What’s up everyone, Tom here, and today we’re going to look at OpenSource and how the original idea of freely sharing knowledge is getting watered down more and more. And this is a problem!
3D printing as we know it today is based on the RepRap project, which is an initiative by professor Adrian Bowyer and his colleagues, where they started out by just providing a bare minimum set of tools to the public, as in, a few working 3D printer designs, some software, electronics schematics and some documentation with the goal of setting it all free into the wild and having it evolve out there by users making changes and just seeing which approaches would stick around and which ones would disappear. It’s as much an experiment on evolution as it was on 3D printing.
And if we look at what 3D printers look like today, one could argue that it’s been working out very well. For example, the original triangular frame of the Sells Mendel has practically disappeared because it was difficult to build and not very rigid, however, things like stepper motors and the Arduino-based electronics are still very present.
How was this all possible? Because RepRap focused on the machines being able to make as many of the parts for their offspring as possible, which is why 3D printers so commonly use 3D printed parts, and because open source.
Now, if we take a step back, what does open source even mean? Basically, for any product, whether that’s software or hardware, there’s always the finished thing, which is the physical product or the program or app that runs on your computer or phone, but both of those are built from a source. For software, that’s the actual source code, the program code, for hardware, that’s typically CAD files today. Without these, the product you have is just a black box. Sure, you can take hardware apart, but you won’t be able to build a better version of it for yourself or for others. You’ll just have to use it as manufacturer made it, and especially for more complex systems, you have very little of a chance of even trying to understand how these things work.
So that’s the very technical description of things, but really, it boils down to this:
So I went around the TCT show and asked a bunch of companies all the same questions, this first one was simply: “What does ‘Open Source’ mean to you”, like, are we even in the same boat here.
[Ultimaker Open Source]
Now, Ultimaker’s point here is interesting: They’re not a true “open source” company anymore, they’ve not published source files for their flagship product, the Ultimaker 3 yet, but they do still release other products, like the Cura software for free, and completely open source. And even with the Ultimaker 3, which again, is not an open source product, they aren’t taking any extra steps to lock people into their system. You can still use whatever materials or software you want, you can kinda mess with the hardware, but you’re likely not going to see someone else base their 3D printer design on the Ultimaker 3 since it’s a bunch of extra work to reverse-engineer everything and there are some legal question marks to it.
So Prusa brought up a crucial point here: You can publish all the source files you want if you don’t allow people and companies to use them. The most commonly used licenses for true open source projects go something like “here’s our source files, you can do with them whatever you want, but for basing your products on our work, you have to give credit to us and, with some some licenses, you will also need to *publish the source files for your new product under a license that, in turn, lets other people take and use *your files”.
Of course, Duet3D, being very closely related to the original RepRap project, they take open source very seriously, and their point of using open tools to design and produce, in this case, their electronics, is super important. After all, how many people will be able to afford a software that costs tens of thousands of dollars every year just to view the source files. Like, that’s crazy! Just look up what Altium Designer costs, which is a common electronics design tool, or Solidworks, for mechanical parts.
While I was at TCT, I also wanted to ask Zmorph the same questions, but they declined the interview, so lastly we have XYZ printing, a company you wouldn’t typically associate with open source since many of their printers use chipped and proprietary filament cartridges, are locked into their own slicer software, which actually generates encrypted gcode files to completely stop you dead in your tracks from messing with anything at all. But they do have a few machines that are marketed with the “open source” tagline, so let’s see what that’s all about:
Well, ok. I don’t think they get what “open source” means at all. Changing settings and being able to use different materials? I don’t know, man…
Moving on, I asked whether these companies, in fact, thought *they were an open source company. Let’s check it out:
[Are you open source?]
Notice how Ultimaker actually avoided the full term “open source” and instead just used “open”? I’m really hoping they’re not going down the Makerbot lane and piece by piece locking down their products, it didn’t work out too well for Makerbot, and after all, it would be a sad day if Ultimaker decided to leave the “community” aspect of 3D printer development behind altogether.
XYZ printing, again, uses the term “open source 3D printer” way too liberally. Just because you can change a setting here and there does not make your printers open source. That is pure marketing bullshit.
Alright, next up, I asked everyone whether they were actively using other open source projects. Like, are you using free/libre software to design things, or are you basing your work on other open source projects. What I was trying to get at here was that entire ”attribution” part, for example, are you using the Marlin firmware in your machines and do you have the guts to admit that your product draws from other projects.
[Are you using Open Scource?]
So far so good! Looks like there is some good understanding of how attribution should work and that you don’t have to reinvent everything yourself if you can draw from the huge pool of existing open-source projects.
Uhm, ah, I guess I should point out that I did ask all of these companies the exact same questions, so, well.
Ok, so open-source and sharing and all is all good, but why is it even important to keep sharing designs and software as open-source?
[Why is it important?]
I left out the response from XYZ, it had very little to do with what I was even asking for.
So to reiterate, it’s probably less important for the end user to own an open-source machine, because, let’s face it, how many of your are actually going to use those source files to mod a printer or to build your own one based on it. Where it does matter is for example changing things in the firmware, which is a relatively simple job if the manufacturer publishes their version of Marlin, as they are required to, but the same task becomes a huge ordeal when they don’t.
For 3D printing in its entirety, the idea of sharing designs and knowledge in a way where others can build on it and don’t need to start from scratch every time is a huge deal for how fast the industry as a whole can move forward. I’m personally a strong advocate of freely sharing knowledge where it profits everyone, and that doesn’t even mean you have to make every single detail of your business public, like Lulzbot does, it can often be enough to just document your work and make it clear that others can freely use it. And this is not a one-way ticket, you give some, but gain so much more by being able to tap into all the other open-source projects out there.
So let me know in the comments below or in the community forums, do you look to support open-source products when you buy stuff? Or are you ok with buying essential the same machines we had five years ago because companies started sharing less and less?
This month, special thanks Olivier Nicolas, Neil Youngberg, Adam Hunger, Christoph Schacht, Woody Boyd, Raphael Rema, Günni W, Remco Katz , Keith Austin, Sherif Eid, Filip Goc as well as all *these lovely people and everyone else on Patreon.
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