A Conversation with Wevolver's Bram Geenen
A Conversation with Bram Geenen from Wevolver
Recorded by Wouter Tebbens
Date: 6 May 2015
Context: DiDIY project > Design Sharing Platforms for «building and sharing hardware projects»
Digital Do-It-Yourself (DiDIY) is a new socio-technological phenomenon which stems from the widespread availability of digital devices that support the convergence of physical (“atoms”) and informational (“bits”) components (ABC), as well as the growing accessibility of related knowledge and data through open online communities.
Wevolver is a recent online platform that helps people document the process to make something, in particular projects that are shared as Open Hardware. It also showcases some of the most interesting projects, such as robot hands, cyborgs, remote controlled submarines, industrial grade 3D printers, syringe pumps, etc.
The platform allows its users to define a complete product in all its sub parts as an hierarchical subassembly tree and for each assembly document the design process in text, images, video and a simple file repository.
In our study of platforms (see FKI wiki) encouraging sharing designs in the realm of DiDIY, we found Wevolver as a promising platform and had the opportunity to engage in a conversation with one of its founders, Bram Geenen. Find the full interview here. What follows is a non-literal summary.
Wouter: Bram, could you please introduce yourself and tell us something about your design background?
Bram: I started design studio in 2009 with the goal of applying new materials and technologies to better products, more sustainable. My approach in that was always collaboration and evolutionary processes. Combining the different fields of designers, craftsmen, scientists, that's where people get new ideas and things that are called innovative can bubble up. I have been active in 3D printing, where I had this collaborative approach. So these 3D printed chairs that I made were so to say just my first version, but not something final. Instead of putting them in a museum I was more interested in «what will be my next chair, or who will take it up».
W: How did the idea for Wevolver come up?
B: We started with three of us, Richard Hulskes, Anush Martirossia and myself. Anush left us to start a 3D printing company with whom we closely collaborate. Later Machiel Banen en Felix Mattrat, two software developers, joined our team. Cameron Norris currently runs an internship; we got in touch since he was one of the makers on our platform building the InMoov robot (not the openROV). We're a small team now, some of us are in Amsterdam some in London. We work with nice open hardware projects, some people of those communities are now actively collaborating with us. Here is by the way a video from a talk I gave recently to the Fab Lab Academy: https://vimeo.com/126384382
W: We are studying the platforms that are around to help people share hardware designs, and not so many are out there. Also we know from the free and open domain that documentation is typically the last bit people are putting their effort into. How do you go about that?
B: Yes very true, while the documentation is a vital part of an open project. Only having the design files under a free license is not enough; documentation is crucial. That's what we focus on. Openness means something different to different people. We want to enable people to learn about a project, to enable them to make the hardware that is being shared on our platform.
W: To allow people to make it, replicate it and fork it.
B: It is not about making an exact copy, but users applying their own needs, or giving their own interpretation to the project.
W: Can you tell us a bit about the development roadmap of the platform?
B: At the moment we are especially focused to make a small amount of really interesting projects that are very well documented and showcase them. At the end everyone is a maker, but at the moment it is still a niche. I want to bring it to a broader audience. We also work with a few universities. A few years ago nobody had heard of openness, but now more and more people have heard about open hardware and we are seeing this open mindset more and more. Especially people aged 25 who just graduated from engineering school or older people aged 50 or above who retired and have time on their hands.
There's two things for sharing your works. First it can be a good thing to do, to share your work. And second, from a project's own interest it can be really beneficial, to reach a bigger audience, get collaborations, to innovate and it can be help to make a living out of it. And that's what we advocate at Wevolver: there are various reasons for openness. We are not dogmatic about this. We're aware that we are in a transition phase: there's open and closed projects existing next to each other. And how can you have these two co-exist and benefit from each other.
W: So some kind of Github model, where open projects are free of charge while closed projects require to pay a fee?
B: Yes, something like that makes sense.
W: And your business or sustainability model? You told me you have quit your design studio job. So how do you make a living off of the platform? I imagine that's always a challenge.
B: So far we have been very lucky. We have received several grants and prizes. This was to build a prototype. And we've got into an accelerator programme.
Soon however the grants are running out and then we will depend maybe on continuations of some grants and on the supplies service we're setting up. That will help project owners to provide the components and parts to their users and we split the margins. So that way it will be interesting for the platform sustainability and provide revenues for the project owners. I'm quite excited about that, as it helps people to make something. That's very different from software. With hardware you need to source the full bill of materials before you can make it.
W: How about the source code of the platform itself, who develops it, you published it on github, but some years ago.
B: I'd like to practice what we preach. However I don't think we can do this just from donations. We need to be a company, in fact we are a social enterprise. which I think is important to fund the development of this platform. We will open source the non-critical parts of the software. The content is owned by the users, we don't want to own that. We're also working on an API to access the platform.
W: How about collaboration with other platforms? Of course there are platforms like thingiverse, but also other platforms that are more similar to yours. Did you hear of Makeystreet? They share more or less the same philosophy as yours, to facilitate the documentation of open hardware projects with subassemblies etc. They add version management to it, which I missed in your platform. BTW I discovered Makeystreet at the Open Source Hardware Association, which I strongly recommend, both to become a member as well subscribing to their mailing list.
B: No, I didn't know about them. I will check them out! That's definitely something I want to do, to seek collaboration with other platforms. For example many miss a file management module and that's where we could collaborate on. I truely believe in this model of having different platforms, all doing it slightly different. I was on the Paris Maker Faire last weekend and it was so nice to meet people who are working on very similar things, but all on their own way. So in some sense we're competitors, but we can collaborate on certain things, that makes much sense.
W: Did you encounter any legal challenges? People are supposed to have copyright ownership or a license that allows them to post the design files and documentation on your plratform, but that may not always be the case. Did you have challenges in there?
B: So far we haven't had any negative experiences. We made the rules super clear. But as you say, many people are unaware of the way copyright and licensing really works. So that will be interesting to see. We'll figure out while we go.
W: How about other legal challenges? Imagine an open source vehicle, and if people build a kit and bring it to drive on the public road. That requires permits. Or there are differences between finished products and kits in terms of warranty.
B: Personally I don't know much about that yet, but I think we can play a role in there to educate people on that. Maybe you can help us, Wouter? ;-)