Massimo Banzi is an interaction designer, educator, open source hardware pioneer, and TED speaker. His background is in electrical engineering, but he spent most of his early career working as a software engineer before spending four years at the Ivrea Interactive Design Institute as an associate professor.
Below are excerpts from the interview.
HT: Your name has been mentioned as a sponsor of Maker Faire and this is a natural place for you. Have you been in Maker Faire for a long time?
Massimo Banzi: We are not patrons in a traditional way. I was part of the group of people who brought Maker Faire to Rome, so for many years I was one of the curators of the event. In a way, they are very kind, because they put us on their sponsor list, but effectively, our sponsorship is the energy we give and the things we do here. We also try to help them by telling them what to look at.
Overall, Maker Faire is a concept that originated in the Bay Area of the USA. I would say that there, there have been a lot of “fun projects”, and mostly nothing that can become some kind of innovation. It was just a fun family event where a lot of people do weird things. But I thought there was a lot of interesting value to showing off ingenuity, and innovation that people can do. So we organized an event exactly 10 years ago, at a place near the central station in Rome. And there were a lot of people who attended that conference, and we knew there was an interest in this topic. So we spoke with the Rome Chamber of Commerce to the folks at Make magazine in California, and they told us, why not do a European version here? And that’s it, since then the Chamber of Commerce has orchestrated this whole thing. And that in a sense is Maker Faire, and it’s growing every year.
Before the pandemic, we got 120,000 visitors in three days, which is more people than went to California, so it was crazy. Well, we had a slightly different model, because we’re connected to the Chamber of Commerce, and we’ve always been interested in looking at people who have a business or an innovation, would love or one day dream of becoming a business. Even kids from schools who come up with ideas that could one day become a kind of innovation. So it’s this spirit that made this version a little different from the others, and I think it’s more successful.
HT: I suppose you get really satisfied when you walk around and see that a lot of these prototypes are using Arduino?
Massimo Banzi: It gives me great satisfaction to see this because we wanted to create tools that enable people to be creative in technology, without a great deal of background in programming or hardware. And I think, after so many years, to walk around and see so many different things created with our tools, it’s very satisfying.
HT: So how did it come about when, if you go back to the moment I founded or started this company, what was the inspiration or idea?
Massimo Banzi: We started working on this project when I was teaching at this design school in northwestern Italy, in Ivrea, the city from which Olivetti originated. I’ve worked on different tools to make it easier for my students to build prototypes of things using electronics without having to know much about electronics. So we worked on different projects, and what became of the Arduino is a bit like the third generation of internal experiments. For a while, this was mostly just an open source project. We weren’t trying to deal with it. And after a while, there was a lot of interest outside of other schools and from people who started experimenting. So we set up a company. I think it’s interesting because over the course of the company’s history, things that we look at have changed. As the world changed kind. People were interested in different technologies and different tools, and we were constantly adding new things or changing direction. That’s why we started as a tool for experimentation, and now we have these practical products that companies can use in industrial applications.
HT: How did the company grow? How many people do you work for?
Massimo Banzi: There are 152, I think now. So a lot of people. We are spread in different countries. We have a large office in Turin, Italy where we do a lot of research and development. We have an office in Malmö, Sweden, where we mostly do things for schools and integration. We have a smaller group in Switzerland, where I work and live, and then we have people in the States.
HT: How much is the company’s revenue?
Massimo Banzi: We don’t reveal it, but you can imagine that with 152 people, it does seem to matter.
HT: How do you come up with a new project? Is it an internal process or is it looking at what is the need in the market?
Massimo Banzi: It is always a collaborative process. We notice what people do with our products and listen to what they have to say. We also receive requests from users. For example, we get a lot of feedback from companies regarding professional products. So in a way, it’s a combination, there’s some internal “inspiration”, feedback from the outside world and actual requests.
HT: Where did the name Arduino come from?
Massimo Banzi: (laughs) When we were developing the product with my co-founders, I was based in Ivrea. In Ivrea, there are a lot of things called “Arduino”. Because the Arduino was one of the kings of Italy in the year 1000. So we needed a name, and there was a deadline, and basically what happened was I said, OK, you know what, let’s call it an Arduino, like the bar, where I go for drinks. And so we gave it that name, just because it was the first random name that wasn’t taken. I wanted something vaguely unique and so I kind of screwed it up, thinking we could always fix it later. In the end, I stayed like an Arduino,
HT: What is the best seller among your editions and products?
