Adapting open source methods to products

How does open hardware improve our lives? What are progressive engineers currently working on?

Markus Kollotzek
Oct 24 · 11 min read
Photo: Goncharevich Nadiya (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

We are dependent on machines and technical equipment, from power generation and industrial agriculture to the production of high-end technologies. But when we take a critical look behind the dazzling facade of 21st century industrial society, we notice that the processes of technological development are far less modern than they seem. The foundations are being laid for the modern and sustainable development and distribution of hardware — open hardware. Inspired by the collaborative development processes of open source software, mechanical engineering is now facing a radical change that will affect all areas of life.

Diagnosis: Closed hardware

Tractor Hacking Collectives: How are thousands of farmers supposed to fix their tractors? If it were up to US agricultural machinery manufacturer John Deere, it would be through their authorized dealers only. However, especially at peak times, farmers depend on quick repairs when problems arise. But independent, possibly easier to reach repair shops are systematically excluded, and ‘unauthorized’ spare parts from other manufacturers are blocked by software. Some farmers are even worried that their tractors could be remotely shut down. To live in total dependence on the manufacturer is for many farmers an unacceptable condition and at the same time a risk for our food supply.

$6.1 billion US dollars: This was the financial damage the aircraft manufacturer Airbus SAS had to face during the development of the A380. The reason: a software update of the design program CATIA, installed by only a part of the international development team. The new version was a complete rewrite and not compatible with the previous version. Airbus had no influence on the process because the program code was closed source. The modules developed at different locations all over the world could not be assembled due to this incompatibility.

Utility objects with a short service life: There are numerous examples of planned obsolescence — manufacturers deliberately intervene in the design of televisions, smartphones, printers and headphones in order to artificially shorten their lifespan. This increases sales, but at the same time produces tons of electronic scrap — a waste of valuable resources. Consumers, on the other hand, are powerless because it is the manufacturer who decides how a product is developed.

These examples are symptoms of “closed technology development” — the construction plans of the products or the program code is kept under lock and key, as is the manufacturing process itself. It is true that some customers and suppliers help themselves by hacking the software of their tractors, for example. Fundamentally, however, closed hardware promotes the following effects:

  • Irreparability — I can’t repair defective equipment myself. In many private households, smartphones with shattered displays end up in the garbage. This is not only expensive, but also has catastrophic ecological consequences and makes a circular economy difficult.

The list of disadvantages on the consumer side is long. However, a closed approach also has disadvantages for manufacturers. For example, they have to put a lot of effort into obtaining feedback for their products — a product is first developed, produced and then tested on the market. Construction costs are also higher because existing modules from other manufacturers cannot be used or adapted without problems. One might wonder why we still produce this way in the 21st century. There are no simple answers to this question, but there are three possible causes:

  • Short-term profit over long-term viability — unfortunately, lock-in effects and planned obsolescence can also secure future sales. In our economic system, financial profit is weighted higher than the common good, so these mechanisms offer a short-term competitive advantage. In the long run, this model is not sustainable because the sheer amount of resources required for infinite growth are simply not available. If we continue on the current economic course our ecosystem will collapse due to CO2 emissions and pollutants.

What added value does open hardware offer?

The Open Source Hardware Association gives the following definition:

“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.”

As of today, there are already many examples of open hardware — most notably the 3D printer RepRap, which can print itself, or the microcomputer Arduino, which is built into numerous Do-It-Yourself (DIY) kits. But open hardware encompasses much more than just electronics: around the world, people freely make their construction plans available for office furniture, plastic recycling plants, even houses or MRI devices. Similar to free software, individual components from open hardware can and should also be reused in other projects. Anyone can participate — be it as a developer, translator or user.

The mentality that everyone can understand, reproduce, modify and distribute a device seems to have reached DIY enthusiasts in particular and finds its way to the cities where so-called FabLabs are created — places with 3D printers and laser cutters to manufacture products themselves. But the fact that open hardware is triggering a revolution, and the immense consequences this will have for our society are only slowly becoming apparent.

The “Careables” project, for example, collects and distributes freely available construction plans for the healthcare sector: from a $1 stethoscope and 3D printable wheelchair ramp to fully-fledged arm or leg prostheses. The impact of this project should not be underestimated, as it now offers a direct alternative to overpriced and slowly evolving proprietary medical products. This can play a role in Germany, but also in countries of the global South. Instead of importing health products for high costs, many devices can now be produced and tested locally for a fraction of the money. Through the direct exchange with the users, fundamental product changes and target group-specific adaptations can be implemented quickly. Open hardware can thus also be an answer to social questions.

Another example is Sono Motors, the German manufacturer of the Sion electric car. The manufacturer’s aim is to be as climate-friendly and resource-saving as possible. Accordingly, the vehicle should be able to drive as far as possible until the end of its life. In order to improve the service network, Sono Motors wants to make the repair shop manual open source and thus enable the maintenance of their cars to any independent repair shop.

If you think ahead, it is to be expected that more companies will start to make their hardware and manufacturing processes open source, because open hardware has many advantages: Repairability, fast prototyping, higher product quality, lower development costs, reusability of modules, resource savings, among many other benefits. Open development processes also mean that more people can participate enthusiastically in joint projects. This promotes customer loyalty and builds bridges across sectors, for example with universities. Even the acquisition of employees becomes easier, because the collaboration can be tried out by companies and applicants in advance. Ultimately, open hardware is also a fundamental prerequisite for a circular economy.

