Why aren’t we all still using stereos from the 70s? The build quality was military, they sounded better than current iPod docks and speakers don’t work fundamentally different today than they did 40 years ago. People like to buy new things, and it doesn’t help that, in electronics, we need to. There are new features, like surround sound, Wi-Fi connectivity and MP3 decoding that those old stereos couldn’t handle, so the stereo had no chance.
But now, a trio of student designers wants to buck this trend. Peter Krige, Hannes Harms and Alexander du Preez have created a whole conceptual ecosystem for electronics called O.update. The basic premise is this: Electronics get new capabilities all the time, but maybe we don’t need to toss the whole thing.
Instead, they imagine products that are updatable through printable circuits on cards. Local manufacturers could use 3D printing, laser cutting and acid etching to create simple electronic products, like sound systems or smoke alarms. Consumers could order these products to be constructed on demand, and upgrades would be as simple as swapping out a new printed card.
Some of these technologies exist–we can print simple circuit designs now, for instance, and the team has inkjet-printed these circuit cards that are then plated with copper to create electric sensitivity. But there are still gaps in the vision, like high fidelity printable plastics, so this is what the group calls “2025” technology.
There are good ideas in the model. The team believes that complex processors would still be built by specialist, overseas plants, while simpler circuitry (good old resistors and capacitors) could be handled locally. That makes sense; the best electronics will always require high scale, sterile labs to create the smallest, most detailed processors. But what doesn’t quite make sense to me is why O.update has to leverage local industry at all for the model to work. This makes me a bad geek, I know, in that it doesn’t fully embrace the endgame of maker culture, one where we can all eventually print our electronics at home. But I fail to see why factory scale won’t always outpace the price and efficiency of smaller, city-scale electronic manufacturing–at least until we have Star Trek replicators that build products at the molecular scale.
Put differently, this card system idea is pretty amazing. Keeping an old iPod dock by sticking in a new Wi-Fi standard chipset would fundamentally change the way electronics were sold. But for that card to be really great, really worth the upgrade, it will need to be fitted with the best in microtransistors, the speciality boards developed by the best manufacturers in the world. Because otherwise, we already have an even easier way to keep old electronics from going obsolete: New firmware.