Massimo Banzi: It is not easy to say. Some products sell really well. Obviously we still sell a lot of the “Arduino Uno”, the original product we made and became a standard in schools for teaching and use. So this one sells well. But as an example, we have these other little products for when you want to scale back your project, which has been very successful. The things we do for schools are becoming increasingly popular, as are the things we do for companies that are slowly taking over.
HT: Do you make it yourself or do you have some contract manufacturers?
Massimo Banzi: We use two factories which are based in Italy. We are not made in China. We do it in Italy. They are basically 45 minutes away from our R&D office. So when there is a problem or you need to shift production very quickly, it is very simple, you can just drive to the factory and do it. I think this is a big advantage. Because, during the lockdown, a lot of people who made stuff in China had the problem of not being able to get the stuff because there is a lockdown in Shenzhen or the shipping company didn’t ship.
HT: When there was a shortage of ingredients, did that affect you too?
Massimo Banzi: Yes, it affected us too. Any company that builds something with electronics has been affected, because sometimes you might miss a certain component, maybe a 10 cent or $1 component. Like a really simple item, but you can’t replace it with something else. And if you want to redesign the product with different parts, it is very expensive. You may have an expensive product, stuck because a 10-cent ingredient is missing. We managed to survive quite well. We had a lot of products that people were waiting to receive because parts were missing, but overall, we handled this issue better than other companies.
HT: Were you the first to create a single-board microcomputer of this type?
Massimo Banzi: This type of product existed in the past. But it has always been designed for professionals. So for people wanting to start something, it was always kind of a steep learning curve. People looked at it and thought, OK, that’s complicated, I’ll never understand it. So they will just give up. One of the things we learned from working with our students is that if you can get something done in 15 minutes, it’s a great value, and people will love it. This is kind of a starting point for us to build something different from existing solutions: You get it, you connect the cables, you download the software, and after 15 minutes, it’s up and running. We made it affordable and democratic. Also, the way we explain the concepts is very understandable to a wide audience.
HT: But now there are competitors. How did they affect you?
Massimo Banzi: Because some of our products are very successful, unfortunately, even if you try to protect your products in every possible way, there have been a lot of Chinese clones. People who clone in China can clone everything including Arduino. It’s not that we are poor, but that it affects us in a way that makes us make more money. Sometimes I wish people would understand that buying the original product that isn’t incredibly expensive helps the original creators and is so valuable.
HT: By cloning do you mean that they even use your name?
Massimo Banzi: Yes, they copied everything, and that’s okay, but then they put our name on it. So we have to tell them please stop doing this. And we have a group of people we have in the company who spend their time stopping clones trying to use our name inappropriately.
HT: So you have ways to do some legal action?
Massimo Banzi: yes. Our Arduino name and products name has been registered as a trademark practically everywhere in the world. But it is somewhat similar to a video game. Every time someone stops, another starts. But apart from this, we are reasonably successful. If people at least wanted a copy, they now tend not to put the name on it. But it still affects us, if someone wants to buy a cheaper product, they will always do so. They would never think that the standard product was €20, so it’s not incredibly expensive, but some people will always buy the cheapest product even if the difference is €1, so it doesn’t matter what you do.
HT: Do you have some patents?
Massimo Banzi: Our products are open source. So this means that anyone can build on it. We would like people to use it and learn and build on it but not misuse our name. So just do your own thing.
HT: What are your future plans? Are you happy with the way companies are going or do you have some big ideas for change?
Massimo Banzi: Well, one of the things that we start doing quite a lot is build a lot of different software platforms. Because in the beginning, we were more focused on building and selling hardware. But then, obviously, now that everyone is starting to build connected product and product projects, they need software that they can use to connect devices or connect a device to their phones or computers and build that is not easy. Because also if you’re trying to build something that’s safe and secure, it can’t be hacked; It’s complicated. So we created this cloud software that you can use to build connected projects very quickly. In seven minutes, you can get something up and running and up and running very, very quickly. I think this is another value. There will be a lot of people starting to use software that we also built with hardware we don’t make. This is a big shift. I also think the other big shift is building projects for companies and industry to use in products for agriculture and other industries.
HT: Do companies approach you for these products?
Massimo Banzi: yes! Some people buy some of our products online, maybe build a prototype, and then come back and say, you know, I’m trying to build this machine, I made a prototype with an Arduino, but now I need to make it, and we’re helping them do that. We are also building a network of different partners. So if someone says, Hey, I need to build this thing and we can tell them: Talk to these guys, they use our products and they can build the solution for you.
Some companies deal with us directly. Some we bump into, talk to, and some, use our technology and write to us.
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