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Participants in a Fab Lab in Grenoble, France
Participants in a Fab Lab in Grenoble, France
Jacques Henno

PARIS Opendesk.cc is an original website in more ways than one. First of all, its domain name in .cc is that of the Coco Islands, but also means Creative Commons, a license system used by those who believe in sharing "open source" material. Indeed, this concept of "free material" is also part of what makes Opendesk special.


On this furniture website, you can download free designs for desks, chairs and book shelves created by designers from around the world. With the plan in-hand in PDF, you are free to modify the design as you see fit. If you're feeling brave enough, you can build it yourself. Except for the wood, the screws and your time, the object won’t have cost you a cent.


"Letting users modify my creations and make the most of it in whatever ways they want is an interesting idea," says Pierrick Faure, a young French designer who offers his Roxanne chair on Opendesk. "Plus, I don’t have to find a manufacturer to produce and deliver my creations. Instead, I can instantly send a file to my clients who’ll then manage the building and delivery process themselves."


Insignificant just a few years ago, the "open hardware" movement is growing in the United States, Germany, Japan and now France. Free designs for cars, wind turbines, beehives, smart energy monitors, submarine drones, prosthetic hands, miniature trains, and more.


Of course, at the origin of this revolution is digital technology. Computer-aided design software have completely changed how engineers and artists work. Their blueprints have moved away from paper to become easy-to-share electronic files that recent machine tools can also read, and from it automatically build complex pieces.


"It’s the recent popularization of prototyping tools that has enabled the rise of open hardware. Nowadays, you can buy a 3D printer for less than 500 euros and assemble a laser cutting machine from open source material for 2,000 euros,” explains Bertier Luyt, founder of the start-up Le FabShop, specialist of digital manufacturing and leader of the "maker movement" in France.


Started in California, this movement is bringing DIY (Do It Yourself) back into fashion by taking maximum advantage of the Internet and 3D printers, and is now expanding faster thanks to open hardware. "Makers" download open source designs, modify them and test their creations on prototyping machines made available in Fab Labs (creating and manufacturing workshops open to the general public), "makerspaces" or "hackerspaces" (more focused on electronics).

Big boy ploys


Open hardware is driven by the same principles as open software. "The whole patent system, which dates back to the 18th century in France, was created to protect inventors and thus encourage innovation," explains Léo Benichou, an engineer for a big energy company by day, and a "maker" by night. "This model has reached its limits with "patent trolls," these companies that buy patents to make money in future lawsuits rather than for industrial production, a system that of course hinders innovation."

The point of open hardware is that it breaks the intellectual property locks imposed by patents. "With open hardware, all digital files that make it possible to build a product, to improve it, or adapt it to a specific need, are shared and the research and development becomes a social endeavor, which accelerates innovations by removing the need to reinvent the wheel," says Benjamin Tincq, co-founder of OuiShare, a community that works on the subject of collaborative economy and has set up poc21.cc, a summer camp that will bring together 100 "makers" to develop open source solutions for an "open, sustainable society."


"The goal of open hardware is to accelerate the rhythm of innovation by calling on the community," says Damien Declercq, executive vice president of Local Motors for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Originally from Arizona, Local Motors develops vehicles in open hardware form and assembles them in micro-factories.

"We are 120 employees, more than 48,000 volunteers who take part in our community in 130 countries," says Declercq. "This allows us to go five times faster than a typical car manufacturer for 1% of the price."


That’s for the theory. "At first, open source was a utopia, somewhere between Communism and Capitalism, but you also need to be able to live off it, especially in open hardware," says Jean-Louis Frechin, founder of the innovation and design agency NoDesign.net, which created Weio, an open hardware digital card.


Thankfully, there are many ways to make money with open hardware. But what scares purists the most is the behavior of some large corporations who try to use open source to force their own technologies on users.


In June 2014, electric car-specialist Tesla pledged to no longer sue if somebody used their technologies "in good faith." Could that be because it’s one way to accelerate the development of the electric car market and thus, eventually, to compensate the money spent in the construction of Tesla’s gigantic battery factory in Nevada?

Then there's Google, whose Ara project of a low-cost and open hardware smartphone looks a lot like a maneuver to push its operating system Android, and gain even more control of the mobile advertising market.


Thankfully, nobody registered a patent for the good ol" Trojan Horse strategy.

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