An experiment in open hardware

I’m running a small experiment. Inspired by some interesting uses of open hardware I’ve seen recently, I decided to design a product, document the process and parameters of the product, and share it as widely as possible to encourage adaption and improvement by others.

Open hardware

Open hardware is a design philosophy built on the principles of the open-source software movement. By making designs easy to share and adapt,

  • People can more easily access the technology (It’s not sold at a premium by a company exploiting closed intellectual property)
  • They can adapt it to their own needs (designs are freely available and well-documented so others can make their own changes)
  • Conditions are set for a virtuous circle of innovation through rapid iteration and a kind of technological natural selection (adapt the design, share it back with the community, good designs flourish … and repeat)


RepRap, the open source 3D printer, is a famous example of a hardware design that has flourished through openness. (Partly also because it shares another trait with evolutionary biological organisms – it can replicate itself.)

To a large extent, the RepRap project is successful because it is open. Openness can be seen as an enabler of collaboration among the growing group of volunteers. – RepRap Wiki

Open hardware can also support commercial business models, just as the open-source software movement has. Adafruit, who design and distribute electronics kits, release their designs under an open licence but are unashamedly a commercial operation. They’ve even recruited Thomas Jefferson as a supporter for the cause:

He who receives an idea from me receives it without lessening me, as he who lights his candle at mine receives light without darkening me. – Adafruit website

I also blogged recently about a few cool open hardware projects I’ve seen: Protei and Nanode, and of course Arduino, an open platform that has spawned a huge ecosystem of hackers, engineers, kit makers, teachers and learners.

These are complex products for the most part. But an open approach can be applied to much more simple projects. Stuart Childs and Full Circle Arts have set up a design competition to take Snijlab’s laser-cut plywood hinge, share the design and encourage others to adapt it. It’s an experiment in opening up a very specific technique – a single component of a larger designed product – to see how it can be evolved:

I want to see what happens when we share a particular design or technique amongst a group of people from different backgrounds, with different interests and occupations. – Sniject

My experiment

My experiment is even simpler. I want to make a stand for my laptop. I want to design it to the best of my abilities, but also to be easily adapted by others. I want to document it, and I want to share that design and documentation with others so they can use and improve it.

Version 3 acrylic stand

I generally make useful things that solve a problem for me. The problem here is both simple and chronic: I use a laptop all day for work. The screen needs to be raised off the desk to be at a comfortable height.

It’s also faced by lots of other people (as evidenced by the number of laptop stands on the market). I’m interested to see if a problem like this responds well to open-source innovation. On the face of it, it seems like it a quite promising qualities:

  • Easy to define, simple, discrete
  • Chronic, serious, a problem worth solving
  • Faced by many people, others have an incentive to solve it too

I want to find out:

  • Does this sort of product respond well to innovation through openness
  • How should open designs be shared, publicised
  • What are the best ways to encourage re-use by others
  • What kinds of documentation are important

Take part

I’ve posted the digital files up on Thingiverse, a repository of “digital designs for real, physical objects”. You’re free to download the files, make your own copy or create a derivative under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license. You can even sell it if you want.

If you’re interested in adapting it to suit your needs, you may want to read the project documentation I’ve posted up here.

And if you do make a version yourself, or this plants a seed for a different project, I’d love to hear about it.