Arduino is a well-known name in DYI, prototyping and Maker circles. Often the first version of a prototype is powered by an Arduino open-source single-board microprocessor. The project which started in 2003 as a student Master thesis creation is now a globally known name. Helsinki Times talked to one of the founders Massimo Banzi at the Maker Faire in Rome where Arduino had its booth visited by thousands of attendants.

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 architect before spending four years at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea as an Associate Professor.

Below are the excerpts from the interview.

HT: Your name is mentioned as a sponsor of Maker Faire and this is a natural place for you to be. Have you been involved in Maker Faire for a long time?

Massimo Banzi: We're not sponsors in a conventional way. I was part of the group of people who brought the Maker Faire to Roma, so for many years, I was one of the curators of the event. In a way, they're super kind, because they put us on the list of sponsors, but effectively, our sponsorship is the energy that we bring and the things that we do here. We try to help out also by telling them what they should look at.

Generally, the Maker Faire is a concept that originated in the Bay Area in the USA. I would say that over there, there were a lot of “fun projects”, and mostly nothing that would potentially become some kind of innovation. It was just a fun event for the family with a lot of people doing strange things. But I thought there was a lot of interesting value there for showing off the ingenuity, the innovation that people can do. So we organised an event exactly 10 years ago, in a place near the central station in Rome. And there were a lot of people that came to that conference, and we realised there was an interest in this topic. So we, together with the Chamber of Commerce of Rome, talked to the people of at the Make Magazine in California, and they told us hey, why don't you do a European edition over here? And so that's it, since then the Chamber of Commerce has organised this whole thing. And this is in a sense the Maker Faire, and it has been growing every year. 
Before the pandemic, we got to 120,000 visitors in three days, which was more than the people who go to the one in California, so it was crazy. Well, we had a slightly different model, because we are connected with the Chamber of Commerce, we were always interested in looking at people who either have a company or an innovation, that they would love or dream one day to become a company. Even kids from schools that come up with ideas that could one day become some kind of innovation. So that spirit is what made this version slightly different from the others, and I think more successful.

HT: I suppose you feel really good when you go around and see that a lot of these prototypes are using Arduino?

Massimo Banzi: It's a great, great satisfaction for me to see this because, we wanted to create tools that would enable people to be creative with technology, without a huge amount of background in programming or hardware. And I think, after many years, to go around and see so many different things built with our tools, is very satisfying.

HT: So how did it happen when, if you go back to the moment that you established 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 the northwest of Italy, in Ivrea, which is the city where the company Olivetti was from. I worked on different tools to make it simpler for my students to build prototypes of things with electronics without having to know much about electronics. So we worked on different projects, and what became Arduino is kind of like the third generation of internal experimentation. For a while, this was mostly just an open-source project. We were not trying to do business with it. And, after a while, there was a lot of interest outside from other schools and from people who were starting to experiment. So we set up a company. I think it's interesting because during the history of the company, The things we looked at changed. As the world kind of changed. People were interested in different technologies, and different tools, and we constantly added new things or shifted the direction. That's why we started as a tool for experimentation, and now we have these process products which are for companies to use in industrial applications.

HT: How has the company grown? How many people work for you?

Massimo Banzi: There are 152, I think right now. And so it's a lot of people. We are spread out in different countries. We have a big office in Torino, Italy where we do a lot of r&d. We have an office in Malmo, Sweden, where we mostly do stuff for schools and integration. We have a smaller group in Switzerland, where I work and live, and then we have people in the US.

HT: How much is the revenue of the company?

Massimo Banzi: We don't disclose that, but you can imagine that with 152 people, it reads to be significant.

HT: How do you come up with a new project? Is it like an internal process or do you look at what is the need in the market?

Massimo Banzi: It’s always a collaborative process. We observe what people do with our products and listen to what they say. We also get requests from users. For example, we get a lot of feedback from companies regarding the pro products. So in a way, it's a mixture, 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 that are called “Arduino”. Because Arduino was one of the kings of Italy in the year 1000. So we needed a name, and there was a deadline and essentially, what happened is that I said, Okay, you know what, let's call it Arduino, like the bar, where I go to have drinks. And so we called it that, just because it was the first random name that wasn’t taken. I wanted something vaguely unique and so I sort of screwed it up, thinking that we can always fix it later. In the end, it stayed as Arduino,

HT: What is the best seller among your versions and products?

