Driven by open source

The Open-Source Smoothie control board for 3D Printers and CNC machinery

Open-Source hardware and software has driven both the development and success of the desktop 3D printing market in recent years. Along with a desire for making, investigation, education and development, the entire Open-Source ecosystem supports an ever-expanding skill set that people can use as a springboard for Open-Innovation.

In this feature, I will look in greater depth at some of the Open-Source hardware, technologies and software that continue to fuel the expanding desktop 3D printing sector... and before you make a snap decision that it’s not for you, I would encourage reading further - I'm also going to explain Open-Source licensing terms so that you’ll know exactly what you can and can't do with the great wealth of models, designs and even 3D printing systems being shared globally by thousands of users.

If you’re not familiar with Open-Source, or you’re unclear as to what you can or can't do with a model you have downloaded (or even a 3D printer you want to build and sell!), this should provide plenty of background information and will help to build your confidence in what can be a slightly daunting field.

I'm going to focus more on the electronics, hardware and physical design aspects of Open-Source, while using the history of our more-established Open-Source software as a reference guide, to aid understanding.

The Open-Source Hardware Association (www.oshwa.org) has recently begun the process of establishing a formal Open-Source Hardware certification process. This certification will help to define those products and companies that are contributing to Open-Source hardware innovation. In the current scene, some clarity is definitely required (as you may have discovered if you’ve previously explored Open- Source culture).

The Internet and 3D printing have helped to make hardware more like software. Physical designs and objects can be changed electronically, uploaded and distributed all around the world as easily as a software update. It may take a little longer to print out a design and upgrade your device, 3D printer, or appliance, but it's possible, it’s already happening and the lines are become more blurred as time goes on.

In simple terms, just because something is Open-Source or being shared willingly and often without payment, it is still almost always not being provided as 'free for any use you wish'. This is a vital distinction to make with Open-Source designs and projects. Almost all files, designs, models and information will be provided with a license. This license will define what you (the user) can and can't do with the information you have downloaded.

Whenever you create or design anything, you are automatically protected by copyright. Whether it's a photographic image, electronics design, artistic work or anything else, copyright usually has you covered. You don't even need to display a Copyright Logo © to be protected, but doing so normally indicates that you wish to specifically highlight this aspect.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a universal international copyright law. Although copyright is now more commonly understood and globally respected, it's not something that will definitely stop someone from taking your idea or product and just making something similar. Determining whether something breaks / infringes copyright is still an issue for lawyers to battle out, so while it's not always possible to protect yourself from misuse, you can apply a license to better explain how you want to share the design, idea or body of work.

Of course, if you want to keep the idea or design for yourself, a patent can provide some extra protection. Only certain things can be patented, and I would personally only recommend going down that route if you have the funds to defend a patent infringement (which usually costs several million dollars), so do make sure you actually have something worth patenting in the first place.

Lego is a fine product example, a patented invention that had a good 20+ years to exploit and build a global empire. They’re now the biggest toy company in the world and yet anyone can make compatible Lego bricks. They just can't call them Lego. The Lego company is confident enough in it's own brand identity to survive and thrive even without the (now expired) original patents.

3D printing however is at an interesting point. It too has had 20+ years of patented 3D printing methods. One could argue that due to the explosion of Open-Source innovation (which happened in 3D printing directly after those early patents expired) it was nowhere near as well exploited as it could have been.

Nevertheless, some very large and well-established companies like Stratasys and 3DSystems managed to grow, selling more than enough products to industrial customers to make businesses all around the world curious about this wonderful technology. It seems that they just managed to keep it well enough under-the-radar to maximise margins and continue expanding their vast patent portfolios, while not attracting the attentions of significantly larger companies that could have gobbled it up all for themselves. It'll be interesting to see where giants like HP, with their MultiJet Fusion, will take the industrial 3D Printing sector and indeed which companies will survive for the next 20+ years, with or without patents.

Other well-established companies looking to 3D printing are starting to see the benefits of collaborating with a community in an open way. In recent years, Autodesk has been promoting the Spark software platform and Ember (a hardware reference 3D printing platform) to help develop the next generation of stereo lithography. Although Autodesk is a software company, this is a very clever approach - by promoting a standard reference printing platform, they can refine and develop more effective 3D printing software tools for users. For those of you who fancy peeking under the hood, Ember has been released as Open-Source under the Creative Commons Attribution- ShareAlike license.

