Open Source Hardware-The Next Frontier

You've heard of open source software. Open data. Open access. Open knowledge. With the origin of open source software, an entire culture with a distinct ethos and community of “openness” was born. But what exactly is open source hardware? The standard definition put forth by the open source community is as follows:

"Open Source Hardware (OSHW) is a term for tangible artifacts -- machines, devices, or other physical things -- whose design has been released to the public in such a way that anyone can make, modify, distribute, and use those things."

Typically, open source hardware is composed of “readily-available components and materials, standard processes, open infrastructure, unrestricted content, and open-source design tools” that “maximize the ability of individuals to make and use hardware.” In the spirit and ethos of the open source community, open source hardware “gives people the freedom to control their technology while sharing knowledge and encouraging commerce through the open exchange of designs.”

Open source hardware projects can include anything from circuit boards and laptops to tractors, pianos, and 3-D printers. The sky is limited to the maker's ingenuity.

As a fledging movement—growing, but still lacking the visibility enjoyed by open source software developers—open source hardware is still intent on finding its sea-legs outside the open source community at large. The movement currently lacks unity and overarching momentum, and although it adheres to the basic principles that have boosted open source software into the limelight, it is altogether a “different beast” due to its physical nature.

Whether the movement will flourish or falter remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the difficulties involved are not by any means insurmountable. There are steps being taken to address the issues previously mentioned, and the open source hardware movement has already produced projects of amazing potential and value. Let's take a closer look.

OSHA and the search for unity

Currently, the open source hardware movement exists as an overall-fragmented entity. The Open Hardware Repository (OHR) offers “a place on the web for electronics designers to collaborate on open hardware designs,” and organizations like CERN have launched legal frameworks “to facilitate knowledge exchange across the electronic design community.” These organizations have offered valuable contributions to the open source hardware movement and its future development; still, in order for the movement to grow and improve, there ought to be a unifying presence on the web that can educate the public and organize the movement.

Well, there is a brand-new organization planning to do just that.

That organization is the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHA or OSHWA), a non-profit entity still in the earliest stages of development. Formed by a group of technologists impressed by the achievements and community-ethos of the open source software movement, OSHA hopes to unite the open source hardware movement and boost it to a higher level of sophistication. The OSHA website lists seven long-term major plans or goals for the organization: 

  1. Educate individuals and the general public about Open Source Hardware.
  2. Organize the Open Source Hardware movement around shared values and principles.
  3. Provide information and advice on best practices and standards for Open Source Hardware.
  4. Encourage collaborative learning, knowledge exchange, and social cohesion through conferences and other events focused on Open Source Hardware.
  5. Promote the use and development of Open Source Hardware, including to encourage educational and economic development.
  6. Collect, compile and publish data on the Open Source Hardware movement.
  7. Conduct any and all lawful activities which may be useful in accomplishing the foregoing purposes.

“Open-source hardware is a way to share innovation,” Alicia Gibb, the founder and president of OSHA, stated. “We publish all the files needed to improve, make derivatives, or re-manufacture the things built.” (To that end, the organization also plans to host the annual Open Hardware Summit held in New York City-- “a sounding board for hackers, do-it-yourselfers and professionals to discuss devices, manufacturing, design, business and law.”)

In an exclusive interview with MAKE, Gibb explained that OSHA “will be an advocacy group, mostly educating people on what open hardware is, the benefits, and best practices, as well as being a roof for all the various items built by the community so far”. She also commented that OSHA would provide structure to the movement as a formal resource “that can answer questions about how, why, what, and the best practices of open hardware,” adding that there was a growing interest “in educating the general public about open hardware and creating an organization that would be more about education,” since other groups inside the movement have tended to focus on “citizen science, art, and individuals educating the world.”

At the moment, however, OSHA remains in flux. What it is trying to accomplish on a more formal level is something new and different, and there are many legal issues to be resolved. For now, OSHA  is focusing on legally establishing itself as a non-profit organization. According to Gibb, OSHA was denied incorporation by the state “because our purposes were too promotional of open source hardware.” Gibb stated that OSHA would take its first year to “incorporate, create by-laws, establish a process for membership...and file for non-profit status.” The organization is currently working with Aaron Williamson, from the Software Freedom Law Center, to resolve some of these foundational issues.

