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The Future of Open-Source Hardware
7.1. INTRODUCTION TO THE FUTURE
We are all somewhat accustomed now to the rapid advancement in technology and the younger (or at least younger at heart) we are, the more likely it
is that we are at home with embracing the accelerated changes of bringing
ever-greater technologies into our lives. In experimental science and engineering, the tools to participate in the advancement of this technology have
skewed the costs so high that they are beyond the grasp of all but the most
well-funded research groups. The cost of equipment and the cost of access to
the literature have provided some form of brake to slow the progress. These
brakes are wearing out and technological evolution is picking up speed.
I was fortunate to enter into the scientific community just as the Internet was
taking off and enjoyed the flood of knowledge that has driven the recent technological revolution. Today, my children not only have this unprecedented
access to pure information and learning tools1 in their home, but also with
an evermore sophisticated version of the RepRap 3-D printers, they have the
capability to fabricate research-grade scientific tools in the house. If they
want a microscope to go look for tardigrades in the back yard, we can stop by
Wal-Greens to pick up a few free, disposable camera lenses and then print the
open-source microscope shown in Figure 7.1 or upgrade it to a digital microscope with your smartphone as seen in Figure 7.2 (thanks to the designs by
Dr. Walus from Chapter 6).2 Today, there are hundreds of such open-source
tools available at costs affordable to most of the curious who did not previously have access. By the time my children reach high school, it appears clear
that this collection will have expanded to cover all the research tools we are
familiar with now, as well as a host of yet-undreamed wonders to probe the
mysteries of the universe, our planet and even our bodies.
example, my 5-year-old daughter is learning programming so fast that it is a little scary. She is
coding animated stories using Scratch, an open-source educational programming language and
multimedia authoring tool released under GPLv2 license and Scratch Source Code License.
2A fully printable microscope http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:77450. A printable microscope
smartphone adapter http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:92355.
Open-Source Lab. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-410462-4.00007-X
Copyright © 2014 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
CHAPTER 7: The Future of Open-Source Hardware and Science
3-D printable open-source microscope.
7.2. THE IMPACT ON THE SCIENTIFIC BRAIN
This advancement in the scientific tool arena has the potential to bring more
people into the experimental and applied sciences. These people will come from
what could be a reigniting of interests in the science, technology, engineering
and mathematics (STEM) fields here in the United States and the rest of the
west, but also a complete rearrangement of the migration routes of scientists
from the developing world. Consider the current situation. I have taught at four
universities in both the United States and Canada in a wide range of disciplines
covering physics, materials science, mechanical engineering, computer science
and electrical engineering—and in all of them, the vast majority of the graduate students were from other countries. The institutions I have worked for are
7.2. The Impact on the Scientific Brain Drain/Gain
Upgraded 3-D printable open-source microscope to digital microscope with a printed component and a
not particularly abnormal. For example, in 2006, the National Science Foundation reported that foreign students earned approximately 36% of the doctorate
degrees in sciences and approximately 64% of the doctorate degrees in engineering [1,2]. Of these international students earning higher degrees in the sciences,
about half of them stay in the United States, but this varies widely depending on
the field and discipline (also the year and country) [3–5]: 64% for physical sciences, 63% for life sciences, 57% for mathematics, 63% for computer sciences,
but only 38% in agricultural sciences. For some countries like China and India,
the so-called stay rates can be substantially greater (88–92% on the high end).
Obviously, having many of your best and brightest students come to the United
States and stay here can have a large negative impact on the home countries
[3–5]. On the other side of the coin, the U.S. economy and our supply of highly
skilled and trained scientific personnel is benefited to an enormous degree.
There has been a long-standing concern about this situation as changes in the
U.S. job market have made careers in science and engineering less attractive to
Americans [1,6]. Science and engineering is perceived by many students as “hard”
as compared to other disciplines such as business. Thus, the investment in overcoming the inherent challenge of the science and engineering disciplines does not
CHAPTER 7: The Future of Open-Source Hardware and Science
appear worth it to the student when there appears to be more jobs in other fields.
Historically, there have been, however, sufficient rewards to attract large numbers
of “scientific immigrants” from the developing world. But what if this immigration stops (or significantly diminishes)? There are literally millions of exceptionally intelligent and driven young scientists who are growing up in the developing
world today. The labs they have access to in their home countries are almost universally underfunded, which creates significant hurdles to participating in the
experimental sciences. Without access to research-grade equipment, these scientists have generally three choices: (1) switching their primary focus on spreading
information as teachers rather than creating new knowledge, (2) becoming theoreticians, and (3) moving to another country and doing experimental science.3
To date, we have benefited enormously from many of them choosing option 3;
however, a flood of low-cost, high-quality, open-source scientific hardware could
accelerate a fourth choice—stay and help pull their home countries out of poverty.
