Published 4 November 2021 by Lukas Winter
Open Source Hardware: The Benefit of Sharing Knowledge
Open source software is well established, and the principle of open access is becoming increasingly prevalent in science. Not least through open science initiatives such as the Lindau Guidelines. But the use of open source hardware – the publication of data on physical objects – is also expanding. Lindau Alumnus Lukas Winter, who contributed to a recently published policy brief by the initiative Gathering for Open Science Hardware, on the benefits of this development:
Open Hardware transfers the concept of open source to the hardware – blueprints, part lists, instructions and construction files are published under an open license. Everyone has the right to use this information for own projects, to adapt it and even to use it for commercial purposes. This approach can provide real added value for science by saving on investment in expensive devices, laboratory equipment or long development times.
Advantages for Science and Society
This creates a fairer baseline for researchers worldwide who can focus more quickly on their projects and the scientific progress, since information on experimental setups and materials is already provided. High-quality microscopes are a good example. You can download good manuals, which contain a list of the mechanical components, information on the construction, a list of the prefabricated parts including the costs and open source software. This includes additional safety notes e.g. for electronics. For projects that are implemented with 3D printing, there are CAD-files that allow you to quickly reprint components. The cost of materials for a replica of open source hardware is usually only one tenth of the cost of a commercial device, if it is available on the market at all. In addition, one has the advantage of being able to maintain, improve and adapt this replica to the desired scientific application. If you don’t want to build something yourself, there are also companies already that offer ready-assembled open source hardware. Of course these products have all the advantages of a transparent design as mentioned previously.
Sharing information not only supports science, but also enables to rethink areas such as healthcare and improves its processes. For example, an open source hardware stethoscope was developed by a medical doctor practising in the Gaza Strip. This stethoscope shows similar performance to current gold standard stethoscopes that cost about 200€. The open source hardware version, which is approved as a medical device, can be purchased for about 26€ only. With a 3D printer at hand, the open source stethoscope can be rebuild for material costs of only 5-6€. This enables many more people, especially people in resource-poor areas, to have affordable but also fast access to technology that is sometimes vital.
My Way Into Open Source Hardware
I came into contact with the idea of open source hardware through my work as a PhD student in medical technology. The project for my doctoral thesis dealt with developments in the field of ultra-high-field MRI. This technology is so complex and expensive that only a small percentage of the global population benefits from it, which consequently means that the impact of my research in this area is also very limited. This motivated me to change direction and think beyond my small research bubble. Even the “normal” MRI scanners are not very homogeneously distributed around the world, so many patients do not have access to them. This is not only due to expensive technology, but also to market monopolies and lack of transparency. However, if the knowledge and data needed to build, operate, maintain and allow an MRI scanner to be made publicly available according to local regulations, many more devices could be built and operated locally with the support of a global community of experts. Such a model would reduce the burden on health systems in the long term, even in resource-rich regions.
In my job at the National Metrology Institute of Germany (PTB), I work with many fellow researchers around the world to test this hypothesis by building a low-cost low-field MRI, which will be published as open source hardware. First in-vivo images of an MR scanner prototype have already been acquired by our cooperation partners in the Netherlands.
But open source hardware is also strategically important across projects. In a different area I’m researching methods to improve MR safety. The technologies we develop in our lab are easier transferable to other scientific and industrial applications, if we share the information openly. For example in the development of medical devices complex safety testing procedures are required. Access to existing knowledge speeds up existing processes and boosts innovations. Open source hardware thus has an enormous value for society as a whole.
The Future Belongs to Shared Knowledge
I am sure that the concept of open source hardware will prevail over the long term, similar to what we have observed over the last few decades with open source software. Of course, the infrastructure needs to be built. The process of how and where data is uploaded, structured and documented is currently evolving and being optimised. We have taken the first steps towards standardisation and certification of open source hardware. Databases are created to to easier find particular project information. Further developments of these projects and examples of possible applications can also be found there. Many companies have recognised the benefits of open source hardware and do not see this movement as a competition. This is also due to the very active community, which discusses issues, helps each other, and develops the idea of global shared knowledge – I’m happy to be a part of it.