Arduino boards and 3D printers have significantly lowered the entry barrier for hardware innovation, thus creating a much wider playing field for DIY Makers. Indeed, over the past a few years, we’ve seen designers and Makers create prototypes and iron out issues in days and weeks, rather than months or even years.
Clearly, hardware development is becoming a more agile process with the aid of prototyping tools like RepRap and Arduino boards – both of which are helping to facilitate innovation across the world and particularly in China.
Bits & Pieces: What role do MakerSpaces and Universities play in setting technology trends for Chinese tech companies?
Eric Pan: Universities have established links and collaborated on a number of projects with various Chinese tech companies, with many engaging in pioneering research. In addition, MakerSpaces have evolved into innovation hubs responsible for encouraging a diversity of ideas and products. Essentially, MakerSpaces act as a virtual bridge for cross-boundary conversations between industry and academic research. This enables constructive dialogue about issues which are typically overlooked. Personally, I believe niche market Maker platforms and devices are analogous to indie movies that provide the commercial film industry with a hotbed of new ideas.
MakerSpaces will likely enable a new wave of tech startups in China as in the US. To be sure, Makers working with their peers are now able to more easily realize their goals, while bringing products to market with new platforms such as e-commerce sites and crowdfunding. Nevertheless, major companies in China are somewhat cautious about encouraging grass-root innovations, even though some of them are actively involved in a collaborative dialogue with Makers as part of a strategic open innovation strategy. So for now, MakerSpaces are gradually helping Chinese tech companies discover additional possibilities, although the Maker role is likely to increase, with participants in the DIY culture setting technology trends in conjunction with major industries.
Bits & Pieces: The Maker Movement seems to be particularly active in Shenzen and Shanghai. Why do think this is?
Eric Pan: The most important factor is the intellectually fertile ground of the two locations. Shanghai is particularly active, first and foremost because of its foreigner base and natural Maker culture.
Local tech and art people are also enthusiastic about the trend, which helps bolster the DIY attitude. Meanwhile, Shenzhen has an established manufacture and supply based chain which is attractive to Makers from all over the world. If you look at the bigger picture, it is quite clear that these local two MakerSpaces have inspired a larger group of Makers and Makers-to-be across China. Unfortunately, the cost of living in both Shanghai and Shenzhen are too high for many Makers to realistically design and develop their products. As such, I hope to see more Makers gathers in smaller cities where the cost of living is somewhat lower and more amenable to a DIY crowd.
Bits & Pieces: What is the future of open source hardware and the Maker Movement in China? Does it face any specific hurdles?
Eric Pan: There are currently a number of opinions being heard about the future of the Maker Movement in China. Nevertheless, one thing is for certain. The inherent entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese people will help the Maker culture grow – and vice versa. The biggest hurdle, from what I can tell, may very well come from established educational facilities, simply because Chinese students expect to be trained in traditional methods when specific professional skills are required. However, exposure to multiple academic disciplines will encourage people to people think out of the box and explore different ways of approaching problems and opportunities. In addition, being asked more open-ended practical questions instead of simply memorizing facts would go a long way in encouraging students to try out real-world solutions.
Bits & Pieces: What can companies like Atmel do to help encourage the growth of the Maker Movement in China?
Eric Pan: Atmel has already played a very important role in engineering universities through its programs. The inspiring part is that art and design students are using Atmel chipsets which power Arduino boards – effectively building a bridge for major cooperation between Makers and the corporate world.
Continued support from Atmel for future Maker events will definitely contribute to the evolution and growth of the DIY movement in China. On the business side, hardware generated by Maker projects will also help encourage major industry players to create more varied products using Atmel microcontrollers and microprocessors. Last, but certainly not least, the direct involvement of Atmel engineers in local Maker communities will undoubtedly help nurture and grow the DIY movement across China.