The U.S. share of the world’s science and engineering graduates has been steadily
declining as European and Asian universities, particularly those from China,
have increased science and engineering degrees while U.S. degree production has
remained more or less constant . When these existing degree earners either start
returning to their home countries in greater numbers or begin simply staying at
home, the American dominance in science and engineering will erode further.
This would result in our comparative advantage in the high-tech sector dying as
well, with dire consequences for the American economy and more importantly,
for the American worker. It may be perhaps tempting to then try to restrict opensource hardware for the continued stagnation of the status quo, but that is a losing
battle. Consider, for example, that China already has a national open-source operating system based on Linux.4 Where is the open-source U.S. operating system? If
the United States does not embrace the open-source paradigm, we run the risk of
our scientific education prominence and technological dominance following the
death spiral of the Microsoft server market share into the inconsequential. Instead,
it seems clear that we in the United States should aggressively capitalize on the
opportunity to embrace the open-source paradigm and remain internationally
competitive. If we do not, we will be overtaken by the accelerating innovation
brought fourth by applying the open-source paradigm to scientific tools, which
in turn accelerates all the other technologies. This last point can hardly be understated. Most working scientists are familiar with the beneficial effect of using a
high-quality research tool after using antiquated equipment. It radically increases
progress on individual projects. With the open-source paradigm offering nearly
do not mean to insinuate that choices 1 and 2 are in anyway less honorable or important than
choice 3—some of my best friends are teachers and theoreticians.
4China, Canonical to collaborate on Ubuntu-based national OS http://www.extremetech.com/
extreme/151381-china-canonical-to-collaborate-on-ubuntu-based-national-os. Even the mascot
(a kylin – Google it) for the OS is inspiring.
7.4. Open-Source Research in the Future
universal access to an expanding array of high-grade tools, these projects in turn
lead to faster development of applied technologies.
7.3. ACCELERATION OF TECHNOLOGICAL
With the coming widespread access to inexpensive, high-quality, open-source
scientific instruments, other technologies will move forward at much faster rates
than to which we are accustomed. Imagine how fast science and technology will
evolve when a large group of collaborators work together for mutual benefit.
Consider even the myriad applications of the smartphone of today shown in
Table 7.15, which is able to tackle a wide variety of tasks that in the past were
divided between many separate devices. It is reasonable to assume that in the
very near future, many devices we currently use could be incorporated into inexpensive and universally available smartphone devices. These advanced devices
can act as scientific and engineering tools (such as the tricorder discussed in
the last chapter) that will be available to everyone. For example, smartphone
technology has already been developed as a tool to implement building energy
audit programs to increase energy conservation measure (ECM) uptake and concomitant environmental and economic benefits . This particular smartphone
application provides an energy-audit platform with (1) quasi-real-time analysis,
(2) continuous user engagement, (3) geospatial customization, (4) additional
ECMs, (5) ECM ranking and user education, and (6) the ability to constantly
evolve. My research group investigated a case study of such functionality that
showed that distributed analysis with the use of a smartphone for 157,000
homes resulted in more than 50 years in savings to complete energy audits for
all dwellings in the region following a traditional energy-audit model . That
is faster! This is just one application that could provide significant economic
and environmental benefits with today’s technology. But what of tomorrow’s
technology that is thrown forward with the power of the open-source paradigm?
7.4. OPEN-SOURCE RESEARCH IN THE FUTURE
As we have seen in detail in Chapters 4–6 and the literature [8–11] results
show, the open-source hardware design approach develops extremely low-cost,
high-quality, customized scientific instruments. The once onerous learning
curve associated with open source has largely been overcome due to innovation
table was generated by several classes of Queen’s University and Michigan Tech students to
investigate the opportunity that smartphones provide to reduce individual ecological footprints with
consolidating device functions into one—http://www.appropedia.org/Hardware_replaced_by_a_
CHAPTER 7: The Future of Open-Source Hardware and Science
Table 7.1 Applications of Smartphones
Hardware Replaced with a Smartphone
Engineering Tools Replaced with a Smartphone
Boombox, mp3 player, CD or tape player
Computer (web browser)
Library: books, encyclopedia, manuals, journals,
papers, monographs, magazines and newspapers
Keys for car
Handbook for engineering
Spectral light meter
GPS for coordinates of large spaces
Taper measurer for small things—length of phone
Bluetooth comm—use to triangulate
Two phones—sound—distance app
One phone—length measurement with—scale
Throwing velocity, slapshot velocity
Measure pressure, temperature—add tools
and rapid development of tools such as the Arduino prototyping platform discussed in Chapter 4, the RepRap discussed in Chapter 5, and associated software from the Linux community. The entire process of designing, printing and
assembling new scientific research tools enables scientists to draw extensively
on previously completed open-source work, requiring only a moderate literature review and moderate skill levels to improve or customize the tools and
build. As more scientists take up this methodology and share back with the
open-source scientific community, the time for another group to build their
own high-quality instruments will continue to decline along with the cost,
as the quality increases. These open-source tools can also be used as building
blocks in tangential disciplines. So for example, the time for other research
groups to create an open-source colorimeter following the details in Chapter 6
is also reduced for other applications beyond COD such as: measuring the
7.4. Open-Source Research in the Future
concentration of some chemicals in a solution, quantifying observations of
biological specimens, growth cultures, food science, quality control in manufacturing, diagnosis of diseases, testing the concentration of hemoglobin in
blood, determining the efficacy of sun protection products, nephelometry for
water quality, visibility, and global warming studies to measure global radiation balance, and many other applications [12–22]. The OpenSCAD code has
been made available, making it easy to redesign the case to test, for example,
alternative sizes or geometries of vials. In the same way, the Arduino software is
easily altered, for example, to adjust integration time, light intensity or sensor
sensitivity for another application.