Autodesk have continued to patent ideas and 3D Printing hardware - most recently filing a patent for a many-channel multi-material mixing extruder design for FDM based desktop machines. It's unclear what Autodesk will do with these sorts of patents - they could be opened up to the development communities as another reference platform like Ember, or kept by Autodesk as IP to call upon in the future. Ember is currently like a Trojan Horse for Autodesk – made available to further promote and develop the Spark software platform, but who knows, maybe like Google and many others, at some point in the future they could become a hardware company too...

The Autodesk Ember 3D printer - Open-Source hardware reference platform for Spark

In the hardware world, it's becoming easier to design and develop hardware devices, for both individuals and small teams and so in one way or another, Open-Source hardware will continue to lead an alternative way forward, as it has for Open-Source software in recent years.

Electronic component manufacturers have seen how assisting with Open-Source can lead to a boom in sales (and the volume of parts being shipped), while becoming the standard for people to use in years to come. Open-Source resources can be accessed to build anything from a flying drone or mobile phone to a 3D printer and soon…. electric cars.

The Open-Source Linux-based Raspberry Pi computer platform is another great example of a self-supporting and flourishing Open-Hardware control system used by millions around the world. The low-cost Raspberry Pi is often combined with a great Open-Source software package, OctoPrint - a program created and supported by Gina Häußge. OctoPrint (www.octoprint.org) can be used as a hub for connecting 3D printers across a network or via the internet and allows remote control / monitoring of 3D printers, along with a variety of other useful functions – many of which originated as suggestions from the 3D printing community.

Licensing 101

Let’s look deeper into how licenses are applied and used for hardware projects and physical designs:

The RepRap Project (www.reprap.org)

Originally created by Dr Adrian Bowyer at the University of Bath in the UK, the RepRap project kicked off a new wave of desktop 3D printing. Born from now-expired early FDM Patents, the project was conceived from the very start to self-replicate. It was acknowledged early on that controlling, protecting or restricting the source of the design files would be counter-productive if the experiment of an evolving personal fabrication machine was to succeed.

The core of the RepRap project was originally released under the Gnu General Public License. On the whole, this means that the files are free and anyone can use them, so long as they too release the source for any changes / improvements they make / adapt for others to also reuse under the same license.

The Gnu Public License was designed around Open-Source software, and although it can be used for hardware projects, it's not ideal. This is because hardware projects have a physical presence that can be shown out of context from the original project or re-used without obvious acknowledgement to the original author.

What is still a very new concept to many is the use of a license agreement for physical models, designs and products. Almost everyone has at some point clicked ‘Yes, I accept the license terms….’ for a downloaded software package or new operating system, but that sort of license is usually defining the terms of use, not the terms of re-use, manipulation, adaptation, or attribution.

Creative commons

Many people now choose to use the Creative Commons License. This can cover many aspects of both hardware and software projects and also extends to creative works. Full details about the licenses can be found at www.creativecommons.org/licenses/.

You’ll probably run into Creative Commons License options if you share a file or download a 3D design from a model-sharing site. It's well worth understanding what these different licenses allow, so that you can make an informed decision, knowing how you or your company is allowed to use a printed object or design files.

Levels of control

The most selfless way to release anything you design, make, or invent into the world is by releasing the work as Public Domain (PD). This effectively waives all your rights to copyright ownership, attribution as the author or originator and allows anyone to use the work for anything they wish without any connection to you.

As you can imagine, not everything put up on the Internet is given so freely. We can see projects, software, books or artworks enter into the Public Domain classification when copyright expires, which can be 70 years after the author dies. More often, we see educational material, old software, games and designs submitted as Public Domain, usually when there is little further commercial gain to be had from them. There are a number of Public Domain icons that you can use, and Creative Commons also provides a way to show that you intend the work to have no rights reserved.

Other Public Domain logos are used to illustrate that something has no known copyright - although these tend to be very old works.

