The role of product lifecycle in open source hardware

The role of product lifecycle in open source hardware


We live in the era of changes. Think about the impact open source software (OSS) made on the software industry for the last 10-15 years. Many things we are using on daily basis today became enabled by open source software. Now, take a deep breath. The story of open source will repeat again, but with hardware. If you haven’t heard about “open source hardware” yet, it is a time for a crash course. Wikipedia article gives you the following definition:

Open-source hardware consists of physical artifacts of technology designed and offered by the open design movement. Both free and open-source software(FOSS) as well as open-source hardware is created by this open-source culture movement and applies a like concept to a variety of components. The term usually means that information about the hardware is easily discerned. Hardware design (i.e. mechanical drawings, schematics, bills of material, PCB layout data, HDLsource code and integrated circuit layout data), in addition to the software that drives the hardware, are all released with the FOSS approach

There are many examples of open hardware today. You can see a list here. It is fascinating an exposure of open source hardware in so many domains. There are many examples today. I wanted to bring one from automotive industry – OpenXC platform. In a nutshell, this is an API for your car to develop vehicle-aware applications.

OpenXC is a combination of open source hardware and software that lets you extend your vehicle with custom applications and pluggable modules. It uses standard, well-known tools to open up a wealth of data from the vehicle to developers. OpenXC is an API to your car – by installing a small hardware module to read and translate metrics from a car’s internal network, the data becomes accessible from most Android applications using the OpenXC library. You can start making vehicle-aware applications that have better interfaces based on context, can minimize distraction while driving, are integrated with other connected services, and can offer you more insight into your car’s operation.

The following video shows an example how OpenXC is used to develop an interesting version of vibrating shift knob.

Reading more about open hardware made me think about software tools used for the development of hardware platforms. It came to me as a comparison to the open source tools for software development. The large amount of software development tools we use today became available only because of open source.

So, here is a question – what tools are used today and will be used tomorrow for development and product lifecycle of open hardware platform? GitHub is widely used today to store data for software, firmware, specifications. The tools for mechanical design are separate. It seems to me a lot of siloed information is distributed between developers, contributors and consumers of open hardware platform – specification, bill of materials, production instructions, quality and testing procedures, etc. What tools can be used to manage this information? The future development of hardware platforms, interfaces and tools will create a demand for product lfiecyclce tools that can be shared and used by the community.

What is my conclusion? Open source hardware is a potentially big thing that can change the existing landscape of manufacturing as we know now. Companies are changing their perspective on IP management and looking how to innovate using open source platforms. It is already happening in many domains and open hardware can become the next big thing here. What software will help to manage open hardware lifecycle? In my view, this questions remains open. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

picture credit Wikipedia article


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  • Yep. Something to watch. Software benefits from being very cheap to implement – you just need a computer and a compiler to make it.

    Hardware has been more costly. Maybe you can do some woodworking but metal and electronics would cost you a lot. Its fun to see the makers pushing down the cost barrier to low cost manufactruing. Could PLM (much like its software cousin, source code management) be far behind?

  • beyondplm

    Mark, thanks for your insight! These are good questions to ask. The cost component is an important element if you think about barrier to enter. However, if I think strategically, I need to think about business model first. In “closed” model, IP ownership is a fundamental basis. Then facilities and entry barrier (cost). Open source models are confirming that there is a potential to build a model without controlling IP. This is where change is coming. Such fundamental changes can transform business models, tools and ecosystem around.

  • You are right, controlling of IP (or not) is the key point.

    I just bet that in the future, it won’t be so much a choice but a requirement to work with non-controlled IP. Its pretty hard to build serious software without some opensource component under the cover. Will product development follow the same path?

  • beyondplm

    Will product development follow “open source” path is the question to ask. It is interesting to see the support of open hardware by large manufacturing companies. If I think about OSS analogy, it partially became possible because of support large software vendors.