For the example of the colorimeter, more work is necessary for this design to
realize the full potential of the tool for all the applications discussed above. As
scientists need these functionalities, they will build them and hopefully share
them to provide the positive-feedback loop that will make it easier to do the
next application. In addition, there is the potential to improve the functioning
of the open-source colorimeter by making it portable, such as the incorporation of batteries and solar photovoltaic power. A multicompartment design6
that can run more than one type of experiment using the same Arduino and
control logic and simply adding additional LEDs and inexpensive sensors for
different types of tests is already being developed and should be available
when this book goes to press. Open-source wireless communication devices
exist, making possible wireless communication between the instrument and
a smartphone or tablet, thus augmenting data recording and analysis capabilities. Eventually, the capabilities can simply be built into a custom case
for the smartphone or become integral to it. Modification of the OpenSCAD
design may also permit the device to be used in-line for process control or
quality assurance/quality control in industry itself. Again, this is but one small
example, when in all likelihood, there will be thousands of such research tools
developed in the near future.
As additional research groups begin to freely share the designs of their own
open-source research tools, not only can the greater scientific community enjoy
the same discounts on equipment, but following the FOSS approach, the equipment will evolve, becoming technically more advanced, easier to use and more
useful. It is also likely that the price pressure from the open-source community
 will drive down costs of commercial versions of the equipment, resulting
in a decrease in overall research costs for everyone, even those that continue
to rely on proprietary devices. For example, as discussed in Chapter 5, rapid
advancement in 3-D printing technology has already produced plug-and-play
3-D printers at a price point equivalent to or lower than the cost of a good
Colorimeter/Nephelometer Case v0.1 http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:47491.
CHAPTER 7: The Future of Open-Source Hardware and Science
computer. These low prices made available by the avoidance of intellectual
property lock down discussed in Chapter 2 has created an explosion of 3-D
printer companies, that currently number approximately a hundred companies.
The expense of sophisticated research-related equipment and tools has often
limited their adoption to a select, well-funded few. This book has provided a
methodology for applying the free and open-source hardware approach to the
design and development of scientific equipment, a methodology that eliminates cost as a barrier to adoption and makes the tools available to the broadest
possible audience. The performance of research equipment produced by this
methodology has been successfully demonstrated against much more costly
commercial products in a wide range of disciplines from biology to physics and
chemistry to environmental science. With the digital designs of scientific instrumentation shared freely in the scientific community, old challenges like reproducibility of experiments should fade into memory. In the near future, if you
want to replicate a really good experiment that you freely read about in PLOS
One to build off it, you will download the necessary files for the equipment, use
your 3-D printer to fabricate them and run the experiment with the settings that
were in the attached files. Then you will get to the next step faster. Others will
be doing the same and you can all collaborate and pool your data to accelerate
scientific development at rates never even dreamed about in the past.
7.5. CONCLUDING THOUGHTS
The outlook for development of scientific-grade instrumentation utilizing the
free and open-source hardware approach is extremely promising. Inexpensive
open-source 3-D printers and free software have put one-off production of
highly specialized tools within the grasp of the end user, bypassing historically
expensive design, marketing and manufacturing steps. Perhaps more importantly, these technologies and methodologies promise previously unheard-of
access to sophisticated instrumentation by those most in need of it, laboratories in underdeveloped and developing countries. Science will be helped and
accelerated directly as well as indirectly, by reducing the costs of high-quality
lab-based hands-on science and technology education. The future is bright as a
virtuous cycle is created with the benefits of sharing designs helping to further
accelerate research within your own laboratory. Join us and enjoy the ride.
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