Thoughts on Open Source Hardware

A Few Positives

Customization

How many times have you run into a product thats 90% there. It may be an environmental chamber, a piece of test gear, or even a production tool. That remaining 10% can be a real annoyance at times. With open source, customers can have a product modified to get that last 10% solved… with closed source, often times pretty weird hacks are necessary as nothing else come close. I’ve seen production equipment hacked to death at times in order to make it do something reliably. Had prints been available, a third party might have been able to step in, or perhaps even the customer themselves could  make a minor modification to a less than obvious function, and be right back in business for less cost, and tons less aggravation.

Orphanization/EOL

The product life cycle can be considered sort of an inverted bathtub curve. In the beginning volumes are low, and unexpected challenges are often pretty rampant. In the middle, the product is rock solid, volumes are up, and costs are down. As a product reaches its end of life, it likely is no longer cost effective for a manufacturer to produce anymore. It may be due to production equipment wearing out, or a lack of institutional knowledge so support said product, or even individual components reaching end of life status. The end result of course is that a product is no longer made, and if you see an ongoing need, you may need to capture a last time buy and put spares in storage, or even search out used ones on ebay. Granted in a majority of cases, on going need ends up to be a non-issue. Most Ink jet printers for example have a finite life, and new models come out every year or two. On the other hand, other products may fall into a niche type industry. For example, some Epson printers are used for cake decorating, ie food grade printable inks… and if Epson were to EOL a printer line without a replacement, a whole industry of food grade printing could be affected. Granted, a printer would be a bear to open source due to its complexity, but the idea of EOL issues affecting more than just a single product is similar. With open source, one is no longer locked into proprietary formats, or the whims of the marketing guys of a sole manufacturer. (Obviously there is good and bad about such a concept… marketing guys like to be sole source and proprietary as that’s where the maximum revenue lies… and it may be the price targets in the open source arena can never compete with closed source due to limited volumes and investment opportunities). Either way, open source reduces some of the risk of EOL and orphanization issues that commonly occur.

Funding

Occasionally potential clients will want a project designed, but lack the financial resources to do so. One workaround for this situation is to fund an existing open source project, where upon I can provide customization services at much less cost than a full blown effort. Another possibility is to rally a number of contributors and build a related open source project, such that only modification is needed, rather than a full blown development effort. Granted there is an IP risk in doing so, but in reality, the largest risk in new product development is marketing, followed by a lack of funding to complete a project. IP risk, while very real, is much less of an issue than the marketing or funding aspects of failures. Open source is one possible way to work around funding shortfalls, and because of lower time commitments, may enable one to get customers involved earlier than later, and thus minimize marketing risk as well.

Time to Market/Risk Mitigation

Time to market is often times a critical factor in new product development. It may be an issue with a market window, ie seasonal, or trade related, or it may be an adjunct product that needs to be available concurrently with another product. Being open source designs most likely have a solid framework, its no longer necessary to reinvent all the wheels. It may well turn out that only incremental changes and/or cosmetic changes are needed, and thus trimming months or in some cases years off the development cycle.

A Few Major Concerns

Business Models

Existing business models built on loss leaders based upon proprietary design/integration wont work. Ie, sell the printer or game console at cost or at a loss, and make it up on the consumables.

Service and support are anathema to most existing business models, where as they are the life blood of open source revenue streams. Of course, there is the aspect of whether customers will pay for said service and support.

Economy of scale

The economy of scale may not be there to meet the customers pricing demands. Ie, when a single manufacturer tools up to build 100K units, there is the potential for significant cost savings, in contrast with 100 manufacturers each building 1000 units a year.

Investors

Investors may be wary of giving away the farm, ie the huge growth possible in a narrow channel is distributed across many. It will require a different approach.

Open Source Project Verification and Support

I’m a firm believer in open source software as well as hardware, yet, I see a real need for qualification of the projects, especially as it concerns hardware. There are just too many half complete open source projects out there, or worse, 3d rendered vaporware that looks so good, its very difficult to tell if its real or not.

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