Electronic Design
Open-Source Hardware Opens New Opportunities

Open-Source Hardware Opens New Opportunities

  Although open-source hardware has largely been seen as existing at the simpler end of the electronics design spectrum, it embraces two major assets within the engineering community—goodwill and collective intelligence—and is being recognised as an important movement with increasing opportunities across both industry and education.

Open-source hardware (OSHW) concerns hardware design that is publicly available for anyone to study, modify, distribute, make, or sell, or hardware based on that design. The design must be available in the preferred format for making modifications. Also, there must be no discrimination against fields of endeavour.

As a movement OSHW is much younger than free and open-source software (F/OSS), but it has similar origins. It came about via niche applications and tools designed for engineers or programmers or for those with a different take on existing technology.

Open-source software is now fairly well understood. It is furnished under liberal license and comes with many benefits. For example, there are no licensing fees. Users aren’t held subject to vendor-driven software upgrades. Maintenance liability is shared. Source-code peer review is widespread. And, resources are combined to solve problems. The approach to development and licensing not only results in significantly more affordable software for enterprise applications, but it also is considered to be a smarter way to do things.

While F/OSS is well established, it is still early days for OSHW. There are many similarities between the two, but there are also some key differences. The model for OSHW collaboration is certainly not as advanced. Compatibility of design tools is just one issue, unlike editing source code in a text editor in the software world. Therefore, significantly fewer entities are creating and contributing to the development of hardware designs, compared to those using them.


Like software, licensing is important in OSHW. Many open-source electronics projects will have both hardware and software elements and may provide design artefacts such as schematics, mechanical drawings,bill-of-materials (BOM), printed-circuit board (PCB) layout, hardware description language (HDL) source code, and assembly instructions, along with source code for microcontroller firmware. It is generally advisable to have separate licenses for the hardware and software parts.

A fundamental principle with both F/OSS and OSHW is that the license must not restrict anyone from using the work (including manufactured hardware) in a specific field of endeavour. So, a license cannot restrict a hardware design from being used in a commercial context, for example.


Arguably the greatest success to date in OSHW has been Arduino, primarily because it established a vibrant ecosystem. All the hardware design files were made available, so people could study the design and extend it for their own purposes in a commercial or non-commercial context. These files were combined with an accessible and equally flexible software platform. Arduino has benefited from derivative and complementary third-party hardware and is today a growing brand with a strong reputation for quality.

Following its example, hardware companies are increasingly seeing OSHW as an opportunity to seed the market and educational establishments with their technology. Development kit design files are increasingly available under open-source licenses. And as was the case with software, more reusable components are becoming available.

OSHW also offers significant opportunities to respond to the continual compression of product development cycles. A library of reusable components can form the basis of a technology toolkit for use in prototyping prior to the development of a product for manufacture.

Another approach increasingly being looked at is making a strategic technology openly available, perhaps a new interface standard for a specific application or market, which could result in widespread adoption. Rather than thinking of it as giving away intellectual property (IP), more and more companies are looking at the opportunities of providing a design under a liberal license framework for the shared benefit of interoperability or cost reduction.


The economics are not yet as well established as with F/OSS, but OSHW is increasingly finding its way into more diverse markets and applications. CERN is an important example of a leading organization that is fully embracing the concept and has recognized the advantages of sharing open designs with its manufacturing base. Its repository of designs includes ARM-based single-board computers and high-speed data-acquisition cards, which are vital components of the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

A key product example of OSHW is the MakerBot 3D printer, the initial generations of which were entirely based on open-source design. Another high-profile application is the use of the OpenRISC open-source microprocessor in satellites and digital televisions. And in the automotive sector, the OpenXC platform, which is led by Ford, uses open-source hardware and software to enable third-party in-car innovation.

OSHW has not yet played a significant role in the development of leading-edge consumer products, however, although the OpenMoko mobile handset and Novena laptop are perhaps notable moves in that direction.

Role Of Distribution

As OSHW is today largely being used in micro-enterprises making products and tools for specialist markets, distributors such as RS Components have a central role to play in the growth and development of the movement. They are ideally placed to provide the necessary support resources with their heritage of sourcing components, together with expertise in supply chain logistics and assisting with manufacturing and product certifications.

Distribution also has the knowhow and expertise to foster the growth of hardware ecosystems and to provide a platform that helps engineers find co-collaborators. RS now hosts the Open Source Design Centreon designspark.com, the company’s online resource for electronics design engineers.

The design centre brings together many of the elements involved in open-source design in a single easy-to-access reference point, delivering information on issues ranging from licensing guidelines to advice on hardware and software management, and also to encourage active participation in projects.

The Future

Although open-source hardware has to date largely been seen as existing at the simpler end of the electronics design spectrum, it embraces two major assets within the engineering community—goodwill and collective intelligence—and is being recognised as an important movement with increasing opportunities across both industry and education.


A full definition of open-source hardware is available at freedomdefined.org/OSHW.

David Tarrant, head of community development at RS Components, has created, developed, and is growing DesignSpark, a global community for design engineers. He joined RS Components in June 2009 and has more than 25 years experience in the electronics and semiconductor industry. He has a BEng (Hons) degree in electronic engineering.

Andrew Back is a technical communities consultant who specialises in open-source hardware and software. He previously acted as BT’s open-source strategist, establishing company-wide open source policy andrepresenting BT at a number of bodies including the Linux Foundation and ATIS.


Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.