2007/11/21

Open Source Hardware

Open source hardware is at an interesting point in its development -- its infancy.

None of us knows exactly what the fledgling concept can or will develop into. A person passionate about open source hardware will have both great challenges and nearly limitless possibilities. Jumping in now as a pioneer in the field of open source hardware will enable smart and dedicated individuals to have a huge impact on this field.

I was involved in a discussion this week about a proposed open source hardware project. As a result of the discussion, I went online and pulled up information about several open source hardware projects I knew about. A short search was also done to find out what other hardware projects might have sprung up in the past year or two.

A good starting point for those interested in this topic is the Wikipedia article about open source hardware. There are links to some of projects, but it's likely a number of new hardware projects have been started in the past year which aren't listed on the Wikipedia page. If I dig up worthwhile information on this subject in the next couple weeks, I may register on Wikipedia and update the article. Although not a Wikipedia contributor to this point, I plan on collaborating on a few articles there during the upcoming month.

For those not familiar with the open source concept, one way to consider it is as
...a set of principles and practices that promote access to the design and production of goods and knowledge...with relaxed or non-existent intellectual property restrictions...
Another way to look at open source is that people are legally and ethically free to copy and modify the item produced under open source terms. A common phrase in the open source community is that 'free software' is free as in 'free speech', not as in 'free beer.' This means people are welcome to modify open source software to make it better suited for their application. Proprietary software, on the other hand, like Microsoft Windows, Apple OS X, or Adobe Photoshop/Creative Suite, prohibits the user from modifying the program.

Although the concept of free software is primarily meant to cover the freedom people have to modify how the software works (free speech), the practical result is you can get many open source software programs at no cost. It is possible to put together a computer having just about any kind of computer program you need at absolutely no cost for the software. However, people or companies are also able to sell the programs under certain conditions.

This blog post doesn't have room for a definitive discussion of open source concepts because there are so many conflicting opinions about what open source is or should be. The open source movement is also relatively young, and the definitions of what open source is and how to develop, monetize and protect it are being discussed and revised on a daily basis. No one knows just where the open source concept is taking us...

Three of the best-known open source software projects are Linux, Firefox and OpenOffice.org. Linux is a personal computer operating system. It can be used as an alternative to Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X to run your computer. Firefox is a widely-used web browser alternative to Microsoft Internet Explorer. OpenOffice.org, with a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program and drawing program, is an office productivity suite which is an alternative to Microsoft Office.

Three key features of software which enabled the open source movement to grow as large as it has are:
  1. Low cost and ease of making many copies of a product (software programs)
  2. Ability of the internet to easily distribute the product being developed
  3. Ability of the internet to easily communicate about and collaborate on the project
Open source hardware projects have the difficult, but not insurmountable, challenge of having only the last of those three features listed above, the fantastic communication and collaboration tools provided by today's internet. The question thus becomes,
Are the advantages of those internet communication, collaboration, and community-building tools enough to overcome the cost and difficulty of making many copies of a complex hardware product and to overcome the inability of the internet to distribute the hardware product?
An open source software developer only needs to have a computer, software programs and an internet connection for collaborating with others to develop, produce and distribute their software product. Whilst some contributors for hardware projects may contribute only knowledge or software components, some open source hardware developers may need expensive machinery, a production facility, expensive raw materials, highly-paid skilled workers, a physical storage location and a delivery service for collaborating with others to develop, produce and distribute their hardware products.

If changes are needed to a product, the software developer often has little or no inventory losses and may be able to simply make available on the internet a patch or update to the program. This costs the developer little or nothing to distribute. If a hardware product needs to be upgraded, it may require different raw materials, it may cause inventory to be obsolete and may require expensive recalls or field changes to previously sold or distributed products. This will almost certainly cost the hardware developer a pretty penny.

One benefit open source hardware has compared to software is that the rate of obsolescence is likely to be slower. Many cars produced ten or twenty years ago are still just as useful or productive as when they were first made, are in good condition and are driven daily.

Very few software programs written ten or twenty years ago are still as effective as they were when first released, and very few are still in regular use today. There are exceptions on both sides of the fence, of course, such as twenty year old computing hardware seldom still being useful. Generally speaking, however, a well-designed and well-produced hardware product has a longer useful life than a software product.