Most people are going to select a license with some level of rights reserved, rather than PD. Creative Commons has six main licenses: they are easy to visually understand once you’re familiar with the terms, and their aim is to make identification easy for both the author and user, doing away with the needs for lots of small print.

Many creative people like to have a starting point or reference - it's the reason why Open-Source works so well. Broadly speaking, you will not find a large collection of people all working on the same single project. More often, a project is released early or as a basic framework - usually just about working but not perfected.

People will then take that idea and fork it off. The term ‘forking’ is normally used with software, but it's just as applicable to models or hardware projects. In recent years, the terms ‘derivative’ or ‘remix’ are now generally used. If the new project and subsequent changes are also shared, the cycle can continue, improving or evolving the idea or design, often spawning many more projects along similar lines.

The chain back to the original author is very important though, and that's why all Creative Commons Licenses have an attribution requirement. Ensuring that your work is displayed or passed on with the correct attribution is the reason that many people choose a license over just releasing as PD. If you take one thing away from this article, please let it be the importance of attribution.

The most accommodating and open license Creative Commons offers is the CC-BY. This allows anyone to distribute, remix or build upon your work, even commercially, in any way. The only requirement is that they credit you for the original creation 'BY' - attribution. This license provides the best chance for getting your work into the hands of users all around the world, making it the most likely to start a new project 'standard' or go viral on the internet due to it's low limits of restriction.

 

The one downside to this license is that people can release remixed work under a more restrictive license, and the original author may not like that their work is being built on, but then limited in subsequent release. For this reason, one of the most popular Creative Commons licenses is the CC-BY-SA.

  

CC-BY-SA still requires attribution to the original author, but it also requests that any remixed work based on the work is shared under the same license. It can still be used for commercial purposes. Wikipedia uses this license to share all it's content.

Share and Share Alike

Imagine if you will, a 3D printer manufacturer who sells machines and also provides upgrades of part designs (e.g. the extruder) to the community. A proportion of users (a significantly higher proportion in communities like desktop 3D printing, drones, Raspberry Pi and other tech markets) will almost always take these products and model upgrades to resolve flaws or issues they find when using the machines. They will then propose updates, redesign and release them for everyone else to benefit.

Years ago this became established as the norm with Open-Source software packages, where the community was helping to build the ‘better’ software package they wanted from a baseline of what they already had. Now, as Open-Source hardware and 3D printing allows the adaptation of physical things, the same is true. If the 3D printer manufacturer spotted these design changes and started shipping upgrades to all their customers, that would be fine, creating a good symbiotic relationship: Open-Source files have been provided by the manufacturer, adapted by the community and the upgrades have been released back out, still being Open-Source.

However, if that manufacturer decided to take those modifications (or even a completely different but compatible design) from the community and either attempted to patent the idea, or incorporate it into their product without releasing the design as Open-Source, then the entire circle-of-trust breaks down and the community will most likely no longer buy from, promote, or support that manufacturer. The license terms and Open-Source intellectual property aspect is more important than the actual idea or design. This is not just about personal principles, it's a fundamental aspect of Open-Source.

This is really the point where you need to decide if you are going to be happy sharing designs and ideas. If not, just keep them to yourself. Often the argument occurs when the original designer wants to sell the object, and so they don't want people making copies. In that case, you can use a Non Commercial (NC) license. Allowing derivatives designs to be made and shared by your own users can greatly build your brand value and the community of people who actively want to engage with you and even help you to improve your own products. That's a win-win situation and hopefully many people will start to see that they can even drop the Non Commercial aspect of the license.

Community support for a product, supplier or manufacturer can create such a strong bond that even when a lower cost alternative, copy or clone is released, enough people will continue to appreciate the original source of innovation. You just need to stay on top of your relationships and work with the community that you have built and who respect you. After all, if someone is going to copy you, they only need to change a few minor things and they can get around your NC aspect.

  

On that note, another aspect of Open-Source is to improve or give back to the open community. If you (or your company) are only interested in taking Open- Source designs as-is, selling them on to make a profit from an individual or an entire community’s work, don't be surprised if that doesn’t go down too well with the very users you hope to connect with.

