Open Source Hardware

A selection of open source embedded development boards. Source: Kumar B 2018.
A selection of open source embedded development boards. Source: Kumar B 2018.

Many developments have contributed to the interest and growth of Open Source Hardware (OSHW): free and open source software (FOSS), 3D printing, crowdfunding, the maker movement, and Moore's Law reaching its limits.

While OSHW is commonly thought to include electronics and mechanical designs, OSHW today has a much broader reach including fashion, furniture, musical instruments, farm machinery, bio-engineering, and more.

OSHW is not a standard, nor is there a single organization tasked with leading the OSHW movement. However, the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) hopes to become the hub of this movement. There's also the Open Source Hardware Definition, which forms the basis for defining licenses for OSHW.


  • What's the historical context for open source hardware?

    In the ham radio community sharing knowledge was a common practice. Then in the 1970s, computers were shipped as kits with schematics included. This resulted in a hacking culture among computer enthusiasts. This culture was about tinkering, experimenting, sharing, and collaborating.

    FOSS that started in the 1980s contributed to OSHW, although open hardware need not be about either electronics or software. The web of the 1990s made it easier to share designs and best practices. By early 2010s, OSHW became more widely known due to the following reasons:

    • 3D Printing: This brought down prototyping and production costs. It made design iterations easier and faster.
    • Maker Movement: Started in the mid-2000s, this established magazines, platforms, and fairs/exhibitions for people to come together, collaborate and co-create. Maker labs brought essential tools under roof, gave people affordable access to these tools, and thereby democratized production.
    • Crowdfunding: Those with good ideas could get upfront funding from potential users of the product without depending on traditional investment routes or financial institutions.
    • Moore's Law: With the Law reaching its limits, there's a need to create application-specific silicon and open designs can keep costs down.
  • What aspects of hardware can be open sourced?
    Forms of openness in OSHW. Source: Bonvoisin et al. 2017, fig. 1.
    Forms of openness in OSHW. Source: Bonvoisin et al. 2017, fig. 1.

    Open source hardware is about sharing the design files of hardware. This may include architecture/design drawings, schematics, PCB layout, bill of materials, HDL code, production/assembly instructions, and anything else that can enable others to replicate the hardware.

    There's no use claiming open design if the file format is proprietary and can be opened only with closed tools. Thus, the definition of open source can be expanded to include design file formats and/or access to tools or software to manipulate the files. Along with original proprietary files, intermediate files in open formats should be made open. Examples of file formats include PDFs of circuit schematics, Gerbers for circuit board layouts, and IGES or STL files for mechanical objects. OpenCAD, KiCAD and Eagle are examples of open tools.

    In the spirit of open source, users should be able to study the design, modify it for their specific needs, or distribute it. They also have the freedom to make and sell hardware based on the design.

  • Won't people misuse my designs and get rich at my expense?
    Comparing OSS and OSHW. Source: Reese 2019.
    Comparing OSS and OSHW. Source: Reese 2019.

    Maybe but not necessarily. Firstly, just because you adopted OSHW licensing, doesn't mean you cannot also sell your products commercially and be successful in the process. Even if others have access to your design, there's cost and effort involved in sourcing, manufacturing, assembling, testing, distributing and providing technical support. If you establish your own brand value, provide a quality product at a good price, it's difficult for others to compete.

    The advantage of being open is that you benefit from community support and contributions. You establish an ecosystem around your product. While commercial vendors offer free reference designs, OSHW is a community effort. An open source design is likely to be more robust. It enables faster prototyping and it's continuously improved via multiple contributors.

    In conclusion, the case for keeping your hardware design proprietary is weaker than for software. Investment towards manufacturing and distribution is still a barrier to entry. Hardware can also be differentiated based on the firmware that need not necessarily be open.

  • What business models are possible with OSHW?
    A spectrum of business models for OSHW. Source: Zimmermann 2013.
    A spectrum of business models for OSHW. Source: Zimmermann 2013.

