On the face of it, open-sourcing my hardware seems an utterly stupid and counter-profit strategy to building a business with a competitive advantage. Why invest my time and energy into a product to then only publish the files so someone can copy me?
There is some truth to that, and I didn’t take the decision to open source my hardware lightly, but there’s a few key compelling reasons that ultimately made this choice very easy for me.
I am just one man
I’m good at what I do however I’m just one guy. I have limited skills, time and energy, and that is reflected in what I design. The hardware I push out can only be as good as I have the time, energy and skills to make them. However if I publish the files, I can use the near-infinite brain power of the entire world. A software developer in Ghana; A networking engineer in Ukraine. Skilled people from around the world can take the hardware I design, improve it, tweak it, and put their own brain power into making it better.
It becomes possible to have an entire community of smart people working on the hardware I’m developing. Sure I could pay people to do that, avoiding the need to open source the hardware, but I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to pay people to work on this hardware. I want people to work on it because they’re stuck at 2am trying to solve a difficult engineering problem, they find my hardware, and they tweak it to make it work for them. In other words I want passionate smart people working with me whose motivation is to solve a burning problem
Collective human effort is accelerated with collaboration
There’s plenty of hardware out there that some company will sell you to solve your problem. I’m not looking down on that, but what happens when you need to change the design for your application. Let’s say there’s a board you can buy that drives a motor in your robot, but that board is just a little too big to fit into your robot, what do you do? Well typically you commit to ordering 1000s of them from the company, NDAs, more red-tape and then the company will build the custom hardware for you (usually at some extortionate cost, and god-forbid you made a mistake in your size calculations). Don’t want to do that? Ok, just design your robot to fit this ungainly hardware then. Never mind the unsightly bulge or the weird cable routing you now have.
Neither of those solutions are optimal. If the design files are open, you can take the design, tweak it yourself in a day or so, then make the board yourself. This is so much more optimal because it speeds up development and results in better robots.
You might need my help anyway
I’ve worked with hardware for years; I’ve been so close to the copper I can almost smell electrons. If you’re going to be using these designs, you’re probably going to want to reach out to me anyway. If it’s a big project, I’ll be able to charge you for consultancy. If I like you, I’ll probably help for free. If you help me develop newer, better products then we both win. If you don’t need my help, that’s fine too, take the hardware and make your robots awesome.
If someone’s deciding to copy me, it’s a good problem to have
If I start selling 1000s of boards, someone’s going to copy me, sure. But at that point heck, I’m selling 1000s of boards, it’s a good problem to have. And I’m not the type to sit back and watch the cash flow in from products I’ve already designed. If I’m seeing profit from 1000s of boards, I’m going to be using that profit to develop newer, better products. And heck if someone else can make my boards at 10% the cost, then it’s going to benefit the robotics community as a whole anyway (just don’t blame me if those boards start puffing out blue smoke). Ultimately the brand BotBlox will always hold the standards of innovation and quality.