Hardware design and development traditionally have been shrouded in secrecy, with companies desperate to keep their designs for internal use only. But in a world where sharing and transparency have become the norm, and global collaborative development is no longer just a phrase used by marketers—at least in software engineering—it’s time for things to change.
Hardware engineering needs to take the same open source path as software to enable rapid innovation and progress—but will only be possible when engineers aren’t wasting time reinventing the wheel.
Though open source was initially described as software whose source code is open to public review and use, it has since evolved to describe a set of values and apply to both software and hardware.
Open source tools and their development methodologies have played a critical role in hardware and software engineering and its evolution. These tools have offered possibilities and opportunities that proprietary and commercial off-the-shelf options can rarely compete with. Supported by a diverse and highly active community, open source offers an incredible array of benefits, from flexibility, scalability, and rapid innovation, to improved quality, shorter development cycles, and reduced costs.
Imagine if engineers weren’t constrained by rules obligating them to keep their work secret—how much could be achieved and in how short a time. It would change the face of the world, if hardware designers and developers could collaborate on a global scale to improve and create rather than having to start from the proverbial drawing board every time.
How open source has changed the hardware environment
While open source software is a relatively well-known concept by comparisons, the idea of open source hardware isn’t quite as publicized. In fact, few people are aware that there are quite a few organizations offering open source hardware, which means they have made all information pertaining to their products freely available, including designs and schematics, bill of materials information, and printed circuit board layout data. Generally, open source software is used in the original design, which provides even more benefits.
The driving ideology behind open source hardware is that anyone should have the freedom to:
- Use the device for any purpose.
- Study how it works and make any changes.
- Redistribute the design of the device and the device itself.
- Enhance the design as well as the device and make those improvements freely available to the public so all can benefit.
This allows for the faster evolution of a product thanks to community cooperation. Some examples include Lasersaur, a laser cutter; Simputer, a handheld computer; OpenSPARC, a T1 multicore processor from Sun Microsystems; and Arduino, a microcontroller platform.
Though not as widespread as open source software, open source hardware has numerous advantages and is likely the future of technological advancement.
With open source hardware, engineers from all over the world can collaborate on a project. And, as with anything, the more eyes there are, the easier it is to spot issues and problems. It means less time wasted trying to develop the same technology and more time allocated to progress. Rather than competing against each other in a commercial setting, engineers can work together to develop far more advanced technologies. Such a collaborative environment allows for the discussion of many more ideas than an individual could generate as well as the faster development of methods to implement said ideas.\
This is a completely different environment to what many engineers have been used to. To develop designs and prototypes is a costly endeavor and is usually the result of commercial interests. In other words, engineers develop hardware for companies that want to make money, which generally means freely distributing the designs of the product is not high on their list of priorities. In fact, it ranks about as low as going bankrupt
While competition is a good thing, at least from a consumer’s point of view, much more could be achieved by adopting an open source approach. For example, instead of two engineers working on two processors that do precisely the same thing without knowing what the other is doing, the same resources could be allocated to creating one processor that far exceeds the capabilities of the two individual ones because they could share information.
Open source hardware allows engineers to build on or modify existing foundations that have already been proven effective. It permits one to focus on improvement and progress rather than having to waste time reinventing the wheel. Open source is the key to rapid innovation.
The benefits of open source for businesses
Open source is often considered to be equivalent to providing something for free, which is why some businesses shun the idea. The fact is that open source offers businesses a wide range of advantages and can have a significant impact on their bottom line.
For one, if more businesses adopted an open source approach, their engineers would have more time to innovate and differentiate the product, whether it be hardware or software. Rather than having to work from the ground up, engineers could focus on improving the existing technology. This would result in lower costs, increased innovation, and faster time to market.
Open source also brings other benefits to businesses. Traditionally, proprietary systems have been considered safer and lower risk but things have changed. With open source software, defects can be discovered by a fresh pair of eyes, such as Coverity noticing a series of problems with the Android kernel. In other words, problems are more likely to be discovered and fixed if the public has access to the source code
Quality also increases significantly with open source methodology. Compare a program or a device created by a small group of developers and engineers to one created by thousands of developers and engineers. Furthermore, that software or device will be more in line with what a business or user needs simply because they have been involved in creating it to a certain degree. There is also a greater degree of flexibility, allowing for software and devices to be modified to suit individual needs, resulting in greater efficiency.
One common problem with proprietary products is compatibility with other products, especially in terms of software. However, a system built on open source software eliminates these problems.
Per Vices and Texas Instruments team up to redefine wireless communications
Per Vices will be releasing open source drivers for using Texas Instruments high speed analog-to-digital converters (ADCs), digital-to-analog converters (DACs), and clock conditioner (ADC16DX370, DAC38J84, and LMK04828B, respectively).
The wideband ADC and DAC provide coverage beyond today’s most common bandwidths, extending the longevity of the design. By releasing the drivers, it will allow engineers to quickly design for high speed signals without the need of developing device drivers for interfacing with the high speed ADCs, DACs, and clock conditioner. The drivers have been implemented and currently in use for JESD204B, a high speed data transfer protocol, as demonstrated in the latest software-defined radio, Crimson. The choice of a trending JEDEC standard interface, JESD204B, enables design changes in the selection of ADC/DAC in the future because this is the direction high speed converter vendors are headed with most new releases.
The high dynamic range provided by the 16-bit ADC/DACs is the highest available, making the design suitable for most applications with various dynamic range requirements.
Software-defined radio (SDR) is a radio communication system where components that have been typically implemented in hardware (e.g. mixers, filters, amplifiers, modulators/demodulators, detectors, etc.) are instead implemented by means of software on a personal computer or embedded system. (from Wikipedia)
Per Vices is a provider of innovative hardware and software solutions that allow for the transparent communication with any wireless signal. The company’s products permit different wireless networks to communicate and have the capacity to operate identically to dedicated wireless hardware.
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This article is part of the Open Hardware Connection column coordinated by Jason Hibbets. Share your stories about the growing open hardware community and the fantastic projects coming from makers and tinkers around the world by contacting us at email@example.com.