Hobby accessibility and privilege

I’m totally fine if someone wants to engage with technology only at work: there are lots of folks that write code all day, close the laptop and only resume when they start the next work day. I do think that technical hobbies are amazingly educational and great mental exercise that can help you professionally by broadening your skill set or thinking about problems in new ways.

Physical technical DIY hobby projects (geeky stuff like electronics, printable projects, robots, RC vehicles, etc.), as opposed to software, have a unique set of challenges. I participated in an interesting conversation recently in a 3D printing community: the group was talking about making an open 3D printable project. I took a look at the Bill of Materials (BOM) and started to dig into getting all the parts: heat-set inserts, various obscure bearings, specific washers and nuts, etc. It was really disheartening to realise that I probably wouldn’t build that project: I couldn’t get all these parts from a single supplier and some parts were only available in assortments or large quantities without importing. And I certainly couldn’t go to a local store and pickup these bits.

After relating this to the community the other folks were surprised and asked why could I just order it from {supplier} or go to {store}? The difference was that these were US-based businesses. I live in Canada, while it’s a rich, modern, and relatively large country, the dynamics of niche businesses are totally different than the US: supply chains are different and there are just fewer customers. So, there may not even be a 1:1 equivalent to the store or supplier locally. Additionally, while some things may be offered by a local supplier, they are often much higher in price here compared to the US, even after currency conversion.

Why not just import? I think for US-based folks, importing items is relatively rare so they’re not acquainted with the pain of importation. Many suppliers refuse to accept non-US addresses, others only accept numeric zip codes (instead of alphanumeric postal codes) on payments, and others will cancel orders after they start processing the order. If your order does go through items can take weeks or months to arrive, require hefty duty payments upon delivery, and sometimes the items just never arrive, getting lost in the maelstrom of importation. All of these things have happened to me just on US-sourced shipments to Canada; these two countries have “easy” trade relationships and are geographically close.

I can only imagine how this might work for folks in smaller, less developed, or/and poorer countries. Everything I’ve described above would likely get harder and more expensive. For me, in Canada, if I’m motivated, I have the privilege to work around these issues with time and/or money, but that may not be the case for people in other contexts. Projects become simply out of reach, and as a consequence the resulting fun and educational outcomes do as well.

What’s to be done to make open DIY hobby projects accessible to more people:

  1. Start with a global, accessible mindset. If it’s hard to find in your country, it’s probably worse elsewhere.
  2. Use DIY-able parts where possible. Examples: use a 3D printed clip instead of an obscure fastener.
  3. Use open source or standard components where possible (avoid single-vendor components).
  4. Be open to options and alternatives; accept contributions that work around hard-to-find/unavailable parts.

Most importantly: Listen to your community and be open to feedback.