Emerging Business Models for Open Source Hardware

Rather than being limited to buy only what is commercially available, scientists can create scientific instruments to meet their exact needs and specifications, expanding on Open Hardware design files.

Guest post by Journal of Open Hardware

The rise of Free and Open Source models for software development has catalyzed the growth of Free and Open Source hardware (also known as “Libre Hardware”). Libre Hardware is gaining significant traction in the scientific hardware community, where there is evidence that open development creates both technically superior and far less expensive scientific equipment than proprietary models.

In this article, the evidence is reviewed and a collection of examples of business models is developed to service scientists who have the option to manufacture their own equipment using Open Source designs. Profitable Libre Hardware business models are reviewed, which includes kit, speciality component, and calibration suppliers for makers.

Source: https://3dprint.com/159508/microscope-live-cell-imaging/

The results indicate that Libre Hardware businesses should target technically sophisticated customers first and, as usability matures, target expanded markets of conventional consumers. Open Source Hardware (OSHW) is hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, manufacture, distribute, and sell the design or pieces of hardware based on that design.

The Rise of Free and Open Source Scientific Hardware

One area where Libre Hardware is gaining significant traction is in the scientific hardware community. There is substantial evidence that the Open Hardware model creates more flexible and adequate scientific equipment at far less expense than has been developed using proprietary models.

Free and Open Science Hardware projects span a wide range of scientific disciplines with an incredible variety of tools. Collaborative practice of sharing digital designs have reduced the capital costs of such Libre Hardware to an unprecedented 90–99% decrease from the cost of functionally-equivalent proprietary equipment.

Source: http://www.waterscope.org/3d-printing/

Consider three examples. First, replacing a $2,000 hand-held water quality tester can be done for under $100 if Open Source electronics and 3D printed parts are used. The RepRap used for fabricating the water quality tester costs less than $500. Thus, even if only a single water quality tester is printed, the costs of the open source 3D printing manufacturing technology are more than justified for the scientist.

Similarly, the majority of mechanical fixtures for optics labs in physics research and education can be replicated from common 3D printed plastic. Such savings can scale to many research laboratories once the initial designs are produced and licensed with Open Hardware licenses.

Customers Capable of Distributed Digital Fabrication to Meet Their Own Needs

The Libre Hardware approach has several advantages for scientists. First, lower costs (in time and money) are enjoyed for direct manufacturing equipment. It is also likely that the price pressure from the Open Source community will drive down costs of commercial versions of the equipment, resulting in a decrease in overall research costs. Second, greater flexibility and customized equipment that would be expected to lead to better experiments and faster evolution of science.

Rather than being limited to buy only what is commercially available, scientists can create scientific instruments to meet their exact needs and specifications, expanding on Open Hardware design files. The ability to customize research tools is particularly helpful to those on the bleeding edge of science, who need customized never-seen-before equipment. Third, better control over their labs. Open source products are well known to offer a decreased dependency on monopoly suppliers and this benefit can be very valuable to scientists using Libre Hardware.

If a scientist has the legal and technical ability to alter the code for hardware and software in their labs, they will never be left with stranded assets such as non-functioning equipment when commercial vendors go out of business, drop a product line, or loose key technical staff. With libre hardware, the equipment, at least, has the potential to evolve rather than being discarded.

Open Hardware Business Models to Serve the Scientific Community

This open business model is perhaps the most similar to traditional business models in that the firm fabricates and sells hardware, which happens to have its design fully documented and freely available. One can sell Libre Hardware either as pre-sales through crowd-funding services, through conventional “brick and mortor” retail stores, or e-shop sales.

A good example of how this business model works in practice after the Libre Hardware business is mature can be seen in the success of Aleph Objects, which sells the Lulzbot Open Source software and hardware-based desktop 3D printers. These printers can be used to make a long list of scientific tools themselves including test tube racks, centrifuges, and microscope accessories.

The Lulzbot printers are derivatives of earlier RepRap printers: Aleph Objects uses its own 3D printers to fabricate many of the components of their finished product following the RepRap philosophy. Although anyone could fabricate a Lulzbot 3D printer using Aleph Objects’ plans, the cost and difficulty would likely be more than simply purchasing the device from the supplier.

This model can be seen as a commercial enhancement one as customers have some assurance that an Aleph Object printer will work to specification, which is more than what is guaranteed by self-assembly or rival clones. In exchange for the risk of rival copiers undercutting its market, Aleph Object enjoys lower research and development costs and more rapid deployment of products to market because of the feedback from their users.

Image source: https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:31632

At the present stage of Libre Hardware development, the majority of complex scientific hardware cannot be fabricated solely by low-cost digital manufacturing tools, such as polymer-based single-material 3D printers. Thus, the equipment demands non-printed parts, which is what the RepRap 3D printer community refers to as “vitamins”. For complex equipment, these vitamins may not be readily available or may represent a major time investment, thus there is a market for firms to provide all the vitamins for a specific tool in a kit form.

For example, a firm could produce kits to fabricate an open tool such as the Arduino-powered OpenQCM, which is a highly-sensitive Open Source microbalance. Kit suppliers can differentiate themselves following the successful business example of Adafruit, which is well known for providing high-quality tutorials for building Open Hardware projects.

Image source: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1733191226/polyfuge-a-diy-open-source-microcentrifuge-for-eve

In the maker scientific community, there will be customers who still want some level of specialization of their equipment beyond common kit models. Businesses can supply custom parts in materials that are not commonly available for digital fabrication in desktop 3D printers such as Shapeways, which enable scientists to order custom print Open Hardware components in exotic materials such as bronze, porcelain, castable wax, and aluminum.

You can find out more about “Emerging Business Models for Open Source Hardware” via the link below:

Pearce, J.M., (2017). Emerging Business Models for Open Source Hardware. Journal of Open Hardware. 1(1), p.2. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/joh.4


  1. Nice article, missing the substance of a comprehensive business model, and other concrete examples.
    SENSORICA has pioneered new business models for Open Scientific Instruments since 2011. Here are some interesting projects

    Mosquito (an optical fiber-based force measurement system)

    Manipulators (devices to perform micromanipulations)

    PV characterization (precise gimbal for testing photovoltaic materials)

    SENSORICA uses the Open Value Network (OVN) economic model.

    Here’s a short post that explains the rational behind open source hardware – based business models.

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