Open-source hardware takes baby steps toward the gadget mainstream

The success of open-source software raises a tantalizing question: Could the same design philosophy work for tech gadgets?

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Tisserant calls this "the cost of the test": "When you get your first piece of homemade hardware, you can do some modifications. But you will have to order a new piece with your new design. This takes time — a few weeks — as well as money."

In order to seriously challenge the traditional proprietary model of developing hardware, a manufacturing time frame of less than one week would be ideal, says Tisserant: "The easier and faster you can test, the easier and faster you can learn."

Turnaround time could be lessened with the use of affordable rapid prototyping or fabrication machines. For example, the body of the Frankencamera is laser-cut acrylic. So anyone with access to a laser cutter can take the plans for the Frankencamera's body and make their own.

A device like the RepRap, a 3D printer for rapid prototyping, could play a significant part in open-source hardware development. The RepRap is itself open source. While commercially available 3D printers cost around $20,000 at the low end, the RepRap's design is freely available to anyone who wants to build one. (Its developers estimate that the materials cost around $480.) What's more, the RepRap can replicate many of its own parts, with the rest of its parts cheaply available, so you can build another one using the first.

RepRap

The RepRap rapid prototyper

Click to view larger image.

"Someone with a RepRap or a laser cutter and a soldering iron can put together something. Open hardware designs combined with rapid fabrication gets at exactly the original intent of open-source software — if the design is open, you can modify it to meet your needs, and freely share those modifications with others," says Adams.

Although the RepRap and other rapid-prototyping machines can speed up prototyping, they're not an end-all solution since their capabilities are meant for creating only the housing or external case for a gadget. Such a machine can help build prototypes of, say, a netbook's outer shell faster, but most of the device's internal electronics still need to be sourced out for manufacture.

Nevertheless, opening up a device to the public (especially during its early design phase) encourages the formation of a community that can propose and contribute improvements. This can help reduce the number of prototypes that need to be built, saving money and time.

The lack of open-source culture among component makers

A device that is open source does not necessarily mean every component within its design schematic is also open source — in fact, it probably uses several proprietary parts.

Any consumer tech device is built with many smaller components. The makers of these parts are usually secretive about revealing their inner workings, unless it's to a paying client. This can be a challenge for anyone trying to develop open-source hardware if their device's design plans are to be released publicly.

"In the software world, there's a rich culture of providing basic open-source building blocks like compilers, editors, support libraries and operating systems," says Adams of the Frankencamera project. "Unfortunately, chip manufacturing is an inherently expensive business, and there's far less room for the kind of altruistic sharing that seems to be the major motivator behind a lot of open-source contributors. Having to sign [non-disclosure agreements] to even see how to use a part like an image sensor is common."

Although he and his fellow Frankencamera developers have encountered hesitation or refusals from companies they've approached to acquire information to help them build their digital camera, they have come across some willing to contribute — in particular because of the open-source aspect of their project. (Most of the Frankencamera's electronics are commodity parts that anyone can buy. A few components, such as the camera's power circuitry, were specially designed by the project's team.)

"Companies that are hard to extract information or parts from don't care whether you're planning something open source or commercial — they're equally reticent. People and companies that are willing to help are usually more willing to if it's going to be open source; they know they'll be able to benefit from any results too," says Adams.

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