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Questions for the Future

Even if we continue to improve our practices along the lines suggested in the general principles, it’s not clear what the future holds for open source hardware and personal manufacturing. The pace at which technologies of digital fabrication and embedded computation are evolving shows few signs of slowing down (notwithstanding the impossibility of the exponential growth of Moore’s law continuing forever). The extent to which these improvements will extend the capability of individuals and the possibilities for open source hardware, however, is not so easy to predict. Here are three questions about the future of open source hardware and personal manufacturing—questions that I hope will encourage us to think about the future we’d like to see and to work toward making it a reality:

  • Will the technologies that can be made by individuals keep pace with those produced by large companies? Although technology continues to improve, it doesn’t necessarily do so in ways that are accessible to everyone. As a result, it’s unclear to what extent open source, DIY, and peer production will be able to keep up with the devices that are produced and sold by large companies. While the potential scope of open source hardware continues to expand as technology improves, the gap between it and proprietary products may limit the extent to which it can serve as a feasible substitute for them. We should remember that the decisions we make influence the potential scope of open source hardware. If we encourage manufacturers to make their technologies available, support open tools, make use of open standards, and make our own hardware open source, we can expand that extent to which individuals are able to create, modify, and control the technologies they use in their lives.
  • Will peer production of open source hardware improve? Although there are exceptions, open source hardware currently seems less likely than other domains (e.g., open source software) to involve collaboration between many individuals on a centralized design or repository, in which small contributions are combined together into a complex whole. Although there are many reasons for this pattern, if open source hardware is to thrive, it seems crucial to facilitate better collaboration between large numbers of distributed and diverse individuals. This will require improved tools, more efficient processes, and, perhaps most importantly, a focus on fostering communities that have a shared interest in the development of open source hardware.
  • Will the culture of open source hardware expand to include new people and applications? Although digital fabrication and embedded computation allow for a wide variety of activities and outputs, it’s easy to get caught up in the technologies themselves as opposed to their many contexts and applications. For early adopters, an interest in the technology itself can be helpful, as its uses may not be immediately clear or accessible. Even so, this emphasis on technology for technology’s sake will not appeal to everyone. Thus, as we think about the future of open source hardware, we should remember to not just play with the technology, but also find ways to make it relevant and useful to new people and situations. In part, this evolution may happen naturally as technologies mature and we come to take them for granted, but it also relies on those of us with early access to and expertise in technology to think about how to make it relevant and useful to others.

Depending on the answers to these questions, the future of open source hardware and personal manufacturing may look very different. My hope is that we will find ways to make them increasingly relevant and valuable, by expanding the technologies they can make use of, the collaborations that can produce them, and the applications and contexts to which they can be applied. If our practices can keep pace with the growth of technology, open source hardware should offer a powerful alternative to mass production for the technology in our lives.

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