A new initiative facilitates collaboration in hardware design.
“Designing in an open environment is definitely more fun than doing it in isolation, and we firmly believe that having fun results in better hardware.” It is hard to deny that enthusiasm is inspiring and that it can be one of the factors in the success of any enterprise. The statement comes from the Manifesto of the Open Hardware Repository (OHR), which is defined by its creators as a place on the web where electronics designers can collaborate on open-hardware designs, much in the philosophy of the movement for open-source software. Of course, there is more to this than the importance of enthusiasm. Feedback from peers, design reuse and better collaboration with industry are also among the important advantages to working in an open environment.
The OHR was the initiative of electronics designers working in experimental-physics laboratories who felt the need to enable knowledge-exchange across a wide community and in line with the ideals of “open science” being fostered by organizations such as CERN. “For us, the drive towards open hardware was largely motivated by well meaning envy of our colleagues who develop Linux device-drivers,” says Javier Serrano, an engineer at CERN’s Beams Department and the founder of the OHR. “They are part of a very large community of competent designers who share their knowledge and time in order to come up with the best possible operating system. They learn a lot and have lots of fun in the process. This enables them to provide better drivers faster to our CERN clients,” he continues. “We wanted that, and found out that there was no intrinsic reason why hardware development should be any different. After all, we all work with computers and the products of our efforts are also binary files, which later become pieces of hardware.”
One of the main factors leading to the creation of the OHR was the wish to avoid duplication by simply sharing results across different teams that might be working simultaneously towards the solution of the same problem. Sharing the achievements of each researcher in the repository also results in an improved quality of work. “Sharing design effort with other people has forced us to be better in a number of areas,” states Serrano. “You can’t share without a proper preliminary specification-phase and good documentation. You also can’t share if you design a monolithic solution rather than a modular one from which you and others can pick bits and pieces to use in other projects. The first time somebody comes and takes a critical look at your project it feels a bit awkward, but then you realize how much great talent there is out there and how these people can help, especially in areas that are not your main domain of competence.”
Two years after its creation, the OHR currently hosts more than 40 projects from institutes that include CERN, GSI and the University of Cape Town. Such a wealth of knowledge in electronics design can now be shared under the newly published CERN Open Hardware Licence (OHL), which was released in March and is available on the OHR. “In the spirit of knowledge sharing and dissemination, this licence governs the use, copying, modification and distribution of hardware design documentation, and the manufacture and distribution of products,” explains Myriam Ayass, legal adviser of the Knowledge and Technology Transfer Group at CERN and author of the CERN OHL. The documentation that the OHL refers to includes schematic diagrams, designs, circuit or circuit-board layouts, mechanical drawings, flow charts and descriptive texts, as well as other explanatory material. The documentation can be in any medium, including – but not limited to – computer files and representations on paper, film, or other media.
The introduction of the CERN OHL is indeed a novelty in which the long-standing practice of sharing hardware design has adopted a clear policy for the management of intellectual property. “The CERN–OHL is to hardware what the General Public Licence is to software. It defines the conditions under which a licensee will be able to use or modify the licensed material,” explains Ayass. “The concept of ‘open-source hardware’ or ‘open hardware’ is not yet as well known or widespread as the free software or open-source software concept,” she continues. “However, it shares the same principles: anyone should be able to see the source (the design documentation in case of hardware), study it, modify it and share it. In addition, if modifications are made and distributed, it must be under the same licence conditions – this is the ‘persistent’ nature of the licence, which ensures that the whole community will continue benefiting from improvements, in the sense that everyone will in turn be able to make modifications to these improvements.”
Despite these similarities, the application of “openness” in the two domains – software and hardware – differs substantially because of the nature of the “products”. “In the case of hardware, physical resources must be committed for the creation of physical devices,” Ayass points out. “The CERN OHL thus specifically states that manufacturers of such products should not imply any kind of endorsement or responsibility on the part of the designer(s) when producing and/or selling hardware based on the design documents. This is important in terms of legal risks associated with engaging in open-source hardware, and properly regulating this is a prerequisite for many of those involved.”
The OHR also aims to promote a new business model in which companies can play a variety of roles, design open hardware in collaboration with other designers or clients and get paid for that work. As Serrano explains: “Companies can also commercialize the resulting designs, either on their own or as part of larger systems. Customers, on their side, can debug designs and improve them very efficiently, ultimately benefiting not only their own systems but also the companies and other clients.”
“The fact that the designs are ‘open’ also means that anyone can manufacture the product based on this design – from individuals to research institutes to big companies – and commercialize it. This is one approach of technology transfer that nicely combines dissemination of the technology and of the accompanying knowledge,” adds Ayass. This combining of an innovative business model and the OHL is finding a positive response in the commercial world. “We are very excited because we are proving that there is no contradiction between commercial hardware and openness,” says Serrano, who concludes: “The CERN OHL will be a great tool for us to collaborate with other institutes and companies.”