A New Age Dawns

Open source hardware offers exciting prospects but demands a fresh way of thinking.

Very occasionally, one encounters an idea that truly offers a glimpse of the future. Joshua Pearce’s enthusiastic account of the application of open source hardware to analytical science is one such insight. The approach combines the sharing of design information with 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, which is the process of making solid objects from a digital model. Pearce’s description of his experimentation to date and of the transformative potential of open source hardware in the long term presages a new age for our field. 

The two elements of open source hardware are linked but separate. One is personal manufacturing – the capacity to affordably ‘print’ solid structures from polymers or metal, which opens doors for hands-on, innovation-minded scientists who want to create bespoke equipment. It will also impact the equipment vendors that most of us will continue to rely upon. Imagine a future where you could purchase and download schematics from your vendor’s support page and print out new parts yourself. This reduces their manufacturing costs, your downtime and everyone’s environmental impact. The phrase “warranty void” does spring to mind, however…

Of course, the impact of personal manufacturing isn’t limited to analytical science – it has essentially transformed how we consume music and video, and will likely revamp many other aspects of our lives. There are risks though. Just as media digitalization has created a pirating tsunami, releasing intellectual property in such a way requires a fresh, collaborative way of thinking.