The Viability of Open Source Hardware: Lessons Learned From RepRap

For his graduate thesis, Erik de Bruijn chose as his topic the viability of the Open-Source Hardware model, citing and discussing examples from the RepRap community. From the abstract:

While open source software development has been studied extensively, relatively little is known about the viability of the same development model for a physical object’s design. This thesis addresses this deficit by exploring the extent to which this model is viable for the development of physical objects. It starts with a review of the relevant literature on open source and user innovation communities followed by a case study and survey of the RepRap community.

This community develops a digital fabrication system that can 3D print a large share of its own parts. This allows for a decentralized community to independently produce physical parts based on digital designs that are shared via the internet. Apart from improving the device, dedicated infrastructure was developed by user innovators.

The survey reveals substantial adoption and development of 3D printer technology, comparable to the larger vendors in the industry. RepRap community members arespending between 145 and 182 full-time equivalents and have spent between 382,000and 478,000 dollars on innovation alone. At the RepRap project’s 6 month doubling interval, it is entirely feasible that its adoption and disruptive levels of innovation will exceed that of the incumbent industry. Within the community there is a higher incidence in modifications of hardware than in software, and, surprisingly, hardware modifications are expected to be relatively easier for others to replicate. The level of collaboration is also higher for hardware than for software.

Many RepRap community members possess a fabrication capability that the aver-age person does not have access to. While this does limit the present day generality of the case study findings, there are many reasons to expect a high likelihood of personal access to digital fabrication in the near future. The rapid development and adoption of increasingly affordable, yet more powerful and valuable fabrication technologies and the anti-rival logic of open design allow user-dominant collaborative development to have significant implications for the provisioning of goods in society.

I really like this. It provides a good understanding of what OSHW is about from both a theoretical and practical perspective. Further, the insights into RepRap, its history, and the community around it are very interesting. From a writing standpoint, it’s (naturally) academic, but not difficult to follow or overly dense. If you’re looking for some deep reading over the holidays, you should check it out.

The author has published the article on scribd, as well as a PDF, both of which are linked to from his blog.

Well done!

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1 Comment

  1. I like that the OSHW of RepRap is moving to embrace the subtractive as well as additive manufacturing techniques. Open Source CNC machines are proliferating. How soon till we have some commercially varieties ala Makerbot with good sized router heads? March? June?

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