Understanding “Open Source”

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Throughout the 3D printing community, open source tools are everywhere. From software to hardware, the availability of open source tools reduces the barrier to entry by lowering the cost and increasing people’s ability to collaborate. Although incredibly common throughout the community, it can be confusing to understand all the different components for different kinds of open source tools.


Software is one of the most common types of open source tools! With open source software, the source code is included with the compiled version. The source code is the base code used to create the software, when compiled, users are able to run and use the software. Users are encouraged to take advantage of the availability of the source code by modifying it as they see fit.

Open source software provides many benefits to users. With access to source code, users are able to make any alteration they see necessary to improve the program. Additionally, with open source software tends to have a longer life. When there are bugs, users don’t have to wait for updates to be released. Instead, they are able to fix them on their own or collaborate with other users.

Blender, FreeCAD, and LibreCAD are all free, open source programs used for 3D modeling.

Content Files

Many sites like YouMagine and Thingiverse offer downloads of 3D models for anyone to print. Truly open source models can be both modified and sold. However, usually these models are posted with a Creative Commons license or they include a Non-Commercial license and anyone who prints and displays a model is also required to display the original creator’s information. Printers are not able to sell prints of these models legally. It’s important to watch for licensing on 3D models for this purpose.


Open source hardware is one of the most innovative parts of 3D printing. With open source hardware, the design is completely open to the public. Anyone can use, modify, sell, build, and distribute the hardware. These are primarily consumer-grade, rather than commercial.

RepRaps are the first machines of this kind and the most common. RepRap is a desktop 3D printer made of many plastic parts. Since RepRap prints in plastic it is able to self-replicate by making a kit of itself. The purpose of RepRap is making self-replicating machines that are freely available and can benefit anyone.

With groups of people all collaborating on software and hardware, improvements are able to be made by leaps and bounds. Keeping both software, hardware, and often models open source allows the 3D printing community to continue to grow and thrive far faster than it would otherwise.