On the fourth floor inside a warren of rooms in Canal Place, massive equipment hums, whirrs and chirps. The space is vast, devoid of much furnishings, but with enough natural light to elevate the serotonin levels of half of Akron’s residents.
Welcome to Tiny Circuits, an open-source hardware company that manufactures and designs miniature electronics.
“We make all sorts of different boards that people can plug in together, almost like little electronic LEGOs®,” says Ken Burns, founder and president of Tiny Circuits. “So it’s really up to the user to create something.”
Filling a need using open-source hardware
Initially, Burns wanted to design inexpensive and straightforward sensors. But while developing a sensor prototype, a stronger need for a host processor platform came into play.
And he did so with the Tiny Duino, a host processor which creates a “foundation” for other circuit boards literally to build upon, such as a GPS cat tracker, a device developed by a Tiny Circuits customer using its technology.
“When all the boards are connected it’s called a ‘system’ or ‘stack-up,’” says Burns.
The cat tracker comprises three boards – a Tiny Duino, an SD card (Secure Digital flash memory card) and GPS.
“So we actually put that in a TicTac® container with a small battery and put it on a cat’s collar,” recalls Burns. “Then you pull the data from the [SG] card, put it in Google Maps and see where the cat went.
“At first glance it seems like a pretty complicated task,” adds Burns. “It certainly would have been 10 years ago, placing a GPS tracker on something as small as a cat. But now, this could be done in an hour.”
The Tiny Duino board, measuring less than a one-inch square at 0.787 inches, was inspired by the Arduino, an “Open-Source Hardware about the size of a deck of cards designed by academics in Italy as a way to teach electronics to students,” says Burns.
Open-Source Hardware (OSHW) allows other people to take the Arduino design and use, modify or derive from it to develop their own products.
Burns did that to create Tiny Duino.
“We took that core design and shrunk it down to a size of a quarter,” explains Burns. “But it works just like the Arduino.”
For applications requiring a larger board, there’s Arduino, while smaller applications have Tiny Duino.
OSHW provides another perk – for example, with the GPS cat tracker, Tiny Circuits didn’t have to invest all the time and effort involved with GPS protocol. Rather, the company downloaded the existing GPS software developed by the electronics community and was able to program that into its own GPS and stack it with Tiny Duino and SD boards.
Burns says some view OSHW (Open-Source Hardware) as “kind of crazy,” but he disagrees.
“All of our designs, like the Arduino, are also open, so somebody could recreate our products,” says Burns. “But that’s how it has to be. From a business standpoint, it makes sense because trying to protect this in some way won’t do anything because it’s easy enough to reverse engineer.”
He furthers that if there were a big enough market for a product, a larger company could come in and “easily wipe it [the design] out, even if it didn’t have file access.”
“By keeping it open, it let’s us play in a community [electronics] that we couldn’t have built ourselves. All of our design files are published, and everyone who takes from them must also publish, creating transparency.”
And potentially, OSHW also lets a customer with a product whose company may have gone out of business go to another source to duplicate or fix their product.
More than just a hobby
Burns, who has a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Akron, has been in the industry for more than 10 years.
Previously, he worked at Twinsburg’s AVID Technologies, Inc., a consulting electronic design company. While there, he saw a need for a “kind of smart sensor platform in the many different things people were using in their products that they completely had to design from scratch time and time again.”
But the idea of developing a small sensor platform at AVID, which offers a more industrial focus, was scrapped when Burns took a “drastic turn into this whole hobby market.”
Instead, Burns found himself more involved with the Arduino, and the idea of open-source electronics.
“I completely got into this hobby maker, artist-type world, which is an interesting departure from where I was before,” he recalls.
Looking back, it made a lot of sense, says Burns, who was doing the designs and working with hobbyists from his home and eventually Canal Place while still working for AVID before his departure from the company eight months later.
Along with hobbyists, many science and engineering students are users of the Tiny Circuits platform.
“It’s the easiest way to teach fundamentals,” says Burns. “People say, ‘What do you do with it?’ Well, there’s all sorts of possibilities.”
When Tiny Circuits clients have a product idea, chances are “it’s something we already have and release as a general product,” asserts Burns.
The company also provides a forum where folks can suggest new ideas. If a product idea is unique, Burns will refer the client to one of his partners, Roy Stevens, president of Henway Technologies, which shares work space with Tiny Circuits.
Stevens helps further develop the idea and Burns and his staff develop a prototype, allowing for a custom board and build at Tiny Circuits.
This creates a “kind of bridge,” for hobbyists to have their product developed and brought to the market.
All production is done in-house, allowing Tiny Circuits to compete in terms of cost, using their own machines and labor.
And while the company does a low volume of products, it offers a fairly large range of them.
“For now, we have about 30 boards and make 50 to 100 of them at a time,” offers Burns. “It’s also nice to make it ourselves.”
Worldwide, Tiny Circuits has about 20 (mostly) hobby electronic distributors. Microcenter is its main retailer, the nearest in Mayfield Heights. Products also can be purchased directly from the company online.
The company’s offerings include sensors, processors, basic and starter kits, motors/output, LED/displays, communication and accessories.
Getting the push (or kick) he needed
It’s quite an expense to start a business. Burns launched Tiny Circuits with financial backing from the global crowd funding platform, Kickstarter.
“With Kickstarter, I could tell there was a business here because we raised a lot of money in such a short amount of time,” he says.
He raised more than $100,000, enabling him to set up shop and start production at Canal Place. Recently, Kickstarter raised $128,000 ($15,000 of which was raised in just eight hours), for Burns’ Tiny Screen, a thumb-sized display.
Tiny Circuits hires interns, and employs a staff of eight, including Burns, who knew earlier on what his career path held.
“I had that nerd knack, playing with computers and what-not,” he says. “And I pretty much knew from a young age that I would go into engineering of some sort.”
In addition to the GPS cat tracker, another interesting Tiny Circuits-based product is a WiFi moisture sensor system, which allows a Cleveland customer to be tweeted by phone twice daily the moisture level of his garden.
Another product, Tiny Lily, is a sewable e-textile electronics platform that uses an LED ground board placed in clothing with conductive thread to make the garment light up.
With the success of Tiny Circuits in a relatively short amount of time, just two years, the imposing equipment doesn’t run daily. But that’s going to change with the recent funding from Kickstarter.
“We’re going to need a lot of boards,” Burns acknowledges. “And probably going to build over 10,000 in the next couple months. On a good day, we can probably do 1,000, but our machines can do more than that, so they’ll be running every day.”
When looking back on his time with Tiny Circuits, Burns reflects on the greater impact of what his work has accomplished.
“I certainly like this, having the freedom, having worked the corporate life before,” Burns reflects. “I just enjoy the ability to build something, more than just the board, but that could potentially have a nice impact around here so we can continue to grow and employ more people.”