The Real Open Source Hardware Revolution

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I recently wrote about the latest iteration of the Open Source Hardware Definition, which provides a framework for crafting open hardware licences. It's a necessary and important step on the road towards creating a vibrant open source hardware movement. But the kind of open hardware that is commonly being made today – things like the hugely-popular Arduino - is only the beginning.

Current projects in the open hardware world typically involve large physical elements: there are no analogue “bits” that can be manipulated individually, as in software. But that is precisely what the world of 3D printers offers: if not quite at the atomic level (although that may come one day), control is possible at the microscropic scale.

Of course, such 3D printers need not be open source: their designs and software might well be closed. But the advantages of a truly open 3D printer are the same as for open source software: it allows others to modify and improve on its ideas so that everyone can then benefit and build on it once more, constantly pushing forward the project.

Probably the leading open source 3D printer is RepRap (short for "replicating rapid prototyper"):

RepRap is a free desktop 3D printer capable of printing plastic objects. Since many parts of RepRap are made from plastic and RepRap can print those parts, RepRap can be considered a self-replicating machine - one that anyone can build given time and materials. It also means that - if you've got a RepRap - you can print lots of useful stuff, and you can print another RepRap for a friend...

As you can see from this, RepRap is much more than just an open hardware project: it is a *recursive* open hardware project, (almost) capable of producing itself. That clearly places it in a different class from other systems, because it opens up the possibility of spawning huge numbers of these machines, independently of current manufacturing structures – just as GNU/Linux provides a free software framework for producing yet more free software.

In truth, RepRap is not yet completely self-replicating, but there are moves afoot to achieve this. For example, the Foresight Institute, whose mission is “to ensure the beneficial implementation of nanotechnology”, is offering a Personal Manufacturing Prize to help bring this about:

The RepRap project is a self-replicating machine that could provide a disruptive influence in democratizing access to the manufacturing of commodities. An incentive-driven approach to the invention of such a technology at suitable cost targets would yield the maximum benefit.

The key resistance points are presently the percentage of the self-replicated machine that can be replicated by a parent machine, and the availability of a suitable material that is sufficiently low in cost. Until the overwhelming majority of the machine’s parts are self-replicated, the true benefits are not yielded, and until the material used is inexpensive enough to surpass the cost barriers met by high-volume mass production, self-replicating machines are not fully competitive.

There will be two Personal Manufacturing prizes, awarded by a panel of judges. The first ‘interim’ prize of up to $20,000 with an award date of December 31, 2012, and the second ‘grand’ prize of up to $80,000 with an award date of December 31, 2015.

Interestingly, the prize conditions emphasise the open and collaborative nature of the project:

Participating teams are expected to regularly publish and make available their technology on an ongoing basis. All technology developed by participating teams becomes open source under a GPL or BSD license. Therefore, the winning team will have to have published at least some of their innovations more than 12 months before the deadline.

(Note that the RepRap Project itself is licensed using the GPL, so any entry derived from that is constrained also to use the GPL. Any entry not derived from the RepRap Project can use either license.)

It is expected that participating teams will borrow each others’ better innovations during the development process. The committee reserves the right to apportion the Grand Prize amongst teams should such borrowed technology comprise a major portion of the winning entry.

The Foresight Institute competition emphasises the enormous impact that self-replicating 3D printers could have on manufacturing in the developing world:

An industrial infrastructure to provide the products and employment that elevates illiterate and semi-literate people in emerging economies to an intermediate level of human development can take decades to build. With the success of China in assimilating so much of the global economy’s low-cost manufacturing output, many of the world’s poorest nations have no opportunity to construct and secure their own manufacturing sector. Hence, this stage of human upliftment has become a chasm that many nations are finding difficult to cross.

But if manufacturing itself can be brought to the scale that cottage industries operate in, then the scale of Chinese mass-manufacturing is no longer a requirement to be cost competitive. A technology that removes the fixed costs and volume necessities associated with heavy manufacturing can reduce the barriers to entry for the manufacturing of many commodity goods, and drive costs to unprecedented lows.

This, of course, is precisely what a self-replicating 3D printer could achieve.

But the knock-on effects of such a machine go much further, as the man who came up with the idea of the RepRap project, Adrian Bowyer, has explained in a splendid essay entitled “Why Accountants are Dull and Guitarists are Glamorous - The End of Intellectual Property”:

copyright is sublimating away under the twin fires of ease-of-copying and people's desire to give their creations away rather than have them remain obscure. But what of patents? Copying an iPod is not nearly as easy as copying tunes into it.

However, 3D printing will completely replace vast swathes of conventional manufacturing processes as it becomes less costly. And what will really drive the cost through the floor is 3D printers that print 3D printers, like RepRap. Conventional manufacturing produces goods in an arithmetic progression. But a self-copying 3D printer produces goods - and itself - in a geometric progression. And, no matter how slow it is, any geometric progression overtakes every arithmetic progression, no matter how fast, eventually.

The self-copying 3D printer will be something cheap enough for individuals to own and be something they can copy for their friends. When everyone can print almost any device or machine the same will happen to the idea of patents as has happened to music copyright.

Is that revolutionary enough for you?

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