Open Source Hardware

Open Source Hardware (OSHW) represents a new way of sharing design information which has a number of advantages, among which:

  • Peer review of designs increases quality.
  • Re-use of designs saves time and effort.
  • Vendor lock-in situations are easily avoided. Vendors are selected solely on the quality of the service they offer.
  • Dissemination of design knowledge is made much easier. This also allows new actors like underdeveloped countries and small companies to access design knowledge they can reuse in their development.
  • Companies can be selected to satisfy other needs, e.g. selecting local companies to comply with rules of funding agencies.

Experience in CERN's BE-CO-HT section since 2009 has shown that OSHW is a paradigm that works, ensuring all the advantages described above for the clients and allowing companies to enter new markets with much lower entry barriers.

We have already overcome three obstacles to efficient sharing of hardware designs:

  • Providing an efficient web-based collaborative tool, the Open Hardware Repository which allows designers to upload design data and communicate with other designers very easily.
  • Providing a sound legal framework thanks to the CERN Open Hardware Licence, developed in collaboration with CERN's Knowledge Transfer group.
  • Providing companies with mentoring and support for developing a profitable business model based on OSHW.

Today we can safely say that this initiative is already a success, but there is one more obstacle to efficient sharing of designs: the development tools. In particular, Printed Circuit Board (PCB) design tools have a very steep learning curve and each save design data in incompatible formats, so that designers using different tools have a very difficult time sharing these designs. To make matters worse, many of these tools have licensing fees which many laboratories, universities, companies and individuals cannot afford. A Free Open Source Software (FOSS) tool for PCB design would unleash a great deal of design power and would make sharing much easier.
We analyzed the landscape of existing FOSS PCB design tools and concluded that KiCad is the best basis on which to build a high-performance feature-rich tool. Our analysis and a summary of the developments needed to bring KiCad on par with existing proprietary tools in terms of features and quality can be seen here.
KiCad is a tool, and as such, improvements on it will be a power multiplier. The work of a few individuals can allow thousands of others to develop PCBs better and faster in an easier way, and to tackle bigger projects thanks to the possibility of easily setting up large collaborations.
Academic institutions will greatly benefit from this development, very much in line with CERN's educating mission. Students will be able to use professional-quality PCB design tools without cost, functionality or intellectual property constraints. They will also be able to contribute to making the tool better, for the benefit of others, an activity with a high educational value in itself and which will increase their employment potential.
Commercial PCB design companies will also benefit greatly from this development, since the barrier to entry for this kind of tools will be greatly lowered. More companies from more countries will be able to participate in the market of PCB design and development. In addition, software development companies will have the possibility of offering support services for the tools themselves.