An introduction to open hardware communities

A field recognition guide

As an introduction to the open hardware world, we think it is important to have a general view of the landscape. The growth of open hardware during the last decade has been so impressive that it is easy to get lost in the numerous communities, platforms, documentation guidelines, and wonderful diversity of projects out there.

As with many other communities and movements, the practice of sharing the designs of hardware was happening out there before the label “open hardware” emerged. Ham radio enthusiasts, artists, community scientists, scientists in academia, open innovation practices in business… Are only some examples of early open hardware practitioners. You may find this a bit confusing, as for example you can find that some business or more product-oriented practices use sometimes the term “open design” or “open source innovation” for things that look like open hardware.

Definitions and licenses

One of the acronyms you will hear often is OSHWA, the Open Source Hardware Association. Born in 2012, OSHWA is the home of the Open Source Hardware definition created in 2010. It is a US-based non-profit that also hosts the annual Open Hardware Summit, and maintains the Open Source Hardware certification program.

As OSHWA mentions in its brief history of open hardware:

[…] open source hardware only became known as such in the last decade. This was mostly due to the rise of the internet, which made sharing hardware designs possible, the commercial success of open source software, which gave it public visibility, and the decrease in cost of production tools, which made it feasible.

To define its core values, the open hardware community drew inspiration from other communities working in similar spaces: the open source and free software movements, the ham radio tradition, the Homebrew Computer Club and hacker culture in general. At the same time, more specific communities working on open hardware for a particular use case (more about this later) take OSHWA’s definition as a reference (and so do us, in Open Hardware Makers).

Another acronym you will frequently hear about is CERN. And yes, we are talking about the european organization for nuclear research. As early as 2008 a team at CERN started developing open hardware, emulating the practices of open source software teams. This work resulted in important early achievements, such as the open hardware repository and later on the CERN Open Hardware License (CERN-OHL). We’ll learn more about this one and other licenses in module 6.

Communities and platforms

Some open hardware projects and their communities became so popular that you will hear about them, or the paradigm they represent, really often. One of these examples is Arduino, which enabled thousands to prototype electronic designs in an accessible way. Another example of incredibly active people is the 3D printing community, where you can find contributors everywhere working on models that go from the first RepRap to one of its current popular grand-grand-daughters, Prusa.

Other communities gather around the field of application of what they are building. You will hear often about the Do It Yourself (DIY) or “maker” community, tweaking and creating designs for hobbist or educational purposes. When it comes to science, the Global Open Science Hardware (GOSH) community brings together people in or outside academia building tools for science and education. Networks like Hackteria gather lots of artists working with open hardware and DIY biology, while platforms like Appropedia collect open designs of tools for sustainable living. Open hardware is also growing more everyday in business applications, with early foundational projects like OpenCores, but also with more and more small businesses that in different domains recognize the value of openness for creating better products.

Online communities also form around platforms for sharing designs (Hackaday, Instructables, Hackster, KitSpace, etc) or tools needed for designing and building hardware. We will dive more into the specifics on module 4.

The diversity is huge and may feel a bit overwhelming in the beginning, but no worries: we will help you to connect your project and ideas to this super active world. Contributing to projects you like is one of the best ways to introduce yourself to the community!

Assignment: Cool open hardware projects

As part of the consultation process that gave origin to this curriculum, we asked experts to mention open hardware projects that they feel are key to the community.

Take a look at the list here and feel free to contribute your own projects!

  • Read through the list and pick a project you find interesting
  • Write 2-3 reasons why you think the project is interesting, and be ready to share with your peers in the next cohort call


next: Open Hardware Pathways  

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