Episode 3: Joshua Pearce on Open Source

In the third episode of Make:Cast, I talk with Joshua Pearce about his new book, “Create, Share and Save Money Using Open Source Projects.” Joshua is a professor of materials science and electrical engineering at Michigan Tech University where he directs the Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology Lab – acronym MOST. He’s also the editor of Hardware X, a peer-reviewed journal dedicated to open source scientific hardware.

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Joshua Pearce’s book shows us that there are open source projects for anything you’d want to make, digital or physical. For anyone wanting to do something, open source makes it easier for you to get started, for creative ideas to flourish and for difficult problems to be solved by collaborating with others. Still, it seems there are groups of people who know very little about open source and how it could benefit them or their community.

And those of us who are familiar with open source, sometimes take it a bit for granted. It’s just there, available and free. Open source can go unnoticed. Joshua believes open source is vital to creating a sustainable future by providing tools and infrastructure that can be widely shared and easily modified.

In this conversation with Joshua Pierce, we talk about

  • why scientists need open source tools in their labs,
  • how open source can be used to build houses and how we could build more things locally,
  • how open source 3D printers outperformed more expensive commercial printers,
  • the purpose of the Hardware X journal,
  • why state-of-the-art solar panels are not available in the US,
  • how recycling plastic waste could be done in every neighborhood, and how to value open source projects.

Excerpts:

Joshua: I’ve been an open source advocate for awhile like Linux and all that kind of stuff. But it really dawned on me that when a piece of equipment broke in my lab — it was a filter wheel changer to do automated solar cell testing and it cost $2,500 to replace, which was a lot of money, but not the end of the world, but it was going to be five months because no one else needed them. So I hired a high school student who used a RepRap and an Arduino and made me a $50 one. And it wasn’t just as good as what I could buy. It was better than the best one on the market. It was exactly what I wanted and I had total control over it. And I was like, hold on a second. Why would I ever buy another scientific tool again that I don’t have control over?

***

Joshua: People that are already in the maker community or the open source community, they get it right. Like they understand that the more you share and the better that what you share, the more you’re going to get in return. And when I talk to quote, unquote, normal people, they just, they can’t fathom why you would work really hard on something and then I give it away for free. And what I was hoping to do with this book is to show, look, there are thousands of things out there, and I don’t care what your interest is, whether it’s photography or art or music or engineering it doesn’t matter. There’s open source things that can help you do whatever you want to do.

***

Joshua: There’s no reason that if you’re really interested in something from building a bridge to building, I don’t know, a new electronic circuit, you shouldn’t be able to get to it using free and open source projects.

***

Joshua: I think COVID if it did anything good was wake up the government, wake up the funders to say, Oh, look, this is another way of doing things. That’s that definitely iterates and innovates much faster than we’re used to and can solve the problems. And it almost doesn’t matter how complex it is suddenly.

***

Joshua: What we did at HardwareX is it’s an open access journal. Everybody can read everything that’s ever printed in it. But to be published, you have to put an open source license on your hardware design. And now we have more than a hundred, and these are getting very intricate designs like hardcore microscopes, stuff to do combinatorial work in biology, like really nice pieces of equipment that have already been vetted. And so what makes it different than say your average blog page about whatever project you’re doing is that it’s gone through peer review, by real scientists and the experiments have been made on the device to prove that it does what it says it can do.

***

Joshua: Something that’s really frustrated me with solar is we’re working really hard to try to stop climate change, to try to do good by the environment. But if you look at any panel that you buy on the market, none of them have all the bells and whistles. And I can tell you what the bells and whistles are. These aren’t secret there in the literature, but company A can’t do it because company B and C have a patent on a new optical coating, or a new texturing on the front surface. And it makes you just want to scream.