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26 Jan 2018, 8:58

Open Source Hardware? What’s that?

Open Source Hardware is very similar to its older more established sibling, Open Source Software, but obviously pertains to the physical product in question, and making that object easier to alter and modify and then reproduce as a separate entity, within a set of ‘rules’ of course. The term ‘open source hardware’ can apply to any number of physical products, like a robotic arm, a circuit board, a vehicle or even a building, in essence, it’s a set of guiding design principles within a legal framework surrounding the hardware in question.


All of those CAD files, schematic diagrams, design blueprints that support an open hardware design will be made available for anyone to tinker with. Here, they can update, modify and redesign the product before making it, as long as they share their modifications for others.

Open hardware exists to help developers squeeze past common design roadblocks that can be faced when designing and manufacturing physical commodities, opening the door to as many people as possible to redesign, rebuild and share their experiences and knowledge. All of this adding to the ethos of rapid design and development as economically as possible, without the restrictions placed on traditional hardware entities.

Licensing the Open Source

Those who have accessed the open source hardware’s relevant documentation can change them, pass them along to whoever wants them and so on, the licensing agreement also doesn’t prevent this person from selling or giving away these documents.


The law surrounding inventions and hardware creations and designs will fall under copyright and patent law, and similar to open source software, hardware creatively utilises these intellectual property laws to make hardware designs publically accessible. Being similar, many open hardware projects use the existing open source software licenses that are free, when they are applying a license to their creations. Also utilised is the Creative Commons Attribution Licenses, these are generally more applicable to works of art, as opposed to hardware and software. Copyright and patent law as they exist currently apply to open source hardware and trademark law are specifically relevant when it comes to logos and branding issues surrounding open source hardware. This article here provides a list of a few open source licenses for both software and hardware that may prove useful to you.

So how is it different to regular hardware?

The primary difference between open source hardware and your everyday hardware (if you haven’t gathered this already), is that all of the supporting documentation for open source items must be made readily and easily available, and furthermore, the licensing allows for modifications and future distribution of the modified product. All of this is to encourage development, troubleshooting, improving and modifying the hardware, of course, the very nature of open source.

When any open source hardware features software to allow it to function then that associated software should ideally be released under an open source licence as well. Another option is that the interfaces featured in the hardware design should be adequately documented so that if new software needs to be created it should be as easy as possible for those involved to do so.


Is Open Source Hardware free then?

Open hardware projects will invariably result in the creation of a prototype (or many) of some description and of course, a capital outlay to get to that stage will most likely be involved. Although it may be possible for CAD files and documentation supporting the design to be passed on free of charge, it wouldn’t make much sense to give away the physical item in question without some remuneration. The open source movement is ultimately focused on minimising costs for developers and encouraging product evolution as rapidly as possible, however, as with many things in life, finance can be an issue. Crowdfunding initiatives such as those that can be created by using Crowdcube, Kickstarter, Crowd Supply and Indiegogo have served many developers very well in the past, helping to raise funds for projects the world over, it’s certainly an avenue worth exploring.


Helping hands

As for design assistance, there are a plethora of design tools available as well, such as our very own free to download and use DesignSpark Mechanical, DesignSpark PCB and DesignSpark Electrical that can help curb associated costs, it certainly pays dividends to explore what’s on offer. Many open source aficionados offer technical services for their creations as a means of supplementing development costs, there are certainly plenty of options if funding is an issue and you have the necessary skills to do so.

Want to know more?

The above only just scratches the surface of what the world of Open Source Hardware has to offer the engineering design and development community. There is plenty of information to fill your boots at the Open Source Hardware Associations website, and websites of companies like Makerbot, Sparkfun and Adafruit Industries who have their grassroots firmly embedded in open source development and are full of innovative ideas. Take a look around the web, your next inspiration might be just a Google search away.

You can read more about licensing in this article.

Countless years taking things to bits to see how they put out to pasture in the big wide world. So long's been a pleasure!

26 Jan 2018, 8:58