The maker movement is full of stories of makers turning their hobby into a commercial enterprise. In almost all cases, though, we're building on the shoulders of giants - and one of the earliest true 'open hardware' concerns had a very different beginning, coming as it did from the opposite direction: Olimex.
Based in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, Olimex was founded in 1991 as a business-to-business manufacturer of control boards for white goods. Rather than folding when local companies began outsourcing production to China, the company pivoted in a clever way and turned its existing manufacturing capacity to designing and building development boards produced in a collaborative and open manner. Olimex was one of the first companies to produce fully-functional development boards under an open hardware licence, not only releasing the final production files but allowing public access to design files even before production begins - giving customers and anyone else with an interest near-unique input into the development of the company's products.
Hackaday published a tour of Olimex's facilities this week, and it offers a fascinating insight into both the history of the company and the ethos of its founder, Tsvetan Usunov. It also shines a light on the cyclical nature of the industry: the current trend for crowd-funded open-hardware products is an echo of Olimex's beginnings, funded instead by the Tsvetan's prior business operations. Going back still further it's possible to highlight companies such as Heathkit, which produced proprietary hardware kits for everything from oscilloscopes to some of the first microcomputers from 1947 through to 1992 and recently re-launched with a small number of modern equivalents, as precursors to the modern hobbyist electronics industry.
Naturally, the scale of the industry is ever-changing: where the Cambridge-based Sinclair company was more than happy with lifetime sales of 50,000 for its MK14 microcomputing kit, over a million Arduino boards have been sold to date - and, thanks to its open nature, that number grows significantly when you include Arduino-compatible clones and variants. When you start looking at the figures, the maker movement shows its true scale - and even more so when you shift focus out from electronics and to wider aspects of the movement, such as metal and woodworking, knitting, and other 'analogue' crafts. Even in the 25 year since Olimex was founded, the movement has grown exponentially - some might even argue uncontrollably, what with the glut of maker-themed start-up companies and projects hitting the market every day - and with Olimex still going strong and Heathkit enjoying a rebirth, we see no reason the maker movement can't enjoy continued growth for decades to come.