By Joseph
  Published 17 Apr 2013
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Ever wondered how to make a hardware bartender for mixing cocktails, dubbed Bartendro, which is connected to a wireless network via tablet or smart phone? How to create a video wall using multiple TV screen? Or build a Google Reader but you don’t want to have to learn all about electronics, how they work and everything else geeky and daunting?

Open hardware is your best friend. Why? Because you can be able to do it using a couple of clicks, following a few online blogs and content together with the very active open hardware online community.

Open hardware, which consists of physical artifacts created under the open source movement, makes designs, mechanisms and software programs easily available which can be modified and distributed freely. Under open hardware, this involves access to the mechanical drawings, schematics, bill of materials, printed circuit board (PCB) layout, HDL source code and integrated circuit design.

A picture of Bartendro, a cocktail mixer built using the Raspberry Pi

Following the great success of the open-source movement that began a few decades ago, the open source hardware movement has been rallied up by the increasing access to online information, with documentation dispersed over website, wikis and blogs. Many collaborators have enabled knowledge sharing and rapid prototyping this way bringing about more projects and products rolling out. Consequently, this mashing up of hardware produces new projects has brought about derivative work.


The Raspberry Pi, a $35 mini-computer that runs on the open hardware platform


Take for instance the Raspberry Pi -an incredible palm-size ‘mini’ computer’ that comes with 256MB of RAM and a 700MHz AMI-11 processor which has ports for HDMI, USB, SD cards, 3.5mm audio jack and an RJ-45 ethernet cable. Produced early in 2012, the Raspberry Pi is the first ARM multimedia system-on-chip to have fully open source drivers which allows easier software development and porting, this way enabling RPi users to be able to take full advantage of the system’s hardware.

This access to free and open source software FOSS and hardware, rather than having to create new licenses, has led to an every growing culture global- organizations tend to work towards a shared license which rely on patent law rather than copyright law. This has nurtured a culture of hackers and tinkerers who are making everything from pulse heart rate sensors to video games; the domino effect of open source hardware has been access to a lot of online documentation (sites like Instructables, SparkFun) and increasing contributions. This way, people get to both emulate as well as build upon projects in a collaborative platform. Among these documentation include that made in partnership with Open Source Ecology and Everywhere Tech in a event that brought together interested stakeholders to come up up with an open source hardware documentation platform

Open Hardware Repository was created as a platform that collects open source CAD/CAM files in addition to previously done projects, and this way bring together electronic designs to collaborate on innovations.

African success stories include the Village Telco project- a free and affordable open source device that facilitates voice and data communication on a Wi-Fi network in rural areas, hence giving it the name the “Mesh Potato”. So far, 1500 devices have been sold in about 30 countries, with among its greatest impact been in its use as alternative communication platform for internally displaced persons.

The RepRap, created by Adrian Bowyer, is an open-source 3D printer with the ability to make copies of most of its own structural parts. This low cost, open source printer has the unique feature of the capability to produce its own parts, making it most of its parts using a lasercutter, 3D printer or CNC milling machine.


An image of the RepRap, a DIY 3D printer

The switch to open source has facilitated the spurring growth on projects based on open hardware by having the advantage of alternative hardware and operating systems for both software and hardware developers.

Open hardware had created new platforms for open innovation that could lead onto personal manufacture and micro-manufacturing. As David Li, founder of Xinchejian, states: “Each one of them pulls and pushes each other to produce a very efficient micro-manufacturing ecosystem that can respond to the market fast with very little overhead.”

By making appropriate technology open source, sustainable development can be more readily achieved particularly in emerging markets where a large number of consumer electronic products tend to be imported.

Open hardware nevertheless faces challenges in terms of reducing the costs as well as access to products, the latter of which is felt more in Africa since most of the open hardware is manufacturer in Europe and Asia. Platforms such as the Open Source Hardware Central Bank and KiCad have helped in making open hardware more affordable and this way, increased accessibility. The Open Source Hardware Bank was set up to support and fund open source hardware projects in order for these projects to break even as well as achieve economies of scale.

The world is starting to recognize the role open hardware can play in acting as a catalyst for innovation in developing countries by tapping into the already present ingenuity in the African continent.


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