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About Open Hardware

From OHO - search engine for sustainable open hardware projects

What is Do it Yourself, Open Hardware and Open Source Hardware?

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Do it Yourself refers to the handicraft production of products by private individuals or smaller groups, usually without a commercial background.

The term "open (source) hardware" is based on the term "open (source) software" and refers to technical developments and inventions that are not protected by companies through patents or other protective rights. The developers are often individuals, non-profit organizations, or small businesses who make their knowledge freely available to others.

Open hardware and open-source hardware are often used as synonyms, although open-source hardware usually uses stricter criteria. According to the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) definition, open-source hardware (OSH) is "hardware whose blueprints have been made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, redistribute, and make and sell it and hardware based on it".

The four essential requirements for open-source hardware are:

  • Use: Anyone can use it
  • Understand: All the important information to be able to understand it must be available.
  • Distribute: Anyone can distribute it
  • Improve: Anyone can improve it

In order to fulfill these requirements, complete technical documentation is necessary, because without it, points 2-4 cannot be fulfilled. The technical documentation usually consists of:

  • CAD files
  • Technical drawings, e.g. in PDF format
  • Parts lists
  • Optional: Documentation of electrical and electronic components
  • Optional: software

Open source hardware compared to open source software

In open-source software projects, the product and the documentation are identical: the program code is both the end product and the common international language for documentation and communication between developers. The documentation requires only a minor additional investment of time. This is why a large worldwide community has developed in a relatively short time and why open source software is also very successful from an economic point of view.

In open-source hardware projects, product and documentation are two different things: The realization of an open-source hardware project requires craftsmanship, material input, and a workshop. The documentation of an open-source hardware project requires a CAD workstation as well as knowledge and experience in CAD systems. However, only a small proportion of OSH developers have the knowledge and experience of the latter, even these often cannot afford the relatively high additional workload for clean documentation.

This is an important reason why open-source hardware, in contrast to open source software, does not (yet) play a really relevant role socially and economically.

Significance of open source software

Open-source software now dominates many market segments, such as:

  • Apache for web servers
  • Linux with its distributions as server operating systems
  • WordPress as CMS and for blogs
  • The CMS classics Typo3, Drupal, and Joomla
  • PHP as a programming language for web servers
  • etc. etc.

Significance of open source hardware

In contrast, open-source hardware has only a few "lighthouse projects", which have virtually no influence on society as a whole, for example

  • Arduino
  • 3D printers such as RepRap
  • Laser Cutter Lasersaur
  • Tabby OSVehicle
  • Prosthetic Hands by OpenBionics'
  • Wikihouse

There are a few important reasons for this.

What are the problems of Open Source Hardware?

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There are several reasons for the lack of importance of open source hardware:

Problem 1: Documentation

Most open-source hardware or DIY projects are not documented at all or documented incompletely. A complete documentation of a technical solution includes e.g. CAD files, technical drawings, parts lists etc. The creation of these documents is time-consuming and sometimes also requires specialised knowledge, for example in CAD systems. Therefore, it is often neglected in non-commercial projects. However, a lack of documentation means that the projects can neither be used by others, nor copied, nor further developed. There are no synergy effects, the different developments cannot be networked or build on each other.

Problem 2: Licensing and copyright

The number of Do it Yourself projects exceeds the number of Open Hardware projects many fold. Many good projects are not published under free licenses that allow other people to use and develop the projects freely.

Problem 3: Publicity:

OSH and DIY projects are often published on small unknown websites in only one language. For those interested in searching in other languages, those projects are untraceable, also because sometimes inappropriate search terms are used. As a result, they are often only found by a small part of the potentially interested network.

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