Massimo Banzi: It's not easy to say. Some products sell really well. Obviously, we still sell a lot of the "Arduino Uno", which is the original product that we made and has become a standard in schools to teach and use. So that one sells really well. But for example, we have these other smaller products for when you want to shrink your project, which has been very successful. The stuff that we do for the schools is increasingly popular, and so is the stuff that we're doing for companies which are slowly taking over. 

HT: Do you make them yourself or do you have some contract manufacturers?

Massimo Banzi: We use a couple of factories that are based in Italy. We don't manufacture in China. We do it in Italy. They are basically like 45 minutes away from our research and development office. So whenever there's a problem or you need to shift the production very quickly, it's very simple, you can just drive to the factory and do it. This, I think it's a big advantage. Because, during the lockdown, a lot of people that made things in China, had the problem that they couldn't get stuff because there was a lockdown in Shenzhen or the shipping company didn’t ship.

HT: When there was a shortage of components did that affect you as well?

Massimo Banzi: Yes, it affected us as well. Any company that builds something with electronics was affected, because sometimes you may miss a specific component, and maybe it's a 10-cent or $1 component. so like a really, really simple component, but you cannot replace it with something else. And if you wanted to redesign the product, with different parts, it's incredibly expensive. You may have a very expensive product, that's stuck because there's a 10-cent component missing. We managed to survive quite well. We had quite a lot of products that people were waiting to receive because the parts were missing, but in general, we navigated this problem better than other companies.

HT: Were you the first to come up with single-board microcomputers of this kind?

Massimo Banzi: This kind of product existed in the past. But it was always 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, Okay, this is complicated, I will never understand it. So they would just give up. One of the things that we learned working with our students is that if you can get something going within 15 minutes it's an incredible value, and people will love that. That's kind of the starting point for us to build something different from existing solutions: you get it, you connect the cables, you download the software, and 15 minutes later, it’s working. We made it accessible and democratise it. Also, the way that we explain the concepts, is very understandable for a wide audience. 

HT: But now there are competitors. How have they affected you?

Massimo Banzi: Since some of our products are very, very successful, unfortunately, even if you try to protect your products in every possible way, there have been a lot of Chinese cloners. People cloning in China can clone everything including the Arduino. It's not that we are poor, but It affects us in a way that we could be making more money. Sometimes I wish that people would understand that buying the original product that's not incredibly more expensive, helps the original creators and it's a big value.

HT: By cloning, you mean they even use your name? 

Massimo Banzi: Yes, they copy the whole thing, which is okay, but then they put our name on it. So we have to tell them that please stop doing this. And we have a bunch of people that we have in the company who spend their time blocking cloners who are trying to use our name inappropriately.

HT: So you have ways to do some legal action?

Massimo Banzi: Yes. Our name Arduino and the name of the products are registered as a trademark practically everywhere in the world. But it's a bit like a video game; every time you stop someone, somebody else starts. But apart from this, we are reasonably successful. At least people if they want a copy, now they 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 that. They will never consider that the standard product was 20 euros so it's not incredibly expensive, but some people will always buy the cheapest product even if the difference is one euro, 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 anybody can build upon them. We would like people to use them and learn and build upon them but not misuse our name. So just do your own thing.

HT: What are your future plans? Are you happy with the way companies going or do you have some big ideas for change?

Massimo Banzi: Well, one of the things that we have started to do a lot is to build a lot of different software platforms. Because in the beginning, we were more in a way concentrated on building and selling hardware. But then obviously, now that everyone is building product projects and products that are connected, they need software that they can use to connect devices or connect a device to their phone or their computer and building that is not easy. Because also if you are trying to build something secure and safe, which cannot be hacked; it is complicated. So we created this cloud software that you can use to build connected projects very quickly. In seven minutes, you can have something up and running and working very, very quickly. And I think that's another value. There are going to be a lot of people that are starting to use the software that we built also with hardware that we don't make. That's a big shift. And I think also the other big shift is building projects for companies and the industry for use in products for agriculture and other industries.

HT: Do companies approach you for those products?

Massimo Banzi: Yeah! Some people buy some of our products online, and they build maybe a prototype, and then they come back and say, you know, I'm trying to build this machine, I made a prototype with Arduino, But now I need to industrialise it, and we help them do that. We also are 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 you the solution. 
Some companies approach us directly; some we bump into them, and we talk to them, and some others, they use our technology and they write to us.

Alexis Kouros
Helsinki Times