Open source can be a key ingredient for the distribution of technology and has proven successful in software. The idea has also gained interest in the field of hardware over the last two decades; yet its development appears slow. Not only vary tooling, raw materials, standard parts, and manufacturing expertise widely across geographical locations. Projects tend to fork rather than to converge, leading to partial and local optimisations. Recent research with fab labs and makers therefore studies communities, business models, and business life cycles, rather than just technology. Such an approach increases the utility of open-source hardware as intermediary technology.
During the initial phases of the global Covid pandemic when large parts of society were shut down by governments all over the world and global supply chains collapsed, a design global, manufacture local system to produce personal protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers sprang into life, albeit transitory. The Venturi Valve, the Decathlon Easybreath mask convertor and ultimately the Prusa Face Shield which we produced at our lab as part of this demonstration of distributed solidarity1 became the symbols of this development: a demonstration of the utility of open-source hardware in a novel socio-technical configuration that fostered connecting and making in a technical and profoundly social way as a new model of international cooperation and appropriation.2
Cooperation, historically, has been at the core of technology development – the first airplanes, early steel manufacturing, computer programmes – before aggressive patenting and copyright regimes prohibited the sharing of technical concepts. In software, developers started to counter this effect by establishing open-source licensing to reenable code sharing. Indeed, some of the major softwares powering the internet are open source, such as the Linux operating system, the Apache web server, or the somewhat infamous Log4J project.
While sharing of designs amongst amateurs remained common form, open-source principles only started to be applied to hardware and design in the first decades of the twenty-first century3. Open-source hardware projects started in microelectronics and computer hardware, often in science and education. Other areas such as cars, cargo bikes and office furniture followed. More recently, the German Institute for Standardization (DIN) published a formal definition of “Open Source Hardware” through the DIN SPEC 3105.
However, the development of open-source hardware appears slow. There are many reasons that might explain this. Tooling and manufacturing expertise vary widely. Raw materials, such as steel, and standard parts like nuts, bolts, and sheet material are different across geographical locations. Metric and imperial measures need conversion and parts don’t mix easily. Also, as engineers and designers disagree on the choice of technical solutions, open-source hardware projects tent to fork rather than converse. The multitude of 3D printers developed on the base of the original Rep Rap project is a striking example. Partial and local optimisations, rather than a global standard, are the consequences.
Obviously, it is more than just the technical side of open-source technologies that contributes to their global relevance and meaningful contribution. Scientists have started to study open-source hardware entrepreneurs, companies and initiatives. They inquired into how these projects organized themselves. The results of these studies can be summarized along three lines.
- The first line highlights that in open-source projects the value creation cycle consists of value generation, preservation and appropriation, rather than value creation, delivery and extraction. In that respect, open-source technologies can be treated and governed as a commons. 4
- The second line stresses the importance of looking beyond the focal firm when designing the business model. Many projects include both upstream (suppliers) and downstream (customers) into their value creation activities5 and relate these activities from the middle ground of an open-source project to the institutional upper ground and the individual underground. Some authors call these community-based business models6.
- The third line emphasizes that open-source projects often engage in different business model patterns simultaneously, and that the complexity of the combination of business model patterns increases as projects mature7.