According to the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA): "Open source hardware is hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design.”
Going deeper, OSHWA says that the hardware’s source, the design from which it is made, must be available in the preferred format for making modifications to it.
“Ideally, open source hardware uses readily-available components and materials, standard processes, open infrastructure, unrestricted content, and open-source design tools to maximize the ability of individuals to make and use hardware. Open source hardware gives people the freedom to control their technology while sharing knowledge and encouraging commerce through the open exchange of designs."
What’s interesting in the above definition is that - much of the time - open source hardware is basically open source software; meaning that the piece of hardware is usually proprietary, but what you can do with that hardware is open.
Another interesting nugget to chew on is that any company that did all of the above would probably go bankrupt rather rapidly. The more realistic version, and one that most firms dabbling in OSHW have come to realize is that they don’t necessarily need to make all of their components open. As long as either the design, the content, or the tools are open, the concept still works.
Of course, that brings us to just how “open” OSHW actually is. Many people in the space will tell you “not usually very when it becomes a business.”
Though the current recommended OSHW licenses are useful, they don’t work well from a scalable business perspective. This has led to some firms gravitating towards something called open source appropriate technology (OSAT), which takes business considerations more into account, though it speaks more to the business model and less to the technology itself.
The problem with taking the term OSHW literally is that hardware is expensive. Indeed, the phrase “free as in speech, not as in beer,” is particularly apt, and often the community forgets to take into account the unique production and manufacturing cost associated with hardware over software.
The most fundamental piece of OSHW is documentation, including design files and source code. All OSHW has to have that. Sometimes there are accompanying licenses specifying whether or how the hardware itself can be modified, sometimes there are not.
Ultimately, the core ethos is about making things as easy to study, modify and improve, just like OSS.
And despite the difficulties – or teething pains – OSHW has lowered the barrier for access and made some incredible things possible already. It has created access in areas where there are none, particularly in developing countries where access and resources are minimal.
3D printing is a fantastic example. In some countries of the third world, small villages are already building their own 3D printers, which are able to use readily on-hand materials for filament, like plastic bottles, for instance.
In the developing world, too, there have emerged a couple of interesting OSHW vehicle projects, where parts are packed flat so they are cheaper to ship on pallets, and can be beefed up with existing parts and materials. Open Source Ecology’s Global Village Construction is another very worthy OSHW project doing incredible things.
There are a couple great OSH vehicles too that are specifically targeted at developing countries - that pack flat so they are cheaper to ship on pallets, and can be beefed up with existing parts and materials.
Academia and STEM in schools is also an area reaping the benefits of OSHW, by lowering the cost of lab equipment and expanding the proliferation of that equipment amongst students.
Thus, truly open or not, the OSHW ecosystem has already broken down barriers and made important inroads that are pushing STEM, engineering and humanity forward. And it’s right at the beginning of its era.
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