Open source hardware, what is it? Here’s a start…

Craft & Design Technology

Open source hardware is a term we’ve used here on MAKE & CRAFT for describing some of the projects featured as well as some of our electronics kits. It was also the subject of a talk we participated in at the SXSW conference, but what is it?

There are a few definitions, some of which come from “open source software,” which is usually considered software’s “source code under a license (or arrangement such as the public domain) that permits users to study, change, and improve the software, and to redistribute it in modified or unmodified form.”
So how does this translate to hardware?
Electronic hardware can be divided up into layers, each of which has different document types and licensing concerns.

Hardware (Mechanical) Diagrams
Dimensions for enclosures, mechanical subsystems, etc. For 2D models, preferred document type is vector graphics file, with dimension prints, DXF, or AI, etc.

Example: Motor-driven screw block from the RepRap ‘s thermoplast extruder head, an open source 3D printer.

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Schematics & Circuit Diagrams
Symbolic diagrams of electronic circuitry, includes parts list (sometimes inclusively). Often paired with matching layout diagram. Preferred document type is any sort of image (PDF, BMP, GIF, PNG, etc).

Example: 3.3V and 5V regulator schematic from Chumby, the open source information device.

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Parts List
What parts are used, where to get them, part numbers, etc.

Example: Parts List from the open source Roland 303 MIDI synth clone, the x0xb0x.
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Layout Diagrams
Diagrams of the physical layout of electronic circuitry, including the placement of parts, the PCB copper prints, and a drill file. This is often paired with a schematic. Preferred distribution is Gerber RS274x and Excellon (for drills).

These are like PostScript for printers but the primitives aren’t text and arcs, they’re lines of solder and components.

Example: Board (.brd) files for the MAKE: Daisy Open Source MP3 Player.
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Daisy Top Sm

The source code runs on a microcontroller/microprocessor chip. In some cases, the code may be the design of the chip hardware itself (in VHDL). Preferred distribution: text file with source code in it, as well as compiled ‘binary’ for the chip.

Example: Open core 8080 compatible CPU code snippet from executing the 8080 instruction set.

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The source code that communicates or is used with the electronics from a computer.

Example: A screenshot of the Arduino IDE showing a simple example program.

Each level can be open sourced, but the exact nature of what it means to open it varies. In practice, not every layer is fully open. Often only a subset of the layers are released, documented, or open source.


For example, the WRT54GL wireless router only has the firmware open sourced (GPL).


The Roomba robot vacuum has an “open” API (interface).

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The Ambient Orb (information device) is not open source, but the schematics and parts list are documented and available for people to tinker with and possibly build their own.

There are ongoing efforts from a variety of groups and people who are trying to figure out how an open licensing of hardware might work too:

  • Open-source Hardware License – Creative Commons-like license – Link.
  • Open hardware licenses – Link.

Projects are the the fun part: what are people actually doing? Here are a few examples (some previously noted) of projects that are close to “pure” open source hardware projects:


Arduino physical computing platform (just shipped 10,000!) – Link.

241868326 6F46603Cc3

Chumby ‘glancable’ information device – Link.

327914789 Cc61974409

MAKE: Daisy MP3 Player – An open source MP3 player – Link.

Reprap First 3D Cartesian

RepRap / Fab@Home – Open source 3D printer – Link.

Dsp Near Done Tiny

Open Cores – A collection of VHDL cores for FPGA chips (“often cited as the first example of true OS hardware”) – Link.

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OpenEEG – An EEG design that is OS & available as a kit – Link.


x0xb0x – Roland 303 clone MIDI synth – Link.

Some of these projects don’t provide everything in the most ideal way, or might use a non-open-source tool to modify, but it’s a start — this is all pretty new.

At MAKE & CRAFT, we’re trying to foster this nascent hardware movement by encouraging our kit makers to consider open source hardware and a license that makes sense when developing kits with us. So far it’s worked out, and we’re looking forward to providing not only more open source hardware kits, but electronics that are more “open” than what’s out there now.

Why is this a good thing? The most obvious one for MAKE & CRAFT is the educational benefits: an open source hardware project or kit allows makers to build something completely from scratch (etching boards, etc) or assembling a kit almost IKEA-style, but unlike assembling furniture, new skills and understanding of how things actually work can be learned. One could say the building of the electronics is the “compiling” portion of the project, similar to software. Events like dorkbot and our Maker Faire are places for participation, and online, is a great place to look.

