Open Source Hardware: Exploring New Territory

As momentum from the open source culture continues to snowball, it acquires new categories—the newest component being open hardware. While open hardware lacks the benefit of a unified movement and faces legal obstacles, it is based upon the same principles that made open source software a soaring success. It also promises to effect positive change in many different fields, including (to name just two) farming and healthcare.

According to the standard definition, open hardware “is a term for tangible artifacts—machines, devices, or other physical things—whose design has been released to the public in such a way that anyone can make, modify, distribute, and use those things.” Additionally, open hardware is usually composed of simple materials and should be relatively easy to build.

Because of its physical nature, however, the concept of open hardware is a bit more complicated to define than open-source software. To sell a product, there are costs of manufacturing and distributing to consider. And  products can't be patented, since open source licenses require designs to remain open and available for duplication and adaptation. On the other hand, those licenses also require users to give credit to the original source—which builds up the inventor's name and allows the inventor to sell his expertise at a reasonable price, if not his product.

There are a a substantial number of projects in the works—computer systems, robots, instruments, certain medical devices, etc. One paramount example is the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS), which permits “the easy fabrication of the 50 different Industrial Machines that it takes to build a small civilization with modern comforts.” This ambitious undertaking, spearheaded by Marcin Jakubowski, allows industrial production to take place on a small scale by eliminating dependence upon expensive, proprietary machinery.

“From what I've seen, this is only the beginning,” Jakubowski remarked in this video. “If this idea is truly sound, then the implications are significant...We're exploring the limits of what we all can do to make a better world with open hardware technology.”

Just consider the implications for healthcare. Thus applied, open hardware could dramatically lower the costs of producing and maintaining medical equipment. It might even make medical devices safer, since there would be more eyes available to spot mistakes in the design. Currently, no open-source medical device has been authorized to perform surgery on human patients, but several open hardware projects—like the EyeWriter Project and the Raven—have already contributed to other areas of the field. Despite strains of legal opposition, open hardware, as Peter Groen states in this blog post, has the potential to “substantially improve health care quality while lowering costs of medical care.”

The implications are indeed significant.

For a more extensive and detailed overview of the open hardware movement, click here for our feature article.