UBM Tech
UBM Tech

SparkFun’s Chris Taylor: Community key to open-source hardware

-April 04, 2013

When it comes down to it, engineer and seven-year SparkFun Electronics veteran Chris Taylor believes anything can be open source, to be shared and improved. He recently spoke with EDN about open-source hardware (OSH). He will be speaking more on this subject as part of the Open Source Hardware Panel Discussion on April 23 at DESIGN West, hosted by UBM Tech. Register here.

Does open-source hardware have a place in the world of professional engineering?

That’s a complicated question. There will always be a place for open source in the professional market because, in many people’s opinions, it’s the way to prototype. You can start from the ground up with whatever you are designing, or you can take a little bit from open-source companies that have already done the work and written the tutorials, and build up whatever prototype you are designing and go through the design phases a lot faster.

Where that gets complicated is open-source licensing. That is still nebulous. For example, the hardware could have a different license than the software or the firmware.

When open-source designs do make it into closed-source products, you often don’t see it. It’s done in the background. When a company has done the work on a good process or design, of course that has a place in the design process of on-the-shelf products.

Open source brings up a lot of questions on “trust.” Without IP, without patents, how do you know what can be trusted?

With any open-source design, there should be a certain amount of caution. Regardless of the design, you’re going to have to learn a great deal of it yourself. But in a lot of cases, we save the designer from digging through datasheets, testing, and retesting by providing example code, boards, and layouts.

Yes, there is always going to be that fear. The open-source community tries to mitigate that [fear] as best they can by having a community around it. When a design is bad, you are going to hear about it immediately, but because it is open source, the design cycle is short and it can be rectified quickly.

If there is this community and sharing, how can engineers stay competitive with their designs?

The most valuable element that the community lends is the improvement cycle, the feedback cycle. In our case at SparkFun, when we post a design’s code online and someone takes that code, uses it, and finds an improvement or an error, we can make the improvement immediately, thanks to the community. If hardware has an improvement to be made, that is put as a comment on the product page as a forum. Because it’s open source, anyone can make an improvement, and when SparkFun sees it, they put the improvement into the revision cycle. So the next version of that product is going to be better because of that community.

That feedback, coupled with agility to turn out a new product, is the benefit to having the open-source community.

Why should engineers do anything open source if they’re not going to get paid for it?

In open source, a lot of that concern comes from wondering “What if someone steals my design?” Well, good, that’s kind of the point. Let them steal it. If they can make it better, you can steal it right back and make yours better. That’s what makes the product a quality product. Then you design the next cool thing. The information is free, but at SparkFun, the hardware is where we make the money.

You’ve been at SparkFun for most of its time in business. How have you seen open source grow in that time? Were there any moments that made you realize open source wasn’t bunk?

Seeing open-source designs more “out in the wild” in big projects. Recently we found one of our boards in the Red Bull Stratos Jump telemetry pack. One of our boards went to space! When we see one of our designs used in one of these larger projects that are important and take a lot of money and a lot of time, that’s when you feel like open source is going to stick. If people are spending this much money using designs by a couple of guys that were given away for free, then we’re doing something right.

Where do you see OSH in the future for engineering?

Where you now start to see open source come into play and shaking things up is in 3-D printers and any sort of low-volume home production devices and businesses, because now we are starting to see the ability of people to create more complete objects from designs that would normally be closed source.

We’re getting closer and closer to being able to e-mail someone a design and print out a cell phone. People are taking closed-source designs and replicating then, scanning them into 3-D files, and printing them out on 3-D printers.

The ability to create more and more complex, complete devices is where we are going, and it’s a really exciting and adventurous new ground. This is where closed source is starting to butt up against open source.

We’ve always, as a company and a group of engineers, and myself personally, been interested in taking something that is totally ubiquitous but that someone wouldn’t necessarily make themselves and opening that design. Anything can be open source, to be shared and improved.

You’ve been to Burning Man a couple of times. How does the mentality of that event fit into open source?

One of the tenants of Burning Man is radical self-reliance. You’ve got a good deal of Burners who try to live with that mentality.

When some idea pops into my head—for a remote control, for example—I don’t buy one; I build one and then I put the design files out there. That mentality is Burning Man: It’s not create something and go through the design process. It’s more being able to rely on yourself rather than having to go out and buy something from someone else. You are the generator of things, ideas, and designs, rather than the consumer. Open source comes down to empowering each other and helping each other to create something good.

Do you have any advice for established engineers who are looking to dip their toes into OSH?

It goes without saying for me that if an engineer is considering a design, by all means, open-source products are the best and fastest way and a fun way to do it. If you are doing a home project or planning to create an on-the-shelf product, the advice is really just go for it. You’ve got nothing to lose and you have a whole community of people vetting designs for you. Not only can your good idea be profitable, but you’re going to have fun in the long run.

Taylor will be speaking as part of the Open Source Hardware Panel Discussion on April 23 at DESIGN West, hosted by UBM Tech. Register here.

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