Open source hardware—is it feasible?

OSHA and other groups and organizations that have joined the open source hardware movement (such as CERN and OHR) are building upon a similar foundation: the spirit and ethos of the open source software movement.

After all, for creating software, the attraction to an open source platform is simple: anyone can use the software, modify it, adapt it, and/or improve it for their own purposes—all for the perfect price of absolutely nothing. Why shouldn't open source hardware be able to reap the same benefits?

"For us, the drive towards open hardware was largely motivated by well-intentioned envy of our colleagues who develop Linux device-drivers," stated Javier Serrano, founder of OHR and an engineer at CERN. "They are part of a very large community of designers who share their knowledge and time in order to come up with the best possible operating system. We felt that there was no intrinsic reason why hardware development should be any different."

But there's a fundamental difference between software and hardware: hardware is physical and software is not. “It has many similar principles of open-source software, but differs because hardware is a different beast,” Gibb states adding that “hardware as a physical object has different methods, formats and issues than software.” 

If the hardware creators open-source their products, they still have to pay for manufacturing, materials, and distribution costs. It isn't quite the same as creating and distributing a software product, which users can simply download. Open source hardware sounds great for the user, but what about the maker? Creating software takes time; creating an open source, tried-and-tested hardware design takes time and money out of one's private pocket.

But actually, the creators of Arduino—an Italian firm that produces open-sourced circuit boards and is also a “poster child” for the open source hardware movement—say a profit can be made:

"Under traditional economic logic, [producing the circuit boards] requires a patent; nobody is going to risk money inventing and selling hardware unless they can prevent competitors from immediately ripping off their designs and pouncing on their market...

Right now, open design pioneers tend to follow one of two economic models. The first is not to worry about selling much hardware but instead to sell your expertise as the inventor...Because you're the inventor, though, the community of users will inevitably congregate around you...You will always be the first to hear about cool improvements or innovative uses for your device. That knowledge becomes your most valuable asset, which you can sell to anyone."

You can still sell your product. After all, it's the design that's open-sourced. But inside an open source culture, there are other ways to make money. Opportunities to profit may come from simply being involved in the open source community itself and working hard to distinguish your product. If you license your hardware through one of the four open source licenses available (TAPR, CERN, GPL, and CC), anyone who takes your design and modifies it for whatever purpose is required to attribute credit to your design.

Rather than “stealing” your work, people in the open source community will tend to build upon your foundation by adding to it, improving it, and offering feedback. This results in a better product, gets you noticed, and may consequently give you the chance to sell your expertise to companies or individuals who admire your work. That's not to say making a profit would be easy. But with hard work, a great idea, and the added benefit of a contributing community, it would be feasible.

The potential of open source hardware

The open source hardware movement is still quite young. Lacking unity and public awareness, it has yet to acquire the momentum of the open source software movement. Though modeled on the same principles that made open source software a success, there are still issues of cost—and, as demonstrated by OSHA's first attempt to gain status as a non-profit organization supporting open source hardware, issues of legality—to be addressed. Whether open source hardware will remain fragmented, or continue to gain traction and expand its influence, should become increasingly clear over the next several years.

Whatever the actual outcome, the open source hardware movement has incredible potential. If open source hardware makers successfully come together and educate the public on the benefits of what they have to offer, they could significantly undermine the current business model in the same way that open source software has started to undermine proprietary software. Lower purchase and production costs, free access to hardware designs and instructions on how to build projects yourself, community feedback and collaboration resulting in better products and quicker updates, shared knowledge and expertise—what's not to like?

And there are a lot of open source hardware projects in the works—computer systems, audio and video electronics, robots, musical instruments, even an electric car: these are just a few items listed here. But to give an example of the scope and potential of the movement, let's consider Marcin Jakubowski's Open Source Ecology project.