If however you improve on those designs, release them or submit your own designs back into the community then, congratulations are in order - you have probably started on a collaborative effort with your users and the greater Open-Innovation community. Bear in mind it's not all black and white either - more like fifty shades of grey, as many companies start-up by selling a 'standard' Open-Source design (if the license allows) to earn some initial capital to invest back into better designs or expanding the business. People get that - just be sure to give back if you are feeding from a community in any way, either with products or knowledge. No one likes to feel used.

  

No Derivatives is the most restricting of any license, making the object or design useless for anyone who wants to improve or build on the idea. In fairness, the No Derivative license is often ideal for artists, sculptural modellers or anyone who is doing work that they want to be recognised for and is pleasing enough for people to enjoy or use.

An elegant vase or complicated sculpture can still be shared with the world, but by using the No Derivative license, the creator can ensure that the design is not modified or altered and then re-uploaded as a derivative work. You can think of this as the artist having the ultimate say - they allow it to be shared for people to enjoy and in the case of 3D printing, for personal use, but they want the object to remain as they designed it.

   

When I see the No Derivative license being used for a machine upgrade, 3D printing extruder, or any other usable 3D printable model, I sometimes fail to understand what the designer had in mind when selecting that option. They are basically saying that this design is perfect and no one should change it. Or in other words, the design is already obsolete.

I say this, because someone will take the same idea, design their own variant, release it under a less restrictive license and that design will become the more popular and talked-about version for people around the world to build on. I have seen inventors and designers get very upset about this, where someone else gets the 'credit' for distributing something they had already released under a No Derivative license. The benefit of allowing derivatives of your idea or design is that it grows, evolves and can even become the standard everyone uses, rather than ignores.

   

Timing

The greyer aspects of competitive business and Open-Source include decisions like: When to release the source? Many companies choose to design behind closed doors, going dark for a while before releasing a product and then at some point after initial sales have been made, they release the hardware source files, usually around the time the design starts to become 'standard' for the community.

It's not always an ideal situation, but it can work, and allows users to eventually upgrade parts, improve the design or just see how things are put together. It’s worth bearing in mind – Open Source is not necessarily about every user wanting to view or change the source files, but more about the fact that they’re available for the community to work on. A user may not have the skills to improve the design themselves, but will have significant confidence in the fact that a groundswell of several thousand more people may improve on it for them, and they can benefit.

That starts to be a key decision point for users when deciding which products (3D printers for example) they wish to buy. As we can see, community support becomes a powerful sales tool and in many fast-evolving technical industries, a significant reason to choose one product over another.

Some companies release their source right at the start, even during the development of the new product and even more engage with their customers and the wider community during the development. An ultimate extension to this is Open-Innovation with and for the very community they support. This doesn’t have to be for free either – Open-Source companies pay for innovation, design work and advice just like any other. The benefit is a customer base who actively sticks with and supports that manufacturer or designer because they believe in the product and the benefit it brings them.

Lulzbot and RepRap Pro Ltd. are two highly Open-Source 3D Printing companies who release everything during the design stages. You can often find ideas and source files up on GitHub or development sections of their websites before the product has been finished, tested or released.

Arduino control electronics are the most well known and used in the electronics world.

Arduino

The very heart of almost all desktop and RepRap 3D printers use an Arduino electronics control board. These fantastic modular control electronics are used for all sorts of hobby and educational projects - they even get used for industrial applications around the world. Arduino controllers are released as Open- Source hardware and software, licensed for use with the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. This allows for both personal and commercial use, but you must share the files in the same way Arduino does and also give credit attribution to Arduino with your designs or changes.

The Arduino brand has a registered trademark. This does not offer any significant protection for the product IP. Instead, it's a very good way to identify and build a brand for the original work or products. Arduino controllers do get cloned, and that's allowed within the terms of the license, even for commercial use. But the one thing a cloned board can't do is call itself an Arduino or display the same marks on the electronics printed circuit board. They can however claim to be ‘Arduino Compatible’ and run the same Arduino software.

Since 2005, Arduino has been the world's most popular electronics control board. It's always been produced as Open-Source Hardware and has a thriving community that supports the project and its creators. When the Arduino LLC company was set up, the development team continued to produce new hardware designs, while an agreement with a manufacturing company called Smart Projects resulted in the production of the different Arduino controllers.

