What is Open Source Hardware?

As 3D Printing starts to take off and hit the mainstream, the Open Source Hardware movement is also stepping up a gear.

Open Source Hardware applies largely the same model of innovation to hardware that FOSS brings to software. With Open Source Hardware, designers openly license the digital artefacts needed to create objects – for example, design files in formats that allow editing such as CAD programs – so that anyone may:

study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design

Open Source Hardware (OSHW) Statement of Principles 1.0

The Open Source Hardware Association have also produced this rather nice introductory video:

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This means that its possible to operate a business model of making and selling physical products based on the design, or selling modified designs (depending on the license), or designing and selling closed-source add-ons and accessories. One obvious business model is the “print shop” one – when designs are open and readily available, the resource bottleneck is fabrication. We may see existing printing outlets turn into fabrication shops too. Or we may even see 3D printing turning up in vending machine format.

However, we’ve already seen the potential problems that may emerge with this model, with the recent controversy over 3D-printed handguns (fulfilling Bruce Sterling’s prophetic statement that the technology would only start receiving media attention once people started printing weapons). If universities do start including 3D printing facilities in libraries, or installing 3D printers as vending machines in hallways, will we need new acceptable use policies to avoid hitting the headlines?

Alternatively, Open Source Hardware designs may fuel a market for 3D printers for home and small office use; prices are certainly coming down, for example with the commercialisation of the Replicator 2;  there are also new entrants to the market, such as the Form 1 kickstarter project.

For researchers, Open Source Hardware, when combined with 3D printing, offers a route to reducing the cost of specialized equipment – for example, researchers have created low cost micromanipulators and centrifuges. Open Source Hardware  also opens up new avenues for teaching and learning technology, manufacturing and engineering, with the potential to create a generation of technology creators instead of consumers; for example, according to Catarina Mota:

But to me, the major benefit [of Open Source Hardware] is education. More and more, devices are becoming black boxes. People used to understand computers and think of them as tools because they understood how they worked, and now we don’t. Whether we like it or not, technology shapes the way we think, the way we communicate, the way we act, the way we learn. So if we buy a computer or phone and we can’t modify or even understand how they work, our thoughts and actions are dictated by this interface design that we have nothing to do with. We need to understand the objects we use because if we can’t shape them, they will shape us. There are already so many things in our lives that we’ve changed to adapt to the technology we have available.

As with Open Source Software, the key to making this work are the legal and technical foundations for sharing and using open source hardware designs. Organisations such as the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) are starting to pull together principles, definitions and licenses necessary. Communities have also formed such as the Open Source Hardware User Group, where early adopters can get together and share designs and ideas. Likewise, our events such as Open Source Junction have started to include Open Source Hardware as well as software.

There is also the interaction between Open Source Hardware and Open Source Software to consider: its all very well having an open design for a device, but what if it needs proprietary firmware or software to actually work? This is something considered in the Open Source Hardware definition:

3. Necessary Software
If the licensed design requires software, embedded or otherwise, to operate properly and fulfill its essential functions, then the license may require that one of the following conditions are met:
a) The interfaces are sufficiently documented such that it could reasonably be considered straightforward to write open source software that allows the device to operate properly and fulfill its essential functions. For example, this may include the use of detailed signal timing diagrams or pseudocode to clearly illustrate the interface in operation.
b) The necessary software is released under an OSI-approved open source license.

Overall, Open Source Hardware is a major emerging area for innovation, and something we’re very interested in here at OSS Watch (or should that now be OSSH Watch?)

(Oh, and here is one last link for Minecraft fans)