Open Source Hardware Companies Blend Altruism With Bottom Line

Dec 10, 2014

It's very easy for open source users around the world to collaboratively share data and files to modify software. Everyday examples include products like Mozilla Firefox and Chromium which allow users to modify, study, deconstruct and even distribute the programs in a collaborative way with no worry of patent or warranty infringement.

Jeff Moe, founder and CEO of Aleph Objects, a 3D printer company, wants to do the same with hardware.

"Instead of people mailing around C code files, they're mailing around circuit boards, they're mailing building materials, they're sharing this information with the customers who are finding newer and better and cheaper parts and improving on them," said Moe.

Moe's three year old company, which is set to unveil a completely open source 3D printer called the LulzBot Mini, has neither patents, nor proprietary information in the general sense. All of Aleph's intellectual data - from blueprints to schematics to factory floor plans - are completely open for public use. Moe said doing that actually makes good business sense.

"We have our team of R and D, researchers and developers, but then we have this whole world that we're working with as well," Moe said. "And they are testing so many different things, and we are basically working with these communities, and what it winds up doing is allowing us to develop much faster than in traditional methods."

At the heart of open source hardware development is the idea that a company's design and manufacturing process is done out in the open, and in most cases, collaboratively with end users. The goal is to create a better product, together. Those roots can be traced back to software hacking groups of the early '80s when computers were shipped in kits, or even earlier with the ham radio community that shared amateur engineering schematics and ideas.

The LulzBot Mini 3D printer will be released next year. Right now, it's making thousands of mini "Rocktopus" models.
Credit Nathan Heffel / KUNC

Alicia Gibb, executive director of the Boulder-based Open Source Hardware Association, said the idea of open sourcing was actually quite prevalent more than 100 years ago. Remember a time when you could buy something and it came with a repair manual?

"Everything came with a way to fix it," Gibb said. 'There were ample parts out there to be able to fix it yourself."

Gibb said repair guides were in the public marketplace to fix things like cars and washing machines and products were much easier to modify to suit specific needs. But today, that's largely not the case.

"We're really moving into this field where everything is under patent, and nobody wants you opening everything up," Gibb said. "People feel you're going to void the warranty. There's an interesting concept that people feel you're going to get into trouble if you're going to open your hardware."

That has created an opportunity in the market for companies like Aleph Objects and the ten other open source hardware companies in Colorado to create products that not only allow, but actively encourage modification and exploration.

“The fact that they may be able to fix it easier, the fact that they might be able to build off it easier, the fact that they might be able to create a business out of something that they haven't even thought of before," said Gibb.

Colorful boxes hold SparkFun product at the company's headquarters in Niwot, Colorado.
Credit Nathan Heffel / KUNC

  The question remains, how can a company make money off a product, if its design is non-proprietary and open for anyone to modify, copy, and produce?

Lara Boudreaux, spokeswoman for the 11-year-old company SparkFun Electronics based in Niwot, said that doesn't happen very often.

"Customers aren't really in the business of copying just for the sake of copying," Boudreaux said. "It's much cheaper to buy from SparkFun then it is to take our PCB design and try to manufacture a PCB yourself in small batches. It's just not cost effective."

Boudreaux said in-depth customer support and tutorials offered by SparkFun are what keeps users coming back.

The company also allows both SparkFun designers and the public to openly discuss technical concerns and ideas on their website, meaning the community tests the product  which speeds up modifications and corrections to product lines. Boudreaux said that not only benefits the customer, but also the bottom line.

"It allows us to innovate, because as we see designs being copied frequently and maybe it's being more of a commodity and you can buy it anywhere, we've got to make the next best thing," she said. "So it keeps us on our toes."

Aleph Objects founder Jeff Moe believes concerns surrounding patents and copyright entanglements may complicate the broadening of open source hardware development across the country. However, the altruistic idea that open collaboration and profits can coexist is truly good for his business.

"We're basically trying to create a public commons of hardware, right? You know, like Wikipedia has created a commons of knowledge, right? And so there's going to be a commons of components and parts and XLR connectors and there's going to be all these types of things that people are sharing. And we just want to expand that."

He may be on to something. Moe said his company is on track to make $4 million by the end of the year.