Views on open source, technological revolution and innovation

I read the Guardian article about “building an open source world”, on which I have some comments about this.
In the article this remark is made:
“Open source hardware doesn’t have the same power as software if only because the final product, as opposed to the designs, can’t be replicated for no extra cost as software can.”

I’m involved with the RepRap project (also in another Guardian article). I also built a ‘machine that can make almost anything’. I’m now building 6 more machines in a group, and the project has already attracted a new group who want to start building.

While in essence the statement about non-free distribution of physical goods is true, we’re working hard to mitigate that. We’re working on making sure it can use garbage plastics (since we have an abundance of garbage) and it could in principle recycle its own products. The costs of the plastics that we can use are significantly lower than that of commercial 3D printers (about 20 times cheaper, just like the machine itself). There’s also an opportunity for home-grown biodegradable plastics (plastics from starch). An interesting remark about this is:
“In a sense, hardware is becoming much more like software, up to the point where you actually fabricate an object,” von Hippel says. “That’s why you’re starting to see open source techniques in hardware. Design is largely going to shift out from manufacturers to the communities.”
Source: Eric von Hippel of MIT

Last year, I attended the Rapid Manufacturing and Mass customization conference. Frank T. Piller, considered the guru of Mass customization, said that manufacturing will start happening closer to the consumer, and that the demarcation between producer and consumer will become more blurred. Also, Terry Wohlers, consultant in Rapid Prototyping (also called 3D printing), used the example of an open source fabricator and highlighted the concept of neighborhood fabrication. Granted, he does have reservations for mass adoption.

In the near future where people have fabricators at or near their home (right now RepRap’s diffusion is amazing) products would be distributed digitally and produced locally.

The network effects of the RepRap community and the installed base of RepRaps are compelling. I’ve documented some of the growth characteristics of the RepRap community on my blog here.

The community has also become more organized and shops have oriented themselves around the concept. Now, for the non-technical people, or those with little time, there is now a kit available for about 750 pounds with which you could build a RepRap (equivalent) in 2-3 days (my estimate).

And an interview with Eric von Hippel:URL: von Hippel interview

They discuss fabricators reaching the home at some point in time. Von Hippel (in the video, here‘s another), whom I referred to in my earlier blog, is a did seminal work on the origin innovation.

Here’s a Google TechTalk about Innovation. It’s told in an amusing, motivating way. It’s mostly about being restrictive, overprotective and being too prudent, you would risk ruining a technological revolution. Also, he brings forward the risk of business method patents.

Some remarks that struck me:

  • Patent quality and use is very low (also brought forward by Chesbrough and others).
  • Offensive use of patents (as opposed to defensive)
  • A great empirical argument: “When you’re extending copyright terms, don’t extend the for dead people. It is unlikely you will spur innovation by doing so.”. Can’t argue against that!
  • “Ninety-something percent of all western culture, produced in the last hundred years, is A is under copyrighted and B has no identifiable copyright owner which means that copyright is locking it up while providing absolutely no benefit.”

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