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3D Printing's Success Points to a Rosy Future for Open Hardware

It's no secret that open source has shaken up the software world, not least for the savings it's brought both organizations and consumers. Now it's starting to look like open source hardware could have a similar, game-changing effect.

Though still nowhere near as ubiquitous as FOSS, open hardware is gaining ground rapidly -- especially with the booming popularity of open source 3D printing -- and some very compelling benefits are becoming clear.

"We did a little economic study where we chose just 20 common household objects with existing open source designs and showed that printing them in a weekend could save the average consumer between $300 and almost $2,000," Joshua Pearce, an associate professor in The Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology Lab, told Linux.com.

Taking the 'Shackles' Off

That study dates back to 2013, but it appears to be part of an ongoing trend.

"3D printing has gained widespread attention in the media not because of any great technological breakthrough, but because open source 3D printing pushed the costs so low that they are now accessible by most everyone," Pearce explained, pointing to the RepRap project as a shining example.

When RepRap developer Adrian Boywer open-sourced the device, "he took the shackles off of the technology," Pearce went on. "The resultant innovation churn has been staggering following the open source paradigm."

'Under $500 in Parts'

Where once the cheapest plastic printer was priced at more than $20,000, "today I have a RepRap sitting in my office that cost under $500 in parts," Pearce said, noting that he assembled the device with his 6-year-old daughter in a single weekend. "It literally outperforms the commercial versions."

Joshua Pearce

Thousands of people have now built RepRaps of their own, and hundreds are providing the source code -- digital CAD for the components along with firmware and software to run them. "RepRaps are getting better every day and eviscerating the costs of the conventional 3D printing industry," Pearce said.

Indeed, there are now "signs of maturing ecosystem," noted a recent 3D Printing survey from Statistical Studies of Peer Production, which concluded that "3D printing might be on the verge of spreading outside geek communities."

In his forthcoming book, "Open-Source Lab," Pearce explains how his group at Michigan Tech has saved tens of thousands of dollars printing its own scientific tools from a catalog of hundreds of free designs.

At the same time, however, there are now RepRaps that can print ceramics, biomaterials, conductive materials, pastes and food. "Last semester, our group open-sourced the plans for a $1,200 3D printer that can print in steel," Pearce added.

'A Continuation of Open Source'

In many ways, 3D printing "can be seen partly as a continuation of open source," Statistical Studies of Peer Production concludes in its survey. The RepRap was the most widely used printer model among respondents, the survey found; "over half of respondents have previous experience of the open source 'modus operandi,' and bring their knowledge to the printing community," it pointed out.

The beauty of open source hardware in general is that "it never dies the way proprietary products do -- you are encouraged to hack it and you can literally print upgrades," Pearce explained.

Perhaps even more exciting, though, is "the global transition to a commons-based open source design paradigm for printed objects," he suggested.

'We All Win'

"There are now hundreds of thousands of free open source designs for products you can download and print on your own printer," Pearce pointed out, and "costs can be pushed further down by using an open-source recyclebot to turn waste plastic into 3D printer filament."

The advantages are particularly compelling for those in developing countries, he added, because it means they "can easily leapfrog the entire industrial revolution and go straight to commons-based, distributed manufacturing of open source appropriate technologies."

In short, "what we are showing with 3D printers is that open source hardware can work just as well as open source software for driving innovation, creating superior products, slashing costs and -- in the words of the RepRap motto -- 'creating wealth without money,'" Pearce concluded. "We all win."

 

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