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HACKING HARDWARE

By Michael Castelluccio
May 1, 2017
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05_2017_tech_forum

On the outside of the box you read: “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” Implied is that there’s no question what’s most important about your new iPhone—it’s the aesthetics apparent in the “build quality” and not the endless assembly-line hardware decisions that helped create it.

 

The engineering genius lies hidden beneath the Gorilla Glass and brushed aluminum back, and it’s easy to forget that the device that lightly balances on your four fingers is more powerful than the massive mainframes that launched the Apollo moonshots. But to fully appreciate what’s in your hand, you would need a glimpse into the noisy mix of engineering, politics, and assembly-line hacks that go into the manufacture of your new purchase. Electrical engineer and research affiliate at the MIT Media Lab, Andrew “bunnie” Huang provides a guided tour of that world in The Hardware Hacker, just released by No Starch Press.

 

The book is Huang’s jumbled crash course in a side of computing that’s seldom provided the light it deserves. The subtitle further focuses the author’s agenda: “Adventures in Making and Breaking Hardware.” By breaking he means reverse engineering or hacking.

 

The book opens with photos of the six floors of booths in Shenzhen’s SEG Electronics Market. There are four parts to the sometimes disorganized tour, beginning with his arrival in the manufacturing center that is Shenzhen, China. The young engineer traveled there to find a manufacturer for his invention, the Chumby, the internet-enabled alarm clock alternative running on Linux. Part two is a serious discussion of the different ways to view intellectual property; part three offers his personal observations about open hardware; and part four is a study of hacking—SD cards, smartphones, human genomes, even diseases like swine flu.

 

The electronics swap-meet feel throughout the book is partly due to the fact that it’s a collection of some of the more popular posts from Huang’s blog (www.bunniestudios.com), a place where, despite his degrees and service at the MIT Media Lab, Dr. Huang prefers either “bunnie” or b. as his handle. He’s more hacker than academic.

 

ADVENTURES IN MANUFACTURING

 

Huang embarked on his search for a manufacturer for his Chumby appliance in Shenzhen. This brought him face to face with his first epiphany: “The Pearl River Delta ecosystem is incomprehensively vast.” Shenzhen, in 2007, had 9 million people. The New Balance factory there employed 40,000, and that was dwarfed by the Foxconn factory producing iPods and iPhones. That plant had more than 250,000, and the author heard that you had to show your passport and clear customs to get into the facility.

 

Huang describes visits he made to three very different factories, one in Italy and two in Shenzhen. The Italian factory produced printed circuit boards for Arduino microcontrollers, and the two in China made USB memory sticks and clothing zippers. The zipper factory employed only 12 people, was fully automated, and turned out more than 1 million zippers per month. His fascination with the very different processes in each is apparent in the detail of his descriptions.

 

The final section in part one is titled “The Factory Floor,” and here he distills, in 40 pages, his mentoring course for MIT graduate students on supply chain and manufacturing.

 

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY IN CHINA

 

Huang presents a nuanced look at China’s IP (intellectual property) ecosystem in part two of the book. He starts with what constitutes a “fake”—not a simple concept when you consider those manufacturers who produce “fakes” by running a ghost shift. That’s an “after-hours production run not reported to the product’s brand owner.” Same equipment, same assembly lines, same people, “but they’re sold directly to customers at a much higher margin to the manufacturer.”

 

Huang also discusses cloning and copying, and he describes what he calls a “shadowy group of rogue innovators known as shanzhai [who] create products that attempt to mimic the features and functions of an original product.” He devotes an entire chapter to a deep dive into a prime example of shanzhai engineering—a feature phone that costs less than $10.

 

Huang concludes that a discussion on reforming the Western patent system is long overdue. “Granting 20-year monopolies on ideas as trivial as ‘slide to unlock’ for a smartphone may not be the One True Path to incentivize innovation.”

 

In the final two sections, Huang covers “what open hardware means to me,” and “a hacker’s perspective.” This is a great book if you want a deeper look into how all those devices you rely on got from patents to your pocket.

 

Michael Castelluccio has been the Technology Editor for Strategic Finance for 21 years. His SF TECHNOTES blog is in its 19th year. You can contact Mike at mcastelluccio@imanet.org.


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