Frustrated by the low quality of his machinery and the high costs required to keep on replacing it, farmer and physicist Marcin Jakubowski designed his own tractor, built it in six days, and then published 3-D designs, schematics, and instructional videos on a wiki. The project sparked interest and contributions from viewers across the globe and resulted in a much more ambitious aim: the Global Village Construction Set. The GVCS is “an open technological platform that allows for the easy fabrication of the 50 different Industrial Machines that it takes to build a small civilization with modern comforts.”

The significance of this? “I found that industrial productivity can be achieved on a small scale,” Jakubowski explained in this video. Furthermore, “We're focusing on hardware because it is hardware that can change people's lives in such tangible, material ways. If we can lower the barriers to farming, building, manufacturing, then we can just unleash massive amounts of human potential.”

That kind of technology on an open source platform could make a huge difference in the developing world; it's also making a difference right here at home. “Our tools are being made for the American farmer, builder, entrepreneur, maker,” said Jakubowski. “We've seen lots of excitement from these people, who can now start a construction business, parts manufacturing, organic CSA, or just selling power back to the grid.”

“From what I've seen, this is only the beginning,” he added. “If this idea is truly sound, then the implications are significant...We're exploring the limits of what we all can do to make a better world with open hardware technology.”

Implications for healthcare

The implications are certainly not limited to building, manufacturing, or farming. Hundreds of open-sourced projects—machines, tools, robotics, electronic equipment, and more—are being designed and developed, and may have significant impact in many different fields. Applied to healthcare, for instance, open source hardware could dramatically lower the costs of developing and maintaining increasingly complex and very expensive medical equipment, helping make healthcare more affordable.

It could also help make medical devices safer—though that statement is a bit more controversial. Because current medical technology is heavily reliant on software, much of it is vulnerable to accidental malfunctions as well as malicious attacks. According to the FDA, malfunctioning software that administered overdoses through drug-infusion pumps contributed to over 700 deaths between 2005 and 2007. Advocates of open source hardware argue that open-sourcing medical devices will result in safer products, since there will be more “hands and eyes” to find and correct mistakes in the software. The method works well for desktop software. However, according to this article in the Economist:

"To be used in a clinical setting, open-source devices must first undergo the same expensive and lengthy FDA approval processes as any other medical device. FDA regulations do not yet require software to be analyzed for bugs, but they do insist on a rigorous paper trail detailing its development. This is not always a good fit with the collaborative and often informal nature of open-source coding."

To begin implementing open source technology in the medical field, hardware developers still need to undergo stringent testing and acquire whatever certifications are necessary. There are still issues to be worked out in this regard, since the legal requirements go against the grain of open source methods. Still, provided these issues can be worked out, the effort would be worthwhile for the healthcare industry: “Open source hardware in the healthcare arena will eventually hopefully lead to the assembly of many of types of medical systems that will substantially improve health care quality while lowering costs of medical care.”

Although there are few if any open source medical devices that can legally operate on living human beings, there is a diverse and growing list of open source healthcare equipment in existence (some of which is designed to operate on small animals or cadavers). Some of these include the EyeWriter Project (eye-tracking glasses with software that “allows writers and artists with paralysis to draw and communicate using only their eyes”); InVesalius ( medical imaging 3D reconstruction software); and the Raven (robotic surgeon), in addition to several others.

When it's said and done...

The open source hardware movement hasn't come into its own yet, and there are many obstacles to sift through. On top of that, the latest attempt to unify the movement (through OSHA) has met some stiff resistance, and the organization will need to spend its first year or so stabilizing its status as a non-profit instead of launching right into the more ambitious goals of educating the public or rallying the movement. For healthcare and medical devices, safety and certification requirements add another layer of legal complexity.

Still, the movement has borne heavy fruit in other fields, and has—to quote Marcin Jakubowski—unleashed massive amounts of human potential. If a farmer can prototype and build a tractor in six days at relatively low cost, and enable others to do the same—that's a success, and it's a success that makes a difference in someone's life. Multiply that by fifty and you get the Global Village Construction Set. How great a difference could that make on a local scale? On a global scale?

Probably a lot.

Let's hope the open hardware community can come together in the next few years, resolve its legal difficulties, and advance toward more sophisticated technology with increasingly ambitious aims. The future is open and the possibilities are broad.

Just imagine.