The benefit of the hardware product's longer life is that many hardware products are not radically redesigned on a short life cycle. Much of the knowledge, skills and tools required for making a particular hardware product ten years ago will still be useful for making the current generation of that same hardware product.

Another benefit to producers of open source hardware compared to software is the increased difficulty in making copies of the hardware product. Software programs can be copied in seconds using only a standard computer. Hardware products will require raw materials, special tools or equipment, skill and information about the product such as dimensions and materials of construction.

As technology advances and the global economy becomes an established fact of life, reverse engineering and advanced tools such as 3D scanners are making it easier to copy hardware products. 3D scanners measure the dimensions of an object and incorporate those dimensions into a program or drawing which can then be used by someone to make an exact duplicate of the scanned object. This makes it easier to customize hardware products with small beneficial changes. Someone may have an idea about how to beneficially change an open source hardware product's design slightly. Rather than draw an entirely new drawing of the object from scratch, they can use a 3D scanner to generate a CAD drawing (computer aided design) of the object, then make their changes to that CAD drawing. This saves time and money and makes it easier for people to improve on hardware designs developed by others. Of course there's also the downside that it makes it easier for unscrupulous manufacturers to make counterfeit copies of non-open source hardware products. Companies in countries with weakly enforced intellectual property laws are suspected or known to use these technological tools to enable production of millions of dollars worth of illegal items. This allows those companies to participate in the global marketplace without spending much money on research and development of new products.

Three examples of open source hardware projects are the OScar vehicle, the c,mm,n car, and the Solar Heat Pump Electrical Generation System (SHPEGS).

The OScar is a project to
"...develop a car according to Open Source principles. In our opinion, a car is not a vehicle full of high-tech gadgets. Instead, we are looking for a simple and functional concept to spread mobility. Form follows function. Apart from that, OScar is not just a car. It is about new ways of mobility and the spreading of the Open Source idea in the real (physical) world."
The c,mm,n car, per the project's website, is being
"...developed by the three Dutch technological universities of Delft, Eindhoven and Twente. Their developing c,mm,n was a response to the challenge set out by Stichting Natuur en Milieu, the netherlands Society for Nature and Environment. This challenge was basically 'to develop a realistic, feasible, sustainable mobility concept for 2020'..."
The SHPEGS project goal is to
"...design and build a system that uses a combination of direct and indirect solar collection to generate electricity and store thermal energy in an economical, environmentally friendly, scalable, reliable, efficient and location independent manner using common construction materials. The project is being managed with a similar methodology to Open Source Software Development and the ideas and contributions are being published openly on the Internet without an attempt to secure patents."
As is shown by the above examples, some open source hardware projects are complex and challenging. Other projects, like the Chumby, are not as complex and have less grandiose goals.

Embracing aspects of open source hardware, or closely related in spirit to open source hardware projects are the MIT Fab Lab, TechShop, Bug Labs, and Ponoko. The concepts behind these four organizations focus strongly on enabling people to do more with open source hardware products. In northeast Wisconsin, an incarnation of the MIT Fab Lab is emerging at Fox Valley Technical College. Other technical colleges and organizations have expressed an interest in bringing similar facilities to Wisconsin and connecting with existing facilities. Participating in the building and strengthening of both statewide and global networks of labs, workshops and organizations who embrace the open source hardware concepts is a golden opportunity for those interested in the movement's possibilities.

Open Sources 2.0 is a recent book from O'Reilly Publishing. If you want to learn more about open source global activities from leaders of the movement, take time to read the essays in Open Sources 2.0.

Open source software has proven its value and will not be fading into the sunset to be only a footnote in an encyclopedia of computer science. It may even change the world and make proprietary 'closed-source' software a much smaller market -- a thought which must give Microsoft executives and other producers of proprietary software some sleepless nights.

Open source hardware's story is just in its first paragraph. It might turn out to be a very short story. It could sputter and fizzle and struggle, with the end result being a book that gets bad reviews and sells few copies. If, however, the stars are aligned properly, if the right passionate and intelligent people get involved with open source hardware, if nanotechnology and other emerging technologies pan out the way some people predict, and if the world's consumers have a bit of good luck, open source hardware will be a best seller and will change the world.

*****

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