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Pierce lab

6 things you should know about open-source hardware

November 6, 2019 | 4 min read

By Ana Maria Sedletchi

Dr. Joshua Pearce shares important insights on how to use open-source hardware to improve your research in the new Researcher Academy module

Caption: Dr. Joshua Pearce (right) with researchers in the Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology Lab.

If you do experimental research, you have to make important decisions about the equipment you will use for your studies. In the old days, the default choice was to buy the equipment off the shelf, which was often expensive and difficult to customize. An alternative was to build it themselves or hire someone to customize your hardware, which took a lot of time and was also very costly. Fortunately, there is now a third alternative: open-source hardware.

To celebrate Open Access Week 2019(opens in new tab/window)Elsevier’s Researcher Academy(opens in new tab/window) launched a free module(opens in new tab/window) addressing the topic of open hardware and how it can improve your research.

This module presents the rapid organic growth of the open-source paradigm in science and the potential future applications of this approach harnessing advanced material science. It concludes with opportunities for importing the benefits of the open innovation model into any scientific field.

The module features a presentation by Dr. Joshua M. Pearce(opens in new tab/window), Professor in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering and the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at Michigan Technological University(opens in new tab/window), where he runs the Open Sustainability Technology Research Group, and Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier’s HardwareX(opens in new tab/window) journal.

Here are six things you should know about open-source hardware, based on Joshua’s presentation.

1. Let’s start at the beginning

The term “open-source” first appeared with the early open software movement(opens in new tab/window) in the 1970s, which aimed to spread the concept of freely-sharing source codes for software development. The movement grew and has had much success. A wide variety of software is freely licensed to grant users the right to use, change, and study the source code without restrictions. The idea of open-source hardware emerged from the concept of open-source software.

2. What is open-source hardware?

Open-source hardware(opens in new tab/window) is a hardware whose design is made publicly available so anyone can study, modify, distribute, make and sell the design or hardware based on that design. Using open-source hardware can significantly reduce research expenses while contributing to the integrity of science in general. Researchers individually develop the same equipment over and over again when they could be using technology developed by another researcher for the same scope. Application of open-source hardware supports innovation and a more sustainable future.

3. The Arduino electronic prototyping platform

A good example of open-source hardware is the Arduino(opens in new tab/window) electronic prototyping platform. It’s an easy-to-learn microcontroller that allows you to take information from the Arduino platform and act on that environment. In the old days, learning to program a microcontroller was very difficult. Now, Arduino is an open-source project. There are codes and designs published open access, but also many researchers contributed to build up libraries with new ideas and schematics. Therefore, it’s currently much easier to automate processes of many tasks.

4. Fundamental advantages

Rapid open-source technological evolution in electronics and 3D printing has resulted in the democratization of digital manufacturing. It’s not just having access to the theory; it’s having access to the same equipment researchers use to run their experiments. There is an opportunity to harness these trends to radically reduce the costs of experimental research while improving it by supporting the development of free and open-source hardware for science.

5. The power of open-source

Open-source hardware is powerful because one researcher can create and publish a design, and all researchers can benefit from it. This leads to an immediate opportunity to catch up to the best practices, so that it is possible to continue to push science. By harnessing a scalable open-source methodology, funding is spent only once for development of scientific equipment and then a return on the investment is realized by direct digital replication of scientific devices for only the costs of materials.

6. Where can I publish my designs?

HardwareX(opens in new tab/window) is Elsevier’s journal for open hardware. It is an open access journal created to promote free and open-source designing, building and customizing of hardware. HardwareX publishes hundreds of designs; they have all the information needed to replicate the device, and you are able to do custom things with a low cost. Find out more about the importance of hardware articles(opens in new tab/window).

Watch the Researcher Academy module

Learn more about how your experimental research can benefit from the open-source hardware model in this new module: How to leverage open hardware to improve your research(opens in new tab/window)

Researcher Academy(opens in new tab/window) is a free e-learning platform for career-related guidance. New monthly modules can be accessed for free on their website(opens in new tab/window). Then you can ask questions and discuss the webinar in the dedicated Mendeley group(opens in new tab/window), where the team will help you find answers.

Read a chapter from Joshua Pearce’s book

Elsevier has made this chapter freely available for one year, until November 20, 2020: Open-Source Lab: How to Build Your Own Hardware and Reduce Research Costs(opens in new tab/window)


Portrait photo of Ana Maria Sedletchi


Ana Maria Sedletchi

Marketing, Communication and Digital Content

Research Academy