What else? Fixes — new features and the “peer production” of the electronics projects/kits usually lend themselves to better kits, communities, and for some makers making real businesses selling kits – Link.

All this being said, the pace is slow and steady; hardware moves slower than software now: fabbing, which may decrease but is unlikely to fully go away. And hardware seems to be in the same state software was in the 1980s; lots of commercial developers, very few open source developers (or like 1970s when only a few had computers at all). We’d like to see the world of hardware when there are millions of developers.

This is a start. We’re interested in your feedback and thoughts, so post up in the comments!

Special thanks to Limor Fried, Nathan Torkington & Eric Wilhelm for their help on this overview.

30 thoughts on “Open source hardware, what is it? Here’s a start…

  1. eccramer says:

    These kind of things are what make me a subscriber to Make:Magazine. The dedication to Open Source ideals, the focus on education and getting “youngsters” (like me) into electronics and the overall enthusiasm that the Make crew seem to show really gives me hope for the future of electronics hobbyists, instead of a future devoid of the concept “User Serviceable”. So Make on makers, and to the Magazine crew, keep up the good work!

  2. _fluffy says:

    Back in the good old days, it was pretty common for computers to come with schematics, or at least have them available from the company, so that people could modify, repair, and otherwise hack the hardware. Most of Commodore’s 8-bit computers did, for example (the C64 and C128 programmer’s reference guides had complete register-level details of every single chip and extremely detailed schematics of the board and even some of the internal chip workings). Of course, it helped that Commodore themselves were also the sole supplier of most of the component chips (since they owned MOS Technologies and most of the chips were custom MOS designs) so they had very little to lose in this regard.

    Whatever happened to IBM’s opensource CHRP motherboard designs? I know no company ever actually got around to using them (though a few companies had announced plans), but are they still available?

  3. Gabester says:

    I’ve been thinking about this in the context of having colonies in space…
    We NEED OS hardware if we’re ever going to have self sustaining colonies anywhere off-planet.
    I wrote a short fictional piece on it last week. Coming across this, I wrote some more just now, and it’s not fiction.

  4. keyma5ter says:

    Is there a repository somewhere on the web for people’s open source hardware designs? One place I can go to search, for example, motor controller schematics? If I make changes, I could upload them back up to the site?

  5. philliptorrone says:

    @keyma5ter – i think instructables would be the best option at the moment.

  6. mzandrew says:

    keyma5ter: open circuits is a start. From that site,

    “Open Circuits is a wiki for sharing open source electronics knowledge, schematics, board layouts, ports and parts libraries. This include open hardware PC, PDA and mobile phones and batteries. Please help us to build this resource by submitting your component descriptions, projects, techniques, and PCB footprints.”

  7. bergeron76 says:

    I’m about to open source the DashPC startup and shutdown controller. This device helps people put computers in their cars. I plan on releasing the board layout, schematics, and [quite possibly] the code for the Microprocessor and putting them in the open-source domain.

    More details can be seen here:

    I do, sell it commercially, but people may be able to hack it to do other things – so I’m providing the schematics for free.

    I’m not spamming, I’m posting this because it’s relevant to the topic of open-source hardware.

  8. Byon says: may be of interest.

  9. philliptorrone says:

    @Byon – it was linked in the article (thanks tho!)

  10. keyma5ter says:

    Nice link mzandrew, I’ll put that link in my toolbox. Figuratively speaking of course.

  11. jsgray says:

    You may enjoy my old Circuit Cellar series “Build a RISC System in an FPGA” , as well as
    “Designing a Simple FPGA-Optimized RISC CPU and System-on-a-Chip” which is the complete “literate” Verilog source code for a simple SoC.

  12. drowe67 says:

    Open hardware hacking is actually getting EASIER. For example the tools for surface mount work are reasonably cheap (soldering iron and stereo microscope), free CAD software, low cost PCB fabrication, and web based components stores like Digikey.

    I have been developing some open hardware designs for Embedded Asterisk IP Telephony and have also have some popular blog posts on open hardware.

  13. marcusfg says:

    Being a studying Electrical Engineer I am incredibly excited about viral developments on the hardware front; where the Open source frontier has been limited to computer scientists and IT nerds, us hardware nerds are going to have our time to shine :-)

  14. Mike says:

    I have a 16 inch X 7 foot lathe and I do hobbie custom work on the side. The size and tooling of my lathe makes small projects like 3mm difficult. If you need something turned and your not in a hurry, I work pretty cheap. I do it for fun so I don’t charge much. I do limit the work to things I know I can do.
    You can email me at

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