Open-Source Hardware is Bootstrapping Itself

Open-source hardware (OSH) is the generalization of the philosophy of open-source software (OSS) to the design of physical devices. The concept originated with programmable logic devices that can be physically reconfigured after they are built but has since been generalized to include micro controllers, cameras, robots, flashlights and talking breathalyzers. It usually means that information required to build the object such as schematics and a bill of materials are freely available. It also generally means that design work is intended to be done by a group of informal collaborators in a similar fashion to what happens with OSS, but at this point many of the projects seem to have few collaborators. In order to most effectively apply open-source collaboration to physical objects, there needs to be a way to produce and modify these objects on a scale that fits inside garages, on top of desktops, and within household budgets. This will allow geographically distributed developers to contribute to projects in their free time from their homes.

Interestingly, the OSH community seems to be pulling itself up by its own bootstraps with regard to this obstacle by developing a number of small, low-cost production machines. Perhaps the most well known of these projects is the RepRap 3D printer. The RepRap is an open source 3D printer that automatically produces arbitrarily-shaped plastic objects from digital files. The project aspires to eventually create a machine that can make all the parts necessary to reproduce itself. For now the main RepRap 3D printer model, the Prusa Mendel, can only make objects in ABS or PLA plastic. However, the list below shows that other projects are picking up the slack with open-source machines ranging from computer controlled cutting machines to automatic looms

Project                                                    Cost Estimate

3D Printers

RepRap $500-700
Fab@Home $1600-2400


LaserSaur $3000-5000

Desktop CNC Routers

AnniRouter ?
DIY Desktop CNC $450-600
A Quick CNC $1,050
Shapeoko $300

Large CNC Routers

Kikori $2500+
FurnLab $2500-7500

Combination Lathe, Mill, and Drill Press

Multimachine ?

Injection Molding Machine

Make Your Own Stuff (MYOS) $700-4000

Jacquard Loom

osloom ?


smartCaster $500

Note that some of these projects are still in development and have not yet released a first version, and that this is not an exhaustive list of open source production machine projects.

Another problem that is being addressed by the OSH community is that complicated electronics are pervasive in everyday objects but are difficult for a non-expert to design. Imagine that you want to build an open source coffee machine that connects to the Internet or a dog collar with built in GPS tracking. In addition to having a passion for making coffee or finding dogs, you would also need a sophisticated knowledge of electronics to design a GPS or WIFI system on your own. However, Tinkerforge offers modular, extendable electronics “bricks” that are easy to use. Various bricks serve as a microcontrollers or provide wireless communication and “bricklets” serve as sensors or joysticks that can be attached to the bricks to extend their functionality. All of the bricks and bricklets are programmed using a high-level interface on your computer. Other projects such as Twine, Bug Labs, and BoardX are taking a similar approach. And there is the ubiquitous open-source Arduino controller that is used in many hobbyist projects.

Open Source Ecology
This project is so ambitious in scope and has achieved such impressive results so far that it merits special mention. The goal of the project is to design open source versions of 50 machines that they claim are required to run a civilization with modern comforts. They have already completed prototypes of 11 machines including a tractor, a compressed earth brick press, and a CNC torch table  and they raised $63,573 on Kickstarter in November. Furthermore they have forged partnerships with other open source projects including the Lasersaur laser cutter and the Multitool, so the project may help organize the open source hardware community in the future.

Crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter have played a notable supporting role in the developments discussed above. Of the 15 production machine projects listed above, 8 of them have been funded through Kickstarter for a total of $189,926. In addition, the Twine electronics project raised $556,541 and BoardX raised more than $11,000.

These projects will make it easier for collaborative open-source hardware development, but their impact may be even broader. Another successful Kickstarter trend besides open-source hardware projects is consumer products that are designed by independent designers. Access to cheap, open-source production machines for prototyping and possibly production will be a useful tool for these small scale entrepreneurs.

3 thoughts on “Open-Source Hardware is Bootstrapping Itself

  1. Jeff says:

    You don’t speculate too much in your post, but I think your last sentence gets at the heart of why this could be revolutionary. One can see how open source hardware lowers the barrier to entry and could stimulate innovation. This is especially true if an active community pops up as it did in open source software (though there are major differences working against OSH).

  2. Stanokus says:

    if everyone can just have whatever hardware they want for free, than innovation will stop because guess what, there is no more money in it. It’s just a simple law of economics, anyone who’s ever played an open source computer game knows that. But a nice idea anyways.

  3. mattmaier says:

    Haha, Stanokus, open source means free “as in speech” not “as in beer.”

    The reason open source (as a philosophy) will only continue to expand in influence is that it is inherently more effective than closed source innovation. To turn a profit one’s first goal has to be profit. It is entirely possible for a solution to be TOO GOOD to turn a profit. That is why so many tools are specifically designed to break and/or be unrepairable. If a company sells things that are as good as they can be, then they don’t get to sell them again, and they don’t turn a profit, and they disappear.

    So, for-profit companies cannot be as innovative as open source developers. All it takes is one person with no motivation other than perfection to release a design open source and the whole world gets to use it, replacing whatever half-baked solution a for-profit company might try. But that’s not all; an fundamental part of open source solutions are that they don’t just solve problems, they also provide education and build relationships.

    This process doesn’t lead to the end of the market, it merely pushes the market forwards faster than it would have moved if for-profit companies were doing all the innovating.

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