Archive for the ‘ Open Source ’ Category

The Significance of Open Source Hardware

By Catarina Mota and Marcin Jakubowski

Open source hardware is hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design. The hardware’s source, the design from which it is made, is available in the preferred format for making modifications to it. Ideally, open source hardware uses readily-available components and materials, standard processes, open infrastructure, unrestricted content, and open-source design tools to maximize the ability of individuals to make and use hardware. Open source hardware gives people the freedom to control their technology while sharing knowledge and encouraging commerce through the open exchange of designs.
— The Open Source Hardware Definition


  • Allows us to (re)shape the artifacts we use and in this way shape our own experiences – as opposed to allowing artifacts to determine what we can do and how we can do it.
  • Allows us to understand how artifacts work and how they are made and in this way teaches us how things work (technological literacy).
  • Fosters creativity by lowering the barrier to the creation and modification of physical artifacts.
  • Fosters peer-to-peer communication, collaboration and community, and with these a sense of belonging and connection.
  • Fosters self-reliance and resilience by allowing us build and repair artifacts on our own or in collaboration with others.


  • Allows companies to innovate faster by providing access to prior work and crowdsourced contributions.
  • Ensures that derivatives and innovations built on open source designs (and released with a share-alike clause) must also be shared publicly, thus everyone benefits from advancements and improvements devised by external contributors and competitors.
  • Allows consumers to modify, customize, remix and mashup products to create custom solutions for their specific needs (as opposed to one-size-fits-all). This benefits both consumers – who can obtain exactly what they need – and companies – whose customers are more satisfied.
  • Provides valuable market and usability information from voluntary customer suggestions and modifications.
  • Allows for better products as the more numerous and diverse the contributions to a design the more wholesome and inclusive it can be (“given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow”)
  • Allows for lower costs in customer support as customers themselves will often generate and share a wealth of information and troubleshooting tips.
  • Lowers internal research and development (R&D) costs through distributed R&D (customers and competitors contribute to R&D). Lowers opportunity cost of non-transparency.
  • Reduces expenses in patents, trade secrets, and other legal costs of secrecy and exclusivity.
  • Allows for cheaper products by reducing competitive waste – via distributed R&D and absence of the high costs typically associated with secrecy and exclusivity.
  • Increases public trust in businesses and brands due to the open and transparent nature of the open source model.


  • Encourages distributed and decentralized production, along the lines of Jeffersonian democracy, more consistent with human needs than centralized production.
  • Improves access to production capabilities through the application of the open source approach to the design and distribution of sophisticated processes and production tools (laser cutters, 3D printers, etc.).
  • Lowers the barrier to entry into manufacturing by not exercising the right to exclude (as patents do) and thus fosters the emergence of a greater number of small and medium producers resulting in a broader and more diverse ecosystem.
  • Allows for import substitution via production based on local resources by promoting substitution of global supply chains with local feedstocks.
  • Encourages collaboration between enterprises and increases interoperability via access to common building blocks of design.
  • Enables local production of artifacts where and when they are needed. This is particularly relevant for disaster areas and isolated regions of the world where local production may be the only option.
  • Compels businesses to compete based on innovation, quality and price – instead of exclusive rights – thus benefiting consumers and encouraging rapid innovation.

Education & Learning

  • Enables informal and independent learning. This is particularly relevant in parts of the world where formal education is costly or otherwise unaccessible.
  • Provides both formal and informal education organizations, regardless of their budget or location, with plans and knowledge with which to teach design, engineering and science.

Sustainability and Regenerative Design

  • Promotes modular, interoperable design standards by promoting external R&D collaboration between enterprises.
  • Promotes integrated systems design by allowing a larger number of stakeholders to collaborate in the design process.
  • Promotes closed-loop manufacturing cycles by increasing potential for involving additional contributors.
  • Allows for products to be manufactured when and where they are needed (decentralized production) thus decreasing waste and pollution associated with transportation, storage and surplus.
  • Allows us to repair devices and other artifacts thus extending their life-cycle and reducing waste.
  • Enables longer life-cycles of artifacts as the special attachment we form with the artifacts we build ourselves (the IKEA effect), either from raw materials or kits, provides an incentive to keep and repair them.


