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Glyn Moody

Glyn Moody's look at all levels of the enterprise open source stack. The blog will look at the organisations that are embracing open source, old and new alike (start-ups welcome), and the communities of users and developers that have formed around them (or not, as the case may be).

3D Printing's Next Revolution: Linux

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3D printers may be trendy, but they are hardly new. One of the earliest of all is the RepRap project, which began back in 2005. As its name implies - it’s short for “replicating rapid” prototyper – RepRap is designed to be able to produce copies of itself, or at least most of its parts. Not only that, it is completely open source, both in terms of its hardware (which uses Arduino kit) and software.

Because of its open nature it has gone on to form the basis of many other 3D-printing systems, including those from MakerBot. A new model from the company breaks important new ground, as explains:

Brooklyn based 3D printer manufacturer MakerBot has launched pre-sales for the second of three Replicator models that appear to be the world’s first commercial 3D printer based on embedded Linux. Almost all 3D printers are compatible with Linux desktops, just as they are with Windows and the Mac, and many, if not most, offer open source hardware and software designs. However, aside from some Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone hacks, the MakerBot Replicator Mini Compact appears to be the first to run embedded Linux.

Like text printers, 3D printers are essentially peripherals — you create a design on the PC and hit print. Consequently, Linux and the pricier processors it requires have been deemed overkill. Yet, we’re likely to see more Linux-based 3D printers for the same reason there have been a growing number of advanced text printers that run Linux or Android: connectivity. There’s a growing need to connect to the web and the growing ecosystem of 3D printing cloud services, as well as to extend the systems with wired peripheral connections.

By adding embedded Linux to 3D-printing systems, they become standalone. That, in its turn, could well help to make them more mainstream, since most people will not be interested in fiddling with computers as well as printers: they will want a very simple-to-use system that lets them press a few buttons and then print out objects.

Linux is perfect for this role, here as elsewhere: it’s cheap (as in free), powerful, stable, secure and customisable. It’s why practically every digital device that could be sensibly upgraded to include a complete computer will opt for Linux: there’s simply no competition. That’s good news for the Linux ecosystem: it means that there will be more tools for writing the relevant code, and more jobs for the people that do so.

But it also brings with it a responsibility. Embedded code is generally simply loaded up and then forgotten. That means vulnerabilities are frozen in, just waiting to be exploited – something that becomes more likely by the day, as more and more “things” are connected to the Internet (and that’s even before we start building a real “Internet of things”.) As Linux continues to expand its reach the community needs to start thinking seriously about how these kind of systems can be routinely updated so as to patch vulnerabilities – and prevent them becoming somebody else’s Internet of things...

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