Smart Projects would pay a royalty for each control board sold so that the Arduino LLC team could provide support via www.arduino.cc and run the design company, while also continuing development of new hardware for Smart Projects to build. This relationship worked perfectly for over ten years and the Arduino name has become globally renowned.

Unfortunately, the last few years have seen the original founders fall out with Smart Projects because they had secretly registered the Arduino trade mark in Italy without the knowledge of the Arduino company. Furthermore, Smart Projects changed their name to Arduino SRL and have produced a new website www. arduino.org, promoting themselves as the original Arduino.

They still manufacture in Italy, while the Arduino LLC company, led by the co-founder Massimo Banzi now uses Seedstudio based in China to manufacture for markets outside of the USA and Adafruit to manufacture for the US. It's all a bit of a mess, splitting users who can buy the same or similar Arduino branded products from two different (but original) sources. How this will impact the world of Open-Source Hardware has been a topic of heated debate recently.

Desktop 3D Printers continue to use basic low-powered 8bit Arduino-based control electronics, but they are now finally being superseded by much more powerful 32bit ARM-based platforms, capable of faster and smoother control of the more advanced 3D printing systems heading to the market. One of the most significant of these new Open Source ARMbased control systems has been the Smoothieboard hardware platform and Smoothieware software designed by Arthur Wolf, Triffid_Hunter, Eneiou Logxen and many others in the RepRap community.

www.smoothieware.org

The Smoothie platform is highly capable of providing enough performance for even the most demanding 3D Printers and CNC machining systems. Although it's often difficult to see what will become the next default platform, Smoothie is looking like the premier contender in the Open- Source arena for developers and manufacturers looking for machine and capability upgrades.

Smoothieware encourages you to use, adapt and even sell both hardware and control systems to allow this platform to grow and to encourage worldwide adoption. If you make a significant upgrade or remix of the hardware design or software platform, Smoothieware.org will even evaluate manufacturing it for you. It now has significantly higher chances of success than many of the competing Closed-Source platforms.

One such alternative platform choice for 3D printer manufacturers is by Create it REAL www. createitreal.com This is another next generation ARM-based 3D printing control system, but it's designed to be integrated and configured by Create it REAL for the specific 3D printing manufacturers who wish to use it. The hardware, firmware and desktop software application are all proprietary IP that's not shared as Open-Source. A small level of customisation with re-skinning the look of the user interface can be done by the end manufacturer, but that's as far as Create it REAL go down the Open-Source route.

Create it REAL are promoting a powerful platform standard, and wish to become the control system supplier of choice for desktop 3D Printers. It is a single-sourced option - support and control of the platform and future development is only going to happen via the Create it REAL team. This has some risks, but also has numerous benefits for any manufacturer that does not want to support the hardware running their 3D printer. Create it REAL have picked up various customers for their platform, and continue to show that there is room in the market for an alternative 3D printing hardware control system.

Time will tell if closed platforms (without the freedom to self-support and expand the platform via the established Open- Source 3D Printing community) become the next worldwide standard, or if Open-Source Hardware projects like Smoothie can take over from the Arduino-based controllers that power almost all of the desktop 3D Printers in use today. This will probably depend on just how ‘mainstream’ desktop 3D printing becomes, and also on how much the competition for features between 3D printing manufacturers heats up in the coming years.

It's still early days for Open-Source hardware, as everyone is trying to work out how best to build up companies, communities, standards and foster a healthy level of innovation and adoption with users and industry. Cash flow, growing pains and the rapid changes in electronics both help and hinder the competitive landscape of companies that choose an Open-Source business model.

Many will find their own path, making decisions that some will be happy with and others not. Having an open nature and a circle-of-trust relationship with (and for) the community are the more important aspects of a well-intentioned Open- Source business model. Indeed, it’s probably more important than how much you charge for your products and services. If you bring value, people will respond to that and in turn, innovate with you and for you, openly, and with passion and great gusto.

About Richard Horne

Richard Horne is well known in the 3D printing community as RichRap. Rich is a highly passionate advocate of 3D printing for all uses in industry, education and the desktop. Since joining the open-source maker movement and then the RepRap project in 2009, Rich has been blogging, developing and sharing ideas for the greater global interest in 3D printing.