From the open source RISC-V processor and Open Compute Project server designs to prosthetics and other items made with 3D printers, open source hardware is here to stay.
Producing free and open source software requires few resources except a computer and an internet connection. By contrast, open hardware requires not only components, but also the means to buy in bulk. For that reason, the spread of open hardware is decades behind that of FOSS. In fact, not long ago open hardware was considered impractical. It is only in the last decade or so that alternatives in social trends and hardware have started making open hardware practical — specifically, its proven success in non-profits, the rise of crowdfunding, and the availability of inexpensive microcontrollers and single-board computers, and 3D printing.
Building on FOSS
Open hardware could not exist without the prior success of FOSS. It has been twenty years since the Dot.com era, when FOSS was an untried idea. Since then, other groups based on the ideals and practices of FOSS, have grown into successful semi-independent communities of their own, such as Open Access and OpenStack. FOSS ideals no longer have to be proved, so open hardware does not need to be defended, either.
If anything, open hardware has gone on to have its own successes. Like FOSS before it, open hardware has an affinity with academia, where the exchange of ideas is a norm analogous to copyleft licenses. When academics venture into manufacturing, they are likely to organize under the same principles.
FOSS-based ideals are especially common in non-profits. Probably one of the biggest successes for open hardware is in the field of aesthetics. A traditionally constructed artificial hand costs upwards of $30,000. That price is beyond the reach of many families in a developing nation like India, where the average family income is about $21,000. By contrast, a custom-made artificial hand is sold by an open-hardware company like Open Bionics for $400. Although the cost of an open hardware hand is still high by the standards of developing nations, it is at least within reach, especially with charity. It also means, of course, that seventy-five open hardware hands can be made for the price of one proprietary one. Building on FOSS, open hardware has gone on to prove its own practicality.
Like FOSS in its earliest days, open hardware was initially of limited interest to established hardware manufacturers. That is not surprising; as Erich von Hippel has pointed out, existing companies are rarely a source of major innovation. However, this lack of interest also meant that would-be manufacturers of open hardware were enthusiasts, with neither the contacts nor the experience to raise private financing or venture capital. At best, possible open hardware manufacturers were small firms, focused on engineering rather than marketing and production.
Nor were many of the first open hardware ventures major innovations. Often, they were minor enhancements or niche markets — not at all the sort of products likely to interest entrepreneurs.
Crowdfunding has changed all that by providing an alternative source of financing. True, compared to venture capital, the amounts raised by crowdfunding are relatively small. So far, the highest amount pledged was for the Ubuntu Edge phone, and that campaign failed to reach its goal of thirty-two million. Amounts of over a million dollars are still relatively rare for open hardware, and most are for much less. However, that has not stopped the rise of small open hardware firms like Purism or Keyboardio, that have served as proofs of concept, showing that businesses can thrive on open hardware.
For these small companies, crowdfunding has become a way of life. Many return to crowdfunding with each new product. One advantage of this habit is the campaign to raise money also becomes a preliminary marketing campaign. By the time a product is funded, the new product has already attracted consumers and created a buzz on social media.
Admittedly, open hardware has yet to have produced the next Apple or Google. So long as it is financed by crowdfunding, it is unlikely to. But in place of a multi-national corporation, it continues to produce small businesses that are viable in their own ways.
A third boost for open hardware comes from trends that allow do-it-yourself manufacturing. Instead of developing hardware from scratch, open hardware manufacturers can rely on low-cost, off-the shelf components.
One of these trends is the rise of micro-controllers and single-board computers like the Raspberry Pi or Arduinos. Generally priced at under $60, Rasp Pis and Arduinos are available in a variety of models that can be quickly modified for a specific purpose. Both reduce the time spent on prototyping and production, reducing costs in a way that was not previously possible.
Another is the development of reasonable affordable 3D printing. In some cases, open hardware no longer needs to be manufactured, stored or shipped. Instead, all that is needed is to make the schematics available for customers to print their own. When repairs are needed, users can make replacement parts as needed.
Currently, parts made by 3D printer are mostly plastic, which can impose certain limitations. For instance, prosthetic artificial hands made of plastic are of little use in places like rural India, where open fires can melt them. Moreover, while a small 3D printer for plastic can cost under $4,000, depending on its size, a 3D printer that can use a variety of metals with the use of a furnace can cost $360,000 to set up. Still, 3D printers can be used in enough cases that they can contribute to the spread of open hardware.
Waitng for the Big Time
Open hardware is starting to attract more notice. One especially promising sign is that traditional companies like Google are getting involved with the development of the open hardware RISC-V chip. Part of this interest may be due to the increased likelihood of tariffs driving up the cost of proprietary chips.
What holds back open hardware is not only name recognition, but the fact that those paying attention are often new entrepreneurs, with few contacts among those who manufacture for vendors. Many manufacturers are uninterested in the small production runs of open hardware vendors, and in Asia, quality control can be an ongoing problem. Those interested in open hardware should read the Keyboardio blog for a summary of the setbacks that beset open hardware production. Usually, they start with an explanation of what open hardware is, and why anyone should care.
Still, open hardware is succeeding, case by case. However, it is taking a long time getting anywhere. Its present status could be compared to that of free software about 1998: it has proved itself to a knowing few, but still remains unknown except in scattered circles.
Bruce Byfield has been involved in FOSS since 1999. He has published over
2000 articles, and is the writer of “Designing with LibreOffice,” which
is available as a free download at