  • Encourages collaboration and sharing, thus strengthening social ties, as well as promoting debate and diversity.
  • Acts as a democratizing agent by distributing production-related knowledge across class borders.
  • Promotes a shift from a society of passive consumption to one of proactive production.
  • Makes possible the emergence of an equitable economic system in which access to knowledge is no longer what separates those who can produce from those who can’t.
  • Promotes an economy of affection – an economy based on interdependent community relations.
  • Increases trust between all participants based on the open nature of the model.
  • Helps form knowledgeable, curious and proactive citizens.


  • Encourages political engagement by providing participation tools for voices to be heard via open software/hardware platforms.
  • Fosters democratic participation in the construction of our environment by allowing everyone to contribute.
  • Eschews top-down approaches and replaces them with a more active public sphere.
  • Reduces conflicts over resources by enabling ubiquitous access to knowledge of how to produce goods.
  • Promotes economic self-determination by lowering the barriers to entry into production.


  • Promotes cultural diversity and specificity by encouraging place-based solutions to problems.
  • Reduces cultural homogeneity (Coca-Colonization of the world) by encouraging local adaptation of product designs.

Pondering the Relationship Between OSHW and Business

A few days ago, Bre Pettis, the CEO of MakerBot Industries, one of the most prominent open source hardware companies, published a statement about why the company released its newest software under a closed-source license and is considering not open sourcing parts of its new products. These are some of my thoughts on the questions Bre raises.

Before going into that, I’d like to reiterate Tom Igoe’s and Phil Torrone’s advice that we all remain very civil. The open source hardware community is relatively new, we have a lot to think through and many public discussions to engage in as we address developments, obstacles and successes. In the many years I’ve been involved with this community, I’ve always been impressed with how kind, polite and respectful everyone is. I’m so proud of being part of a massive and international group that can express opinions, debate issues and arrive at solutions with no ‘blood shed’. We’re a shiny example of collaborative production, all eyes are on us, so let’s keep the high standards we’ve maintained so far.

I respect MakerBot’s stance. Their commitment to honoring the licenses of the external contributions that go into their products does not seem to be in question, and that’s all we can ask of them. Many of us, myself included, have an idealistic and somewhat emotional relationship with open source – we want to do what we love and make the world a better place in the process. However, it’s good to keep in mind that it’s not up to any of us to dictate how each company is run. We may wish they did things the way we think they should be done, but our wishes are just that and we must respect everyone’s choices.

Having said that, I’d like to address some of the broader questions Bre raises.

In a comment on his statement, Bre suggests that although we have a definition, we don’t have a business model. This isn’t completely accurate. There is a business model and it works, as SparkFun, Adafruit, Arduino, EMSL and many others have shown. It just doesn’t translate point by point to MakerBot because their situation is different: they have a single large product (instead of many individual products), their hardware is targeted at a consumer market (instead of the education/maker market) and they have more employees than the average OSHW company. Even if OSHW is not working out for MakerBot for any number of reasons, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re the first OSHW company to face the growth dilemma. SparkFun has 135 employees, a revenue of over $20M, and has been around since 2003.

Bre mentions Chumby as an example of an OSHW consumer product company that didn’t work out. This is a bit misleading in this context since, as a far as I know, being OSHW has nothing to do with why Chumby is no longer around. It’s important to keep in mind that this is not about OSHW in general. This is about MakerBot’s specific nature and the choices the company made (which are not for us to judge).

So I’d like to respond to Bre’s question – what examples of big, successful OSHW companies are out there? – with another question: what examples are out there of hardware companies that failed because they were open source? As far as I can see, management, pricing and market are bigger liabilities for companies than being open. This is not a comment on any specific company’s management style, just something to keep in mind when assessing the performance of OSHW companies in general.