    Your design may be open and freely shared but you may charge for products made from open designs. Technical support, maintenance and upgrades can be part of your services model and customers will be willing to pay for them.

    You could create innovative services around open designs. You could then set up an online marketplace, aggregate and analyze data, etc. Openness becomes an incentive for customers because they have the freedom to tinker and customize. You can provide them training, resources, and additional services.

    Your product and its open design should be a market enabler. You can build an entire platform based on your open design. You can partner with others for peripherals that may or may not be open. In any case, a healthy ecosystem based on your open design will likely lead to better adoption and sales of your core products. This has been the case with Arduino and add-on boards called shields; and Raspberry Pi and add-on boards called hats.

  • What's the recommended licensing for OSHW?
    Some boards and their licenses. Source: Hegde 2015.
    Some boards and their licenses. Source: Hegde 2015.

    In the days before any OSHW licenses were defined, people simply used FOSS licenses for CAD drawings or firmware. To call something OSHW, it should be completely open without restrictions. Any license that prevents commercial use is not compatible with OSHW.

    "Creative" works are protected by copyright and "useful" or functional works are protected by patents. Thus, copyrights don't apply to hardware. If hardware is not patented, anyone can copy, modify or build upon the hardware. But copying or modifying hardware is lot easier if the design files are available. Thus, when we talk about open licensing or copyleft for hardware, we are referring to the design files and related documentation.

    In the world of software, there are plenty of licenses with different degrees of openness. Among the copyleft (share-alike or viral) licenses are GPL, CC BY-SA, CERN Open Hardware License (OHL) and TAPR Open Hardware License (OHL). Permissive licenses that allow for closed derivatives include FreeBSD, MIT, CC Attribution, and Solderpad Hardware License.

  • What are some examples of OSHW projects?
    OSHW characterization by category (a), technology (b) and project status (c). Source: Bonvoisin et al. 2017, fig. 2.
    OSHW characterization by category (a), technology (b) and project status (c). Source: Bonvoisin et al. 2017, fig. 2.

    Well-known examples that use CC BY-SA include Arduino, mBed HDK, BeagleBoard, Particule (formerly Spark), and Tessel. mangOH is an example that uses Creative Commons Attribution license.

    Back in 2013, some successful OSHW projects included Arduino, Raspberry Pi, OpenROV (remote-operated underwater robot), DIY Drones, LittleBits, and Makerbot Replicator 2, Lasersaur, Robo3D, and Console II.

    Noteworthy projects of 2016 included the Global Village Construction Set (fabricate industrial machines), Open Source Beehives (bee home and sensor kits for tracking), AKER garden kits, WikiHouse (building system), FarmBot (CNC farming machine), OpenDesk (make furniture), OSVehicle, RepRap (3D printer), OpenKnit (digital knitting), Defense Distributed (3D firearms), APM:Copter, and Open Hand Project (robotic prosthetic hands).

    Some OSHW boards include Arduino Due, Freescale Freedom, Microchip ChipKIT Uno32, and Beaglebone Black. Mouser website also lists dozens of other boards. Olimex offers OSHW boards including Linux-based OLinuXino boards.

    At chip level, RISC-V offers an open architecture from which customized SoCs can be designed. Other include lm32, mor1kx, and blocks from the OpenCores project. There's talk of even building an open source supercomputer.

  • What are some online resources for OSHW?

    Design files, particularly for 3D printing, can be downloaded from Thingiverse, MyMiniFactory, Pinshape, and Cults. Thingiverse was launched in 2008 and it encourages folks to modify and re-upload designs to the site. Other sources are, Hackaday, Open Electronics and the Open Circuits Institute.

    For crowdfunding, try CrowdSupply, Kickstarter, Goteo and Tindie. Adafruit and SparkFun, while selling proprietary products, also promote OSHW. Olimex,, and SolderCore are suppliers of OSHW that are also available from Mouser.

