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
Desktop CNC Routers
|DIY Desktop CNC||$450-600|
|A Quick CNC||$1,050|
Large CNC Routers
Combination Lathe, Mill, and Drill Press
Injection Molding Machine
|Make Your Own Stuff (MYOS)||$700-4000|
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.