Modularity and Community Fuel Open Source Hardware Innovation
Open Source Hardware, or OSH, is defined by the practice of openly sharing documentation that illustrates how to self-make electronic systems. In addition to document sharing, the OSH community strives to create modular electronic building blocks that make it easier for lay enthusiasts to develop their own customized gadgets, like a camera equipped with a GPS or accelerometer. These self-made gadgets then return customized information flows back to the enthusiast. Think of it this way, your Canon camera may not allow you to send photos immediately over WI-FI. These enthusiasts “hack” or re-model the camera using OSH building blocks that in turn, equip the camera with WI-FI functionality. This hacked camera could then upload photos to the web, like a cell phone does.
Consider the planter tool that Tweets the moisture status of the plant’s soil and nudges the owner to water. Or consider Bug Labs, who provides a consumer friendly electronic platform that can be customized into the desired end functionality. Using modules like GPS, mp3 player, and camera, each user can customize the exact gadget they desire, at any time. No longer are consumers chained to the product offerings of large electronics manufacturers.
Recently, I had the pleasure of interacting with leaders in the Open Source Hardware field. OSH builder and E-commerce outlet Spark Fun, gadget gurus Bug Labs, industry publication Make Magazine, and AdaFruit. All contributed to a rich discussion on how OSH creates value by lowering barriers to category entry for enthusiasts.
OSH starts with sourcing of widely available and cheap electronic parts, such as microprocessors, and modularizing outputs, like the Arduino chipboard, that can then be widely used to make new products. Consider this fact, microprocessors that were once the centerpiece of high powered computing devices in the late 90s and early 00s are now widely available for pennies. These chips possess enough power to the drive basic computing functions. Combined with clever thinking and engineering, these processors can be put to use in ways that create new value. Like the Lilypad, which is a micro controller designed to be woven into fabrics. As an example, the Lilypad controller could be used to power LED displays on clothing.
Communities don’t want to be used, they want to be fed. – Peter Semmelhack, CEO Bug Labs
Communities of enthusiasts are involved at every turn in OSH, sharing new ideas, applications, and suggestions to manufacturers and other enthusiasts. Spark Fun interacts with their community by asking for feedback and input on new designs and prototypes. “Sounds simple,” says Spark Fun founder Nathan Seidle. Spark Fun provided a recent example where a customer presented and idea on Monday, and by Wednesday, Spark Fun’s designers were busy putting together a prototype. By using lightweight agreements, Spark Fun is able to connect with customers, collaborate, iterate in a matter of weeks. By comparison, mass produced chip development cycles take months and years to play out. Community not only reduces the discovery cost of “finding” new innovations and applications, but also helps bring the most relevant products to market faster.
OSH is a small but fast growing segment of the consumer electronics industry. By leveraging open innovation models, OSH companies are not only faster to market than their big box competitors, but through their communities, keep development costs low while delivering the most relevant products to their customers.