Open source software has had a lasting impact on the world and the likes of WordPress, Linux, Firefox and Magento have become household names. Open Source Hardware hasn’t made such an impression on the public domain, but it’s out there and it’s going to become a much bigger deal.
Open source software has changed the business world and now two-thirds of commercial and professional websites run on OSS. 3D printing is set to become a fixture in the modern workplace, so can hardware follow in its footsteps?
3D printing is not new, the price is
Free software was not a new thing in the 80s, just like 3D printing is not new now. What has changed is that the price of entry has come down and we have structures in place that allow collaboration.
3D Printers are getting cheaper and become more reliable. So now there is a call for an organised system for open source hardware, as well as legal guidelines to save it from becoming a free for all.
Platforms are the solution
Sharing also has to become the norm. Platforms like Thingiverse and MyMiniFactory have to follow in the footsteps of open source software icon sourceforge.net and github and connect the makers, companies and great designers.
These platforms have a huge role to play in the development of open source hardware. They must be a search engine, repository, collaborative hub, marketplace and one-stop print shop.
As the sites, forums and messenger systems are so much better than our open source software forefathers had at their disposal, there is no excuse if it doesn’t happen.
Take technical lessons from open source
They must allow for forking: designers taking the project off in another direction while leaving the original intact.
Inevitably one or more platforms will emerge as the winners of the battle royale that is going on in the shadows right now. They will be the ones that incorporate all of these requirements and simply serve the end user more effectively. They will be the backbone of the open source hardware community.
Designing for free? People will do it
With software packages becoming ever more accessible, the barriers to entry are coming down. Open source design softwares are starting to emerge. The WeDesign.Live project means that anybody should be able to design, too, which means people will do this for fun.
Now the printers themselves need to converge towards the most effective design that ensures some level of consistency between makes and models.
Of course there is the elephant in the room, too, intellectual property. The big players are keen to protect their IP, the law changes from one country to another, and 3D printing is a truly global effort. So the industry may have to become self-regulating if it wants the manufacturers to get involved.
Can we trust each other?
At the end of the day, the failure or success of open source hardware will come down to trust. Do the contributors trust each other enough to work together? If not each product will descend into a mass of forked options that will simply not be as good as it could be if everyone pulled in the same direction.
Open communication, through the platform as well as the individual, together with rating systems and specific communities for different projects, will help head this one off at the pass.
Developers and firms will also have to learn to work together. Makerbot proved how easy it is to destroy trust in the system, by using an open source design for its first printer before shutting its ‘design team’ out of the development for the second. This can drive designers away in droves.
Other companies, including Lego, want to foster a community spirit yet don’t want to give up their IP. This is a complex balancing act and we need better solutions.
How much faith does the community have?
Do the end users trust the platform to provide solid files with no errors and no IP issues that could land them in trouble?
Big companies have to trust the system enough to release plans for people to print products at home and disrupt the entire manufacturing industry. Then the users have to believe that big companies won’t simply take their designs and cut them out the loop once they have given their time and expertise.
It’s clear that the platforms and everybody’s trust in them will have a major impact on open source hardware’s success or failure in the years ahead. We hope that the platforms take their role seriously and that everybody learns to play nice.
If they do, we can really change the world here.