Arduino Lifestyle Technology

Open Source Hardware – An Engineer’s Dream Comes True

Tinkerforge Starter Kit: Weather Station

When I was a young engineer and developed my first electronic applications I recognised that many parts of a circuit could be “recycled” and used in other projects. Back then I started to build a library of circuits together with some colleagues. In reality we never really used this collection of design files as it has been too small and by the time we did build an application which was similar to an older one it has been too outdated.

Looking jealously at our colleagues in software engineering who were able to profit from quick advancements in open source software (OSS) we could only dream of a similar solution for hardware.

Today open source hardware (OSH) finally is reality. There are thousands of solutions from PCBs over modules to development kits which allow fast development and prototyping for a huge variety of application areas. It is possible to access and extract complete circuits from the internet including component lists, design information, bill of material, circuit board layouts as well as necessary software. And it’s all free and open source.

How did we get here? Decreasing hardware and component cost is one of the driving forces behind the OSH movement. Hardware is now affordable enough to “play” with it and to allow students, makers and hobbyists to participate. In addition, the internet helps people to exchange information quickly and access a huge variety of projects to learn from.

Have you looked at pages like Hackaday lately? They offer thousands of manuals, projects, and even have a store for you to buy hardware and merchandise!

Whether you are only looking for a first functional model which is built on development kits or if you want to start with circuit board development right away doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that you can refer to an incredible amount of knowledge and experiences of uncountable developers in order to produce prototypes as fast as possible.

OSH has caught up a lot with OSS. However, while software projects “only” involve labour costs, hardware development adds the requirement of monetary investments for physical materials. In addition OSS can often be implemented in projects in a copy-paste fashion, while hardware requires some more tweaking in most cases. The reason is that aside from offering documentation and source files to the public for no cost, it’s not financially feasible for most open hardware projects’ physical components to be offered for free.

The good news though is that open-source electronics platforms like Arduino, TinkerForge or Nogs-Clever-Nodes make it easier to access hardware with low-cost boards and huge communities using the same hardware creating massive collections of knowledge around all kinds of applications and designs.

Tinkerforge Open Source Hardware
The open source Hardware Hacking Kit from Tinkerforge

Projects which are based on OSH are often not taken seriously. However the ultra-fast development time for prototypes proofs that it can be rewarding to use OSH. In addition, as semiconductor manufacturers start to offer boards which are compatible to OSH (e.g. the Arduino compatible STM32 Open Development Environment) along with extensive additional support in form of extensions boards and software it gets easier and easier to develop custom prototypes which are close to the final application with reduced efforts.

What does this mean for our work and for future hardware design? OSH will definitely change the way we develop stuff.

A 2013 survey of the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) showed that community support is very important to the questioned members. In addition OSH seems to be a great tool for education and studies. The biggest concern for professional engineers according to the survey has been that it was hard for them to find high-quality and well fitting solutions. An issue which should be resolved over time if it not already has been through further OSH projects and products as well as the ever growing community.

OSHWA Survey 2013 Q5
Lack of availability and quality of OSH have been main reasons for engineers not to use OSH (slide: OSHWA Survey 2013 Q5)

However some will ask: why should I share my designs and make them open-source? Especially for students, smaller teams and smaller/mid-sized companies it is a great way to get feedback from a huge community and to ask others to help troubleshooting as well as to get inspiration for new projects.

For larger companies it can be rewarding in many ways for example to strengthen the own reputation, to conduct market research and to make designs accessible. Why is the last one an advantage? Nowadays it will be hard to protect any successful product from being copied. However, in order to strengthen the market position of consumer products, tailored extensions and add-ons can encourage consumers to buy a specific product. Therefore, if you release parts of your product as open source you will also make it easier for others to build accessories and extensions for your product.

The next generation of engineers is already learning how to accelerate projects with OSH in universities and will contribute to this trend even further. Today it’s not about developing the most perfect solution in a 4 months internship anymore but to design a working prototype within a week.

On the one hand, OSH is not an option for high-tech consumer products like smartphones in which high-end components are used to deliver sophisticated performance. On the other hand, OSH is great in order to get smaller projects up and running quickly while keeping expenses comparably low.

By using OSH to realise an application it is possible that hardware is bigger and more expensive than it would be after more development time. However, the time to market is a lot shorter and thus are development costs. For products which are produced in smaller quantities this can be a real benefit.

The equation is pretty simple however it might not be obvious: If I save 50 cents on the hardware, I still need to sell about 200.000 devices in order to save the equivalent of development costs of one person in one year. As developments from scratch usually take up several man-years it is often not feasible to build a completely new circuit and to choose all components yourself.

OSH simplifies prototyping, grants access to sophisticated electronics to makers, students and hobbyists, helps us to try new and exciting stuff and to work out problems with the support of a huge community. Sounds like a dream to me!

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