Open Hardware Distribution & Documentation Working Group: Intro

OpenFlexure image by Joel Collins is licensed under CC BY

As practitioners and promoters of open hardware, we envision and work towards a near future where open is the default; where we can easily share designs for accelerating a more inclusive science, medicine, technology.

We know it works. But how do we transcend the open science hardware niche? How can we scale open science hardware manufacturing in a sustainable and distributed way?

In this series we document the work of the Open Hardware Distribution and Documentation Working Group. The group aims to produce a proof of concept for distributed OH manufacturing using as starting point a paradigmatic open science hardware case. We hope the experience motivates others to discuss and implement new strategies for OScH expansion.

By Shannon Dosemagen

My interest in this topic started a decade earlier during the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. At that time, the seed of what would become Public Lab started with under five open hardware aerial mapping kits and efforts to map an area of about 360 miles, lending bags of equipment to people for monitoring the extent of the spill. The kits included a kite, balloon, point and shoot cameras, a kite reel and laminated instructions. People would contribute from their own supply rubberbands, Qtips (or some other form of shutter depressant), gloves for flying kites/balloons and soda bottles that, when cut, would serve as stabilizing rigs.

During those early days we tested a number of open hardware strategies — locally sourcing, locally modifying (based on weather conditions, wear and tear, etc.) quick replacement of parts when something broke, and the ability to make the kits more accessible. We also learned that some people didn’t want to go through the process of sourcing all their own components, though others did and needed good documentation. We synthesized these initial learnings in a “civic science kit” program supported by crowdfunding campaigns, which took a large amount of energy and in the long term were difficult to sustain as part of the financial model.

After quite some time in the open science hardware (OScH) community, I know this story isn’t unique to just one organization — navigating the initial seed funding to get a product off the ground or fitting in production and distribution among numerous daily activities can be as difficult as understanding legal requirements, learning about business models and aligning documentation efforts necessary for growth. We’ve all mainly been learning as we go.

Together with people from the Gathering for Open Science Hardware (GOSH) community and the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA), we’ve started a working group that will be picking at some of these issues, sharing what we’ve all learned so far through different experiences. Instead of approaching it from a meta-level “we solve all the big things at once”, we’re going to be focusing on one case study: OpenFlexure.

The group has a short term goal of a proof of concept around OpenFlexure, but a longer-term vision around enabling sustainable distributed manufacturing (and all that it entails, keep reading) in OScH. We aim to open a pathway for more OScH projects to have greater impact and use in the real world. Some of the questions we’re interested in include, how do we ensure the creators/developers get an equitable distribution of the value in a distributed rather than centralized production system? What are the incentives and strategies for the manufacturing community to drive quality and innovation in the process? How can we ensure the products meet quality standards so that scientists and others can trust the data that they produce?

We are not starting the discussion with a blank slate; the core components and categories we will be working on include:

  • Investing in shared development tools for distributed manufacturing- Creating common legal, documentation, and QA / QC toolchains
  • Testing this manufacturing process with a use case to identify opportunities and strategies
  • Identifying business models and operational agreements for small-scale manufacturing projects

In this blog series we will be documenting our bi-weekly discussions and progress, and we will be sharing it through our networks for comments, thoughts and feedback on each component. In the coming weeks, you can expect to see some of our thinking about these questions, including how to translate value systems into concrete instruments such as standards and distribution agreements, QA/QC toolchain options, documentation practices and trademarks.

We will also do our best to bring experts from other communities into the conversation and share their perspectives. We’re a small group with a variety of backgrounds and expertise working on this proof of concept, hoping that sharing out will provide a place for broader input, and truly excited about its future prospects.

Journal of Open Hardware, an Open Access initiative run by the Global Open Science Hardware community and published by Ubiquity Press.