    If you're open sourcing your own product, you may release the design files on your own website, on Thingiverse or similar sites. If you wish to make it open during the design and development stages, GitHub or its alternatives can be a place to share. Prusa Mendel and Mendel90 are just two examples of projects that have received lots of community contributions, what in the tech speak are called "pull requests".

    Element14 has an online community forum for discussions on OSHW.



At a garage in Menlo Park, California, some computer hobbyists have the first meeting of their newly formed Homebrew Computer Club. At such a meeting, Steve Wozniak gets inspired to build his own computer and share the blueprints with others. This leads to Apple-1. However, Steve Jobs convinces Wozniak to sell Apple-1 rather than share them freely, thus marking the birth of Apple in 1977.


Bruce Peters launches the Open Hardware Certification Program to allow vendors to self-certify their products as open. This implies availability of documentation so that anyone could write their own device drivers.


Mozilla releases source code of Netscape browser suite. Not wanting to call it free software (in the spirit of the Richard Stallman's Free Software Foundation), the term Open Source is coined. The Open Source Initiative (OSI) is also formed by Eric Raymond and Bruce Peters. At this point, it's all about software, not hardware.


Hernando Barragán creates Wiring so that designers and artists can approach electronics and programming more easily. This work leads to the creation of Arduino in 2005.


The birth of the modern maker movement starts with the launch of Make: magazine. In August, Instructables launches as an online platform to share step-by-step instructions to make something.


Dale Dougherty organizes the first Maker Faire for makers to showcase their creations. In October, as an open access DIY workshop, TechShop opens in Menlo Park, California.


At a open hardware workshop in March, some folks define the Open Source Hardware Definition 0.1. In July, v0.3 is made public. These are based on the definition of open source (from 1998). As on June 2019, Open Source Hardware (OSHW) Definition 1.0 is current. Open-Source Hardware Definition is not itself a license but OSHW licenses are written so as to be compatible with the definition. In September, the first Open Hardware Summit is organized, in New York City. Since then it has become an annual event.

Logo of Open Source Hardware (OSHW). Source: OSHWA 2019.

The original gear logo of OSHW is selected via a community contest. A modified version of the winning logo is announced at the Open Hardware Summit. In July, the CERN Open Hardware License (OHL) is announced. To facilitate collaboration and sharing, CERN had already set up the Open Hardware Repository in January 2009.


The first Raspberry Pi Model B is released as a credit-card-sized single-board computer (SBC) retailing at only $35. The idea is to make computers affordable, accessible and fun to a new generation of programmers. Within two years, 2.5 million units are sold. By 2018, 22 million are sold worldwide. Also in 2012, the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) is formed. Certification of OSHW is also done by the Association.


The U.S. DARPA announces funding of $1.5 billion over five years for what it calls the Electronic Resurgence Initiative (ERI). This includes the POSH (Posh Open Source Hardware) project meant to create a Linux-based platform for the design and verification of open source hardware IP blocks for SoCs.


Esperanto, Google, SiFive, and Western Digital get together to form the CHIPS Alliance. The purpose is to foster open-source chip designs. The alliance is committed to RISC-V architecture but wishes to encourage more such open designs.


  1. Barragán, Hernando. 2016. "The Untold History of Arduino." Accessed 2019-05-31.
  2. Bonvoisin, Jérémy, Robert Mies, Jean-François Boujut, and Rainer Stark. 2017. "What is the “Source” of Open Source Hardware?" Journal of Open Hardware, September 05. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  3. Brown, Eric. 2018. "DARPA Drops $35 Million on 'Posh Open Source Hardware' Project.", July 26. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  4. Byfield, Bruce. 2018. "In Open Hardware, “Free as in Beer” Matters." Open Content & Software Magazine, July 30. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  5. Cicero, Simone. 2013. "Crowdfunding your Open Source Electronics Projects." Open Electronics, March 19. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  6. Cicero, Simone. 2014. "Why choose to be Open Source in the Hardware Industry." Open Electronics, April 07. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  7. Dormehl, Luke. 2019. "Today in Apple history: Homebrew Computer Club meets for first time." Cult of Mac, March 03. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  8. Fernández, Covadonga. 2015. "The Origins of the Maker Movement." OpenMind, May 22. Updated 2018-08-08. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  9. Fried, Limor. 2011. "Open Hardware Licenses.", May 17. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  10. Gottfried, Hal. 2015. "Does your open hardware project need a license?" Opensource, February 19. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  11. Hegde, Zenobia. 2015. "A new kind of open source hardware for IoT industrial-grade products." IoT Now, September 29. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  12. HPCwire. 2017. "OpenSuCo: Advancing Open Source Supercomputing at ISC." HPCwire, June 15. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  13. InMojo. 2019. "OSHW License Guide." InMojo. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  14. Instructables. 2019. "About page." Instructables, Autodesk. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  15. Kumar B. 2018. "10 Open Source Embedded Development Boards." EEWeb, July 11. Accessed 2019-06-03.
  16. Mouser. 2019. "Open Source Hardware." Accessed 2019-05-31.
  17. Neary, Dave. 2018. "6 pivotal moments in open source history." Opensource, February 01. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  18. Niezen, Gerrit. 2013. "10 commercially successful open source hardware projects in 2013." Medium, November 21. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  19. Olimex. 2019. "OLinuXino - Open Source Hardware Boards." Accessed 2019-05-31.
  20. OSHWA. 2012. "Open-Source Hardware FAQ." April 10. Updated 2017-05-23. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  21. OSHWA. 2013. "Brief History of Open Source Hardware Organizations and Definitions." July 10. Updated 2017-05-13. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  22. OSHWA. 2019. "Open Source Hardware Logo." Accessed 2019-05-31.
  23. OSI. 2018. "History of the OSI." Open Source Initiative, October. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  24. Pearce, Joshua M. 2018. "Open-source hardware could defend against the next generation of hacking." The Conversation, October 17. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  25. Raspberry Pi. 2019a. "Homepage." Accessed 2019-03-23.
  26. Reese, Lynnette. 2019. "Open Source Hardware Changes the Game." Mouser Electronics. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  27. Rouse, Margaret. 2011. "Open source hardware (open hardware)." TechTarget, July. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  28. Schneider, David. 2018. "How to Design a New Chip on a Budget." IEEE Spectrum, February 05. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  29. Vaughan-Nichols, Steven J. 2019. "Open source advances deeper into hardware: The CHIPS Alliance project." ZDNet, March 11. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  30. Wikipedia. 2019a. "Raspberry Pi." Wikipedia, March 14. Accessed 2019-03-22.
  31. Wikipedia. 2019b. "Instructables." Wikipedia, March 20. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  32. Wikipedia. 2019c. "Thingiverse." Wikipedia, March 25. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  33. Wikipedia. 2019d. "TechShop." Wikipedia, May 29. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  34. Williams, Elliot. 2018. "Can Open-source Hardware Be Like Open-source Software?" Hackaday, February 27. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  35. Zimmermann, Lars. 2013. "Business Models for Open Source Hardware & Open Design." Accessed 2019-05-31.

Further Reading

  1. Open Source Hardware (OSHW) Definition 1.0
  2. OSHWA. 2012. "Open-Source Hardware FAQ." April 10. Updated 2017-05-23. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  3. Cicero, Simone. 2013. "How to choose your Open Source Hardware License." Open Electronics, August 08. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  4. Reese, Lynnette. 2019. "The Future of Open Source Hardware." Mouser. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  5. Hawley, John. 2017. "8 ways to get started with open source hardware." Opensource, May 08. Accessed 2019-05-31.
  6. Williams, Elliot. 2018. "Can Open-source Hardware Be Like Open-source Software?" Hackaday, February 27. Accessed 2019-05-31.

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Devopedia. 2020. "Open Source Hardware." Version 3, July 21. Accessed 2020-11-24.
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Last updated on
2020-07-21 09:13:39