Opensource Hardware

What is open source hardware?

Open source hardware (OSHW) concerns hardware design that is made publicly available for anyone to study, modify, distribute, make or sell the design, or hardware based on that design. In addition, the design must be available in the preferred format for making modifications and there must be no discrimination against fields of endeavour. A significantly more complete definition of open-source hardware is available at freedomdefined.org/OSHW. Although thus far it has largely been seen as existing at the simpler end of electronics design, it embraces two major assets within the engineering community – goodwill and collective intelligence – and is now being recognised as an important movement with increasing opportunities for both industry and education.

 

What is open-source software and what are the differences between it and open-source hardware?

Free and open-source software (F/OSS) is of course a well-understood concept. It is developed under liberal licence with source code available to all and it comes with many potential benefits. These can include: cost saving in licensing fees or not being held subject to vendor-driven software upgrades; sharing of maintenance liability; widespread source code peer review; and combined resources to solve problems. Although OSHW is considerably younger than F/OSS –it has largely been developed over the past decade or so – it has similar origins and basically came about through niche applications and tools designed for engineers or programmers or simply those that could offer a different take on existing technology.

Although there are many similarities, there are some key differences and the model for OSHW collaboration is certainly not as advanced. Compatibility of design tools for example is just one issue – unlike editing source code in a text editor, in the software world. The movement therefore features significantly fewer entities creating and contributing to the development of hardware designs, than those making use of them. However, an important issue in OSHW is licensing, as in the software world. Many open source electronics projects will have both hardware and software elements and may provide design artefacts such as schematics, mechanical drawings, bill-of-materials (BOM), PCB layout, HDL source code and assembly instructions, along with source code for microcontroller firmware, and it is generally advisable to have separate licenses for the hardware and software parts. A fundamental principle with both F/OSS and OSHW is that the licence must not restrict anyone from making use of the work (including manufactured hardware) in a specific field of endeavour. For example, a licence cannot restrict a hardware design from being used in a commercial context.

 

Can you provide some examples of OSHW?

While the economics of OSHW are not as well established as with F/OSS, it is increasingly finding its way into more diverse markets and applications. An important example of a leading organization that is fully embracing the concept is CERN, the Geneva-based European laboratory for particle physics, which has recognized the advantages of sharing open designs with its manufacturing base. CERN has a repository of designs that include ARM-based single-board computers and high-speed data-acquisition cards, which are key components used in the experiments at the LHC (Large Hadron Collider).

One highly successful example of an electronic project development platform is Arduino. It has established a vibrant ecosystem with all the hardware design files made freely available, allowing the study and extension of its design for new or specific purposes in either a commercial or non-commercial context. Combined with an accessible and equally flexible software platform, Arduino has benefited from derivative and complementary third-party hardware and is today a growing brand with a strong reputation for quality.

A key product example of OSHW is in the development of low-cost 3D printing, such as the RepRapPro printers which are almost entirely based upon open-source design and the latest of which is the recently announced Ormerod. RepRapPro is the commercial arm of the ‘Replicating Rapid Prototyper’ project, also known as ‘RepRap’, which is an initiative to develop a low-cost open-source 3D printer that can print most of its own components.

One high-profile OSHW application is the use of the opencores.org OpenRISC open-source microprocessor in satellite and digital televisions. Also, in the automotive sector, the Ford-led OpenXC platform uses OSHW and F/OSS to enable third-party in-car innovation. However, OSHW has not yet played a highly significant role in the development of leading-edge consumer products, although the OpenMoko mobile handset and Novena laptop are arguably notable moves in that direction.

 

Why will OSHW become more important in the future?

Hardware companies are now increasingly seeing OSHW as an opportunity to seed the market and educational establishments with their technology. Development kit design files are increasingly available under an open-source licence and, as was the case with software, more reusable components are becoming available. OSHW also offers significant opportunities to respond to the continual compression of product development cycles. A library of reusable components can form the basis of a technology toolkit for use in prototyping prior to the development of a product for manufacture.

Another approach being looked at is making a strategic technology openly available – perhaps a new interface standard for a specific application or market – which could result in widespread adoption. Rather than thinking of it as giving away IP (Intellectual Property), more and more companies are looking at the opportunities of providing a design under a liberal licence framework for shared benefit, such as interoperability or cost reduction.

 

Can distributors such as RS Components play a role in the development of OSHW?

Today, OSHW is largely being used in micro-enterprises that are making products and tools for specialist markets. However, distributors such as RS have a key role to play in the growth and development of the movement as they are ideally placed to provide the necessary support resources with their heritage of sourcing components, together with expertise in supply-chain logistics and assisting with manufacturing and product certifications.

Distribution also has the knowhow and expertise to foster the growth of hardware ecosystems and to provide a platform that helps engineers find co-collaborators. For example, RS now hosts the Open Source Design Centre on designspark.com, the company’s online resource for electronics design engineers. The design centre brings together many of the elements involved in open-source design in a single easy-to-access reference point, delivering information on issues ranging from licensing guidelines to advice on hardware and software management, and also to encourage active participation in projects.