What Role Will Open-Source Hardware Play in Future Designs?
Open-source hardware is popular among hobbyists. Now it's creeping into commercial markets. How will it proceed to reshape design?
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Open-source software has changed the face of the software industry for good. Now, open-source hardware promises to do the same for the electronics sector.
These platforms have been popular among hobbyists for years. As the IoT grows and production costs rise, the trend is creeping into commercial integrated circuit design, too. Where it proceeds from here will reshape electronics design. Here’s what that could look like.
Faster IoT Growth
As more manufacturers capitalize on open-source hardware, the IoT will skyrocket. There could be more than 29 billion active IoT connections by 2027, but that growth isn’t possible if all other conditions remain unchanged from today. Materials are too expensive and production is too centralized to foster enough competition. The open-source movement changes things.
Open-source designs dramatically lower the barrier to entry for electronics design, of which the IoT is undoubtedly the most promising category. Businesses can customize and produce devices without lengthy, expensive R&D. In some cases, they won’t even have to manufacture critical components themselves.
This democratization of device development will foster significant growth. Smaller companies will be able to compete in the crowded but ever-growing IoT market, leading to an influx of new gadgets.
Relatedly, the open-source movement will pave the way for more innovative devices. Access to ready-made, proven designs shortens production timelines enough to allow smaller, more risk-taking players to enter the field. If these end devices remain open-source, they’ll spur a wave of collaboration to drive device optimization further.
Open-source designs let anyone with access to electronic circuit design software see and refine others’ work. Thousands — even millions — of businesses and hobbyists can collaborate to make high-functioning devices, just as open-source software has enabled innovation.
One designer may have a good foundational idea but fail to identify all EMI issues. Another user could see their design and then develop and test an alteration that’s more resistant to interference. By speeding up the development process, a business is able to complete comprehensive EMC testing sooner to improve performance and ensure compliance. As a result, new, feature-rich devices can emerge that never would’ve made it to market otherwise.
Consistent Security Standards
This collaboration and innovation will prove particularly useful in cybersecurity. Like in open-source software, open-source hardware opens designs to input from multiple parties to find and patch vulnerabilities. As that happens, the IoT can overcome its prominent security shortcomings.
Collaborative integrated circuit design will also make it easier to adhere to regulatory guidelines. Programs like the U.S. Cyber Trust Mark incentivize higher security standards, but achieving this recognition can be difficult for smaller, less experienced developers. Improving each other’s open-source designs makes it easier for more devices to meet these requirements.
Businesses could distribute Cyber Trust Mark-compliant designs for others to build on, leading to a proliferation of high-security IoT endpoints. IoT security would improve across the board without jeopardizing interoperability.
A Rise in Custom Products
Because open-source designs streamline development, they leave more room for further tweaks. That could lead to custom electronics becoming more common across both consumer and commercial segments.
Open-source components tend to be versatile by design. Devs can easily make small adjustments in electronic circuit design software to create one-off, purpose-built devices based on these modular platforms. Singular, one-size-fits-all electronics could give way to highly personalized options in some markets.
Personalization is important, with 62% of consumers today saying a brand would lose their loyalty if it didn’t offer personalized experiences. Typically, this tailoring applies to marketing recommendations or UI preferences, but hardware can cash in on it through open-source designs.
New Revenue Streams
Similarly, open-source hardware paves the way for new monetization strategies. Democratized design and production make the electronics market fairer but could also make it crowded. However, businesses can counteract that competition by profiting from open-source designs and devices.
Electronics companies could build and sell development kits containing basic microcontrollers and tools to program them. Instead of relying on proprietary devices outperforming others, they’d profit from making it easier to get into device design. Current open-source giants have found considerable success through this model.
Alternatively, some enterprises could offer to manufacture smaller business’s open-source designs. Providing low-cost, small-scale manufacturing for devices using the same templates would be relatively straightforward but increasingly profitable as more parties try to capitalize on the open-source movement.
Obstacles in the Road Ahead
The extent of open-source hardware’s impact on electronics design is still uncertain. While it could likely lead to all these benefits, it also faces several challenges to mainstream adoption. The most significant of these is the volatility and high costs of the necessary raw materials.
Roughly 70% of all silicon materials come from China. This centralization makes prices prone to fluctuations from local disruptions in China or throughout the supply chain. Similarly, long shipping distances raise related prices for U.S. developers. Even if integrated circuit design becomes more accessible, these costs keep production inaccessible, slowing open-source devices’ growth.
Similarly, industry giants may be unwilling to accept the open-source movement. While open-source designs open new revenue streams, these market leaders profit greatly from their proprietary resources. The semiconductor fabs supporting these large companies are even more centralized. It may be difficult for open-source hardware to compete if these organizations don’t embrace the movement.
These obstacles don’t mean open-source alternatives can’t be successful, but they cast a shadow over their large-scale industry impact. This movement has experienced significant growth lately, so it will likely change the electronics market in some capacity. How far that impact goes depends on how the industry responds to these challenges.
Open-Source Hardware Will Shape the Future
Open-source hardware may seem like a distant dream, but consider its software counterpart. It’s changed the industry despite the popularity of proprietary alternatives and development complications. When dev tools and methods become more accessible, the same thing could happen in hardware.
As open-source integrated circuit design grows, it could make electronics a more diverse, resilient, and democratized industry. Achieving that will be difficult, but the results will benefit virtually all parties involved.
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