At the same time, open hardware is a great challenge for manufacturers, because a lot of existing design processes and production mechanisms will have to be rethought. Excess revenues from vendor-dependencies will be lost, such as reliant on new purchases (thanks to planned obsolescence) or dealer-specific spare parts. There is therefore a need for new, perhaps more “honest” business models. Development costs will tend to fall as the number of freely available modules increases and the development process becomes more community-oriented. The costs in the area of moderation will increase, while the amount of development work by the manufacturers will decrease.

Why can all this be foreseen now? Because this development has already happened once. Open source software has undergone a comparable development and has produced its own success story with new business models. Open hardware is the logical continuation of that revolution in economies with free resources.

Scaling Open Source Hardware

What can be done to best support this development? The association Open Source Ecology Germany (OSEG) answers this question in one word: Standardization. Perhaps a very German answer.

The association, which is mainly founded by engineers, is currently carrying out a project with the German Institute for Standardization (DIN e.V.) to promote the dissemination of open hardware. Despite its unwieldy title, the project “Development of the Fundamentals of Standardization and Accessibility of Open Source Hardware” holds enormous potential.

Open Source Ecology Germany logo and open hardware samples — Photo: Timm Wille (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Project partner DIN has been the authority for product standards in Germany for over 100 years — every sheet of paper, every pacifier and every toothbrush you can buy in Germany is produced according to DIN standards. Open Source Ecology Germany was founded in 2016 and sees itself as part of the worldwide “Open Source Ecology” movement, which is committed to sustainable technical progress through research and science. The movement became internationally known through the project “Global Village Construction Set” — an open construction set of 50 machines that enable self-sufficiency of smaller communities. The focus of the German association is more on enabling the social dissemination of open hardware.

Why should open hardware be standardized? Project partner Dr. Jérémy Bonvoisin, Professor at the University of Bath, describes the situation of Open Source Product Development (OSPE) as follows:

“Although transparency, accessibility and reproducibility are considered to be important components of the open source approach, only every tenth OSPE product realizes all three aspects in combination.”

So open source product development wants to be practiced, but due to a lack of standardized guidelines all individual development teams do whatever they think is right.

Now, the standardization dinosaur DIN and the term “open source” do not necessarily fit together, because the institute is largely financed through the sale of copy-protected standards. It is now intended to publish a DIN SPEC under an open source license for the first time. This will allow the community to further develop the standard itself and to incorporate knowledge from practical use and testing.

In the spirit of collaboration, a project consortium was set up that represents 36 international institutions and bundles and further develops existing knowledge. In addition to the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA), other project groups, research institutions, non-profit organizations and companies all have a seat at the table.

The project consists of three components, which can be summarized as “The Rule, The Tool and The Pool”.

1. The Rule — DIN SPEC

Two documents will be developed and published at the end of the year as DIN SPEC 3105. The first (DIN SPEC 3105–1) deals with a clear definition of terms and a catalogue of requirements for the technical documentation of open hardware. The second document (DIN SPEC 3105–2) defines a practicable procedure based on peer reviews for the certification of these.

The development of the documents was based on the internationally recognized OSHWA definition. Since the standard itself is an open source project, everyone is invited to participate. How this will be done is regulated by the Contribution Guide.

In a nutshell, the OSHWA definition already describes the open in open source. This is now supplemented by the DIN SPEC with a clear definition of the source.

2. The Tool — Open Guideline

The sub-project “Open Source Hardware Guideline” (OSH Guideline) is a community-supported guideline for the development of own specifications, best practices and clarification of fundamental questions. It explains, for example, what a machine-readable parts list should look like, but also how open source development processes can be intelligently structured, legal and licensing aspects are clarified for the first time, and a number of new business models based on open hardware are presented.

3. The Pool — Search Engine for DIY and Open Source Hardware

A meta search engine was developed that searches hundreds of websites for open hardware. The site with the title “Open Hardware Observatory” (OHO for short) has already been released in a beta version on oho.wiki. In the next development stage the open source hardware licenses of all entries will be recorded and the search engine will be extended by a filter function. This makes it possible to search for complete and standard-compliant open source hardware. OHO will thus become the world’s first point of contact for hardware according to DIN SPEC 3501–1. OHO, co-developed by TU Berlin, will also be integrated into the OPEN!Next project, involving 19 business and research partners from 7 European countries, which aims to connect businesses and communities in creative and productive open source design ecosystems.

All three components will be freely available and open for co-design. In combination with each other, they will function in such a way that the DIN SPECs provide the framework for the technical documentation of an open hardware product and its certification. The OSH Guideline is intended to help in the creation and distribution of standard-compliant open source hardware. If the certified documentation is stored on a public platform, it will be found by OHO and appears in the search results for complete and standard-compliant hardware.

This means for manufacturers that in the future there will be a clear guideline on how to work with open hardware — development processes, business models and legal bases. It will be easier for research projects to document their prototypes openly, since funding applications can refer to “documentation according to DIN SPEC 3105”.

The publication of the DIN SPECs is planned for January 2020. It is gradually becoming more tangible what a world could look like in which we can not only repair, but also build and further develop everything — even complex machines. And from a historical perspective this could be a very interesting tipping point, because the gap between the owners of the means of production and the workers seems to be closing.

In the 21st century, technological development will be reinvented, and perhaps so will our society.

open culture journal

Open Culture Journal is r0g_agency and Open Source Ecology Germany’s space to discuss collaborative enterprise in the realms of open source hardware and empowerment technologies, sustainable development and peacetech for post-conflict transformation.

Markus Kollotzek

Written by

Connecting social-ecological changemakers and promoting synergies

open culture journal

Open Culture Journal is r0g_agency and Open Source Ecology Germany’s space to discuss collaborative enterprise in the realms of open source hardware and empowerment technologies, sustainable development and peacetech for post-conflict transformation.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade