The Viability of Open Design

Erik de Bruijn

The RepRap digital fabrication system can 3D print a large share of its own parts. In fact, it reproduces almost 90% of the really important mechanical parts that convey most knowledge. The other 10% is the hot end and the main electronic boards for motor control.

This allows for a decentralized community to independently produce physical parts based on digital designs that are shared via the internet. Apart from improving the device, dedicated collaboration infrastructure  ARCHITECTURE was developed by user innovators. Examples of such infrastructure include Thingiverse, a web-based design sharing platform, and CloudSCAD, a web-based Solid 3D CAD Modeller.

While open source software development has been studied extensively, relatively little is known about the viability of the same development model for a physical object’s design. To remedy this knowledge deficit, a case study and survey of the RepRap community was conducted (n=386). 1

There is substantial adoption and development of open 3D printer technology,  PRINTING even when compared to unit sales of the largest vendors in the 25-year-old industry. RepRap community members are spending between 145 and 182 full-time equivalents and have spent between 382,000 and 478,000 US dollars on innovation alone. At the RepRap project’s six-month doubling interval, it is entirely feasible that its adoption and disruptive levels of innovation will exceed that of the incumbent industry.

Open design and open source software also share many similarities. Design information can be digitally encoded and transmitted much like software code. The motivation to develop or improve software or a physical object may be induced partly by the ability to benefit from its use. In the context of this study, another important similarity is that, both in open source software and open design, the tools to practice open source development are often user-developed as well.

Within the community, there is a higher incidence in modifications of hardware than in software, and, surprisingly, hardware modifications are expected to be relatively easier for others to replicate. The level of collaboration  CO-CREATION is also higher for software than for hardware.

Open source physical design, also known as open design, differs from open source software in that it has an embodied manifestation. This has implications for dissemination of the related knowledge and the logistics of this manifestation that has led observers to think that open design is fundamentally different. Moreover, OSS differs from open design in terms of the maturity of its licenses.

Personal Fabrication

In the research, special attention is given to the role of the capability provided by digital fabrication, and their effect on the ability to collaborate. It affects the cost of development, production, reproduction  REPRODUCTION and distribution of physically embodied innovations. While artefact-embodied tacit knowledge influences the locus of innovation, the implications of this ‘embodiment’ can be mitigated. Results from the survey indicate higher levels of sharing, collaboration and even a perceived higher replicability for hardware, when compared to software. This supports the notion that personal fabrication tools can play an important role to enable distributed activity in open design.

Through Thingiverse, 1,486 designs of physical objects have been shared in the last six months. Also, more than 10,000 objects were independently manufactured by its members’ machines. While already substantial, this level activity exhibits similar exponential growth characteristics.

In offering its tools, infrastructure and incentives, the RepRap community uses the open source development methodology to design physical objects, achieving great success and promoting democratization of the process. The extensibility of this phenomenon has many implications. Obtaining the digital design for a product becomes increasingly attractive compared to having to acquire the physical object.  BLUEPRINTS This is partly due to logistics of physical objects, involving lead-times and transport costs.

Many RepRap community members possess a fabrication capability that the average person does not have access to. While this does limit the present-day generality of the study’s findings, there are many reasons to expect a high likelihood of personal access to digital fabrication in the near future. The rapid development and adoption of increasingly affordable, yet more powerful and valuable fabrication technologies and the anti-rival logic of open design allow user-dominant collaborative development to have significant implications for the provisioning of goods in society.

  1.  Erik de Bruijn conducted his study entitled ‘On the viability of the Open Source Development model for the design of physical object: Lessons learned from the RepRap project’ together with Jeroen de Jong (EIM and Erasmus University Rotterdam) and Eric von Hippel (MIT Sloan School of Management). Available online at , accessed 19 November 2010.
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