It’s true that there is no one in the OSHW community comparable to MakerBot – not because of its size (SparkFun is probably just as big), but because of its product type. But if we look beyond the confines of our community, there is a very good example: the fashion industry. They don’t share designs, but then again that’s not strictly necessary. Everyone can pick up a dress, figure out how it was made and replicate it, legally. Fashion companies – big, small and medium – are manufacturers (facing the same issues as all other manufacturers), co-exist in a highly competitive space, all their products are consumer products, and they’re not protected by copyright nor patents. Rather, they rely on brand and fast innovation. So there is indeed a very old and well established precedent we can all learn from. Check out at this great overview by Johanna Blakley (thanks Dustyn Roberts for pointing it out!)

Finally, if everything can be reverse-engineered and cloned — and most OSHW products can, even if their plans weren’t freely available — this is, in my opinion, the very reason to do it the open source way. Not releasing plans is only giving a company a few days head start, since that’s probably how long it’ll take their competitors to reverse-engineer the average device. So why not make a statement and release the plans under an open source license? The outcome will be the same, but the support and respect of their customers, the number of people who chose to buy from them instead of from their competitors because they appreciate what they are doing, will increase.

MakerBot has a few clones, most of which are illegally using its trademark, but will this new direction change that? Or will they continue to be cloned and eventually be pushed into enforcing IP that may not even be applicable outside the US borders? And at what price, both in currency and reputation, would this come?

Whatever the motivations each of us has to contribute to open source hardware, the reality is that IP doesn’t prevent cloning nor unfair competition (if you’re in NYC take a trip down to Canal St.). And companies should ask themselves whether they are willing to sue their own customers in the process of preventing competitors from copying their products. Can reputation and taking a stand by pioneering the collaborative economy be much bigger and practical assets than IP?

These are timely questions looking for answers. More than mourning the (eventual) loss of an open source hardware project, it’s important to start creating and testing additional business models that work for different types of companies and products.

Be excellent to each other and, when in doubt, try Tom Igoe’s grandma test :)

A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Fabrication

A few months ago, Strategy + Business commissioned Tom Igoe and I to write an article on the democratization of manufacturing. The intro is transcribed below. The complete article is available at the S+B website (requires registration but it’s free) and as a PDF (no registration required).

Rapid advances in manufacturing technology point the way toward a decentralized, more customer-centric “maker” culture. Here are the changes to consider before this innovation takes hold.

At a research meeting in late 2010, a primatologist studying monkey genetics took a tour of a university’s digital fabrication shop. She mentioned that her field research had stalled because a specialized plastic comb, used in DNA analysis of organic samples, had broken. The primatologist had exhausted her research budget and couldn’t afford a new one, but she happened to be carrying the old comb with her. One of the students in the shop, an architect by training, asked to borrow it. He captured its outline with a desktop scanner, and took a piece of scrap acrylic from a shelf. Booting up a laptop attached to a laser cutter, he casually asked, “How many do you want?”

This question is central to most manufacturing business models. Ten units of a comb — or an automobile component, a book, a toy, or any industrially produced item — typically cost a lot more per unit to produce than 10,000 would. The price per unit goes down even more if you make 100,000, and much more if you make 10 million. But what happens to conventional manufacturing business models, or to the very concept of economies of scale, when millions of manufactured items are made, sold, and distributed one unit at a time? We’re about to find out.

The rapidly evolving field of digital fabrication, which was barely known to most business strategists as recently as early 2010, is beginning to do to manufacturing what the Internet has done to information-based goods and services. Just as video went from a handful of broadcast networks to millions of producers on YouTube within a decade, and music went from record companies to GarageBand and, a transition from centralized production to a “maker culture” of dispersed manufacturing innovation is under way today. Millions of customers consume manufactured goods, and now a small but growing number are producing, designing, and marketing them as well. As operations, product development, and distribution processes evolve under the influence of this new disruptive technology, manufacturing innovation will further expand from the chief technology officer’s purview to that of the consumer, with potentially enormous impact on the business models of today’s manufacturers.