Open hardware projects focus on cutting costs

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One of the most challenges aspects of many projects is to try to establish their value (in more academicist contexts this is also called the impact). In the case of open hardware projects, many focus almost exclusively on making existing tools cheaper than what is commercially available (see, for example [@wijnen2014Open-Source Syringe Pump Library][@baden2015Open Labware: 3-D Printing Your Own Lab Equipment][@pearce2017Emerging Business Models for Open Source Hardware][@pearce2020Economic savings for scientific free and open source technology: A review]). I think this is a severe problem, first because the evaluation of cost and price can be biased, secondly because it prevents people from discussing more interesting value propositions.

Regarding the bias on cost calculations, many open-hardware projects do not factor the cost of development nor manufacturing. In many cases there are support departments involved (like electronics or fine mechanics) that do not get credit and are not factored in. In many cases the time it takes to train someone in design, 3D printing, etc. is absorbed by public funds (grants). Moreover, comparing DIY solutions with company-provided products, does not take into account certifications, quality controls, long-term support, nor safety[@hohlbein2021a].

Relatively new digital manufacturing methods are only exacerbating the situation. Instead of being forced to think about efficient manufacturing processes, the problem is pushed downstream to individuals trying to replicate the original build. The process becomes highly distributed and therefore the true costs are harder to judge and quantify. Particularly, externalities are only impacting individuals (or small groups) in different contexts. Costs considered are only material costs, but there is no discussion on opportunity costs, for example.

An extra cost associated with projects financed with public funds is the licensing. This is why open hardware should not be a strategy to overcome licensing by researchers. The fact that someone made it open does not mean there wasn't an institution absorbing risks, paying salaries, etc. There are still not enough discussions regarding how projects can be open, generate an open hardware business model, and still be fair to the taxpayer.

I do believe that open hardware projects should start focusing on delivering value beyond its price (see: specific value in being open hardware)


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Aquiles Carattino
Aquiles Carattino
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