Let’s Collaborate on Open Source Hardware Design

I met with Marcin Jakubowski, founder of Open Source Ecology, and Catarina Mota, founder of Open Materials and co-chair of the Open Hardware Summit, in Lisbon a few months ago. We visited Altlab, the oldest Hackerspace in Lisbon, and spent a couple of days together talking about how we could create new foundations for more collaboration on Open Hardware design and documentation.

In fact, our eventual objective--an open source hardware ecosystem based on shared practices--is still not here, and many hardware developers in the world are now experimenting with different ways to create and share their projects. Experimentation is a great means to find new solutions; however collaboration, reuse and modularity suffer from this diversity of approaches, in terms of design and documentation of open hardware ecosystems.

Marcin, Catarina, and I first envisioned, organized, and dubbed the Open Source Hardware DocJam event to arrive at a shared process for open hardware design and, especially, documentation.

A few months later, DocJam is now a reality and will be held in New York City April 26 to 28. We already have dozens of service and UX designers, facilitators, hardware, and software developers who agreed to participate in this 48-hour Jam and serve the OSHW cause. If you are based in New York and you share our concerns and enthusiasm about the OSHW future, you should definitely join us.

The format is truly experimental (a Jam like this has never been organized so far). We were first inspired by Design Jams and Hackathons, since software will likely be part of the experience. Then, we incorporated the principles of the Unconference methods, such as Open Space Technology, to let more session and topics emerge.

So, what can we expect by forming a more collaborative Open Hardware movement?

The Promises

This is a defining moment for those of us who have spent the last 10 years or so proposing and advocating for free and open source software. We exploited and fought against proprietary software dominance like the limits to competition, the need to build on a shared basis and to avoid reinventing the wheel, and the customer lock-in of any given solution.

Besides making us happy, free and open source software now literally runs the Internet, and this gives promise to a more advanced Open Hardware and Design movement.

Despite a huge buzz around it and the number of talented developers who join the OSHW movement every day, there's not much clarity on Open Hardware design yet. In fact, both the Open Hardware Association and the Open Knowledge Foundation have been busy trying to answer question such as, “What does open design mean? What is open hardware?” and creating definitions. Authors have written books on the subject, such as “The Open Book” and “Open Design Now!

A few days ago, I pieced together a presentation entitled "Open Gets Real," and many others (innovators, entrepreneurs, and "makers") work collaboratively to find solutions and solve the problems that slow down the adoption and growth of Open Hardware.



Open Product Design

An open source approach to design and production of tangible products, such as furniture, cars or electronics, is a great opportunity for producers to address the issues of sustainability and innovation.

The advantages of innovation are many. If we draw a parallel with the software industry, we can understand how having access to a common base of knowledge and tools (while in software, we talk about things such as an “operating system,” in hardware, it is a car transmission or engine, or a a solar panel model, etc) allows everyone to focus efforts by adding value, instead of re-inventing the wheel.

Sustainability also has enormous potential, like sharing a design "framework" (for example; that from Openstructures. Such an approach would likely end things like planned obsolescence, and might allow for more reuse in products, parts, and materials to create a truly sustainable production model. Design, following a shared framework (what we did with software, thanks to programming languages or runtimes such as Java, PhP, Drupal or RoR), would dramatically improve reuse remix and creation efforts.

Equally key is the aspect of documenting the processes by which we create hardware and products. While building software goes through the push of a button, hardware needs screws and nails, or solder electronics. There is no shared "standard" for describing this process today, and this makes sharing hardware more difficult.

If we succeed to create this shared approach, economic opportunities will arise, thanks to “a modular construction model, where everyone designs for everyone," said Thomas Lommè, Openstructures. Just think how many new businesses and professionals emerged in the field of open source software to compete with large companies and multinationals.

On the other hand, enormous challenges arise, and these are not limited to technology. Such difficulties include scarce understanding of the phenomenon and its scope, expensive and non-free tools for creation, and barely mature tools for collaboration (there is no "Git Hub for hardware" yet). By and large, best practices are not shared enough.

However, in my opinion, the major limitations are those in terms of user experience. For both the average user (who may find it difficult to document its findings and results) and for companies (that do not understand how to apply OSHW and Open Source Design to commercial products) the application can be challenging. That's why we thought of a multidisciplinary approach to the Jam.


Join Us

Are you wholeheartedly interested in open source hardware and in a new manufacturing revolution? Do you want to meet new people, start new collaborations, and get feedback on your ideas? Register now for Open Source Hardware and Jam with us in New York, or stay tuned for future Jams worldwide.