Open source hardware isn't just for hobbyists. Early corporate adopters can reap business benefits.
Those of us with gray hair remember when mainstream companies viewed open source software with extreme skepticism--that is, until it became apparent that the Internet backbone was running reliably on OSS. Now attention is turning to open source hardware.
When you manufacture something based on open source, you don't make money on the intellectual property. Open source hardware isn't a business model, says SparkFun CEO Nathan Seidle; it's a business driver. It's about "enabling companies to move faster and be more pliable than ever," he says. If that's not a familiar battle cry to business and IT leaders, I don't know what is.
IT exists to provide technology services to advance business goals. If your business creates kiosks, vending machines, vehicles, or other types of consumer hardware, my money is on IT contributing massively to cutting costs and increasing speed of deployment.
Maybe that means IT organizations becoming aware of open source designs and assisting product engineering and manufacturing with integration into real-time business systems. Maybe it means working with a subcontractor. Open source hardware won't be good for everything, but it will be fantastic for certain things.
Except, organizations that don't have massive hardware prototyping facilities can't play in this space, right?
In the same way that you can join a health club and reap the personal benefits without buying $100,000 worth of weight machines, you can also join a rapid prototyping club. TechShop, for example, offers many fabrication options, including "milling machines and lathes, welding stations and a CNC plasma cutter, sheet metal working equipment, drill presses and band saws, industrial sewing machines, hand tools, plastic and wood working equipment including a 4' x 8' ShopBot CNC router, electronics design and fabrication facilities, Epilog laser cutters, tubing and metal bending machines, a Dimension SST 3-D printer, electrical supplies and tools."
Open source hardware isn't just the purview of engineers in product development labs. It can apply just as much to IT pros.
Your peer at SparkFun, IT director Chris Clark, summed it up well in a recent email conversation: "All the money we were saving by not investing thousands in expensive proprietary software and systems for our infrastructure could be funneled into hiring better people to build that infrastructure for us using open source platforms and combining open source utilities to not only do the job but do it in a heavily customized way that gave us the flexibility we needed." As open source software and hardware start to converge, expect the hardware for things like telemetry, credit card reading, and vending--perhaps even network routing--to become much less expensive and proprietary.
But open source hardware, like open source software, is going to help only those CIOs who have an open mind.
Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at @_jfeldman.
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