Future of Open Hardware

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See article in Circuit Cellar Magazine.

The new “TECH THE FUTURE” section of Circuit Cellar magazine is a place in each issue where we are giving one electronics innovator, researcher, EE/ECE student, professor, or professional engineer a page to introduce our readers to their area of interest and to explain what they think about the future of electrical design and engineering. Marcin Jakubowski and Catarina Mota were invited to write a piece an on the future of open hardware.

Open Source Hardware for the Efficient Economy In the open source hardware development and distribution model, designs are created collaboratively and published openly. This allows anyone to study, modify, improve, and produce the design - for one’s own use or for sale. Open source hardware gives users full control over the products they use while unleashing innovation - compared to the limits of proprietary research and development.

This practice is transforming passive consumers of ‘black box’ technologies into a new breed of user-producers. For consumers, open source hardware translates into better products at a lower cost, while providing more relevant, directly applicable solutions compared to a one-size-fits-all approach. For producers, it means lower barriers to entry and a consequent democratization of production. The bottom line is a more efficient economy - one that bypasses the artificial scarcity created by exclusive rights - and instead focuses on a better and faster development of appropriate technologies.

Open source hardware is less than a decade old. It started as an informal practice in the early 2000s with fragmented cells of developers sharing instructions for producing physical objects in the spirit of open source software. It has now become a movement with a recognized definition, specific licenses, an annual conference, and several organizations to support open practices. The expansion of open source hardware is also visible in a proliferation of open source plans for making just about anything, from 3D printers, microcontrollers and scientific equipment, to industrial machines, cars, tractors, and solar power generators.

As the movement takes shape, the next major milestone is the development of standards for efficient development and for quality documentation. The aim here is to deliver on the potential of open source products to meet or exceed industry standards - at a much lower cost - while scaling the impact of collaborative development practices.

The internet brought about the information revolution, but an accompanying revolution in open source product development has yet to happen. The major blocks are the absence of uniform standards for design, documentation, and development process; of accessible collaborative design platforms (CAD); and of a unifying set of interface standards for module-based design - such that electronics, mechanical devices, controllers, power units, and many other types of modules could easily interface with one another.

Can unleashed collaboration catapult open source hardware from its current multi-million dollar scale to the next trillion dollar economy?

One of the most promising scenarios for the future of open source hardware is a glocal supply chain made up of thousands of interlinked organizations in which collaboration and complementarity are the norm. In this scenario, producers at all levels - from hobbyists to commercial manufacturers - have access to transparent fabrication tools, and digital plans circulate freely, allowing them to build on each other quickly and efficiently.

The true game changers are the fabrication machines that transform designs into objects. While equipment such as laser cutters, CNC machine tools, and 3D printers have been around for decades, the breakthrough comes from the drastically reduced cost and increased access to these tools. For example, online factories allow anyone to upload a design and receive the material object in the mail a few days later. A proliferation of open source digital fabrication tools, hackerspaces, membership-based shops, fab labs, micro factories, and other collaborative production facilities are drastically increasing access and reducing cost of production. It has become commonplace for a novice to gain ready access to state of art productive power.

On the design side, it’s now possible for 70 engineers to work in parallel with a collaborative CAD package to design the airplane wing for a Boeing 767 in one hour. This is a real world proof of concept of taking development to warp speed - though achieved with proprietary tools and highly-paid engineers. With a widely available, open source collaborative CAD package and digital libraries of design for customization, it would be possible for even a novice to create advanced machines - and for a large group of novices to create advanced machines at warp speed. Complex devices such as a car can be modeled with an inviting set of lego-like building blocks in a module-based CAD package. Thereafter, CNC equipment can be used to produce these designs from off-the-shelf parts and locally available materials. Efficient industrial production could soon be at anyone’s fingertips.

Sharing instructions for making things is not a novel idea. However, the formal establishment of an open source approach to the development and production of critical technologies is a disruptive force. The potential lies in the emergence of many significant and scalable enterprises built on top of this model. If such entities collaborate openly, it becomes possible to unleash the efficiency of global development based on free information flows. This implies a shift from ‘business as usual’ to an efficient economy in which environmental and social justice are part of the equation.


Catarina - http://fellows.ted.com/profiles/catarina-mota Marcin - http://fellows.ted.com/profiles/marcin-jakubowski, more pictures at http://opensourceecology.org/wiki/Marcin_Jakubowski_Headshots