The growing popularity and availability of Open Source Hardware is changing the way the embedded electronics industry works, develops and distributes. In this article from ES Design magazine, Lynnette Reese of Mouser explores these new trends and how they are affecting the embedded electronics industry.
Embedded technology is facilitated by the standardisation of operating systems so that applications can run on any platform that supports the standard. Witness the overwhelming success of the open source software (OSS) movement. Cases in point: Linux enabled Google to build very cheap servers; Java, Perl, and Ruby have become the lingua franca for building Web 2.0 applications; and the free Web-server software Apache enables nearly half of all the world’s web sites. OSS can be said to have given birth to the Internet age, making everyone — including those who donated their labour — better off.
And likewise, Open Source Hardware is a potential game changer for the electronics market. Open source hardware (OSHW) is a component or device that has been licensed to allow anyone to examine, duplicate and modify the hardware as they wish. With open source, you can share and adapt the work freely and, if you choose, to sell or distribute it under the same license.
As with OSS, sharing is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. One example of OSHW is the Arduino platform where commercial re-use of Arduino designs requires no royalties. Mouser Electronics offers the Arduino line, which supports an Atmel processor, as well as other OSHW lines: the Beagleboard using Texas Instruments’ processors, the Pinguino with Microchip processors, and Parallax QuickStart Boards, among others.
Unlike a free reference design, OSHW typically involves a community of developers that contribute their time and expertise with no expectation of payment for their effort. One of the greatest benefits of open source is that many people with varying experience participate, making a more robust design and offering collective intellectual property for free. Integrity, technological intelligence and the elegance and cleverness in the execution of a solution are all rewarded. And this easier, faster, and cheaper way to design could fundamentally shift the hardware design and manufacturing paradigm.
In an OSHW community, design files are published online so others can download, modify, learn from and create their own hardware. Multiple modifications and additions are uploaded by contributors. This is a commercial advantage, because it allows for fast prototyping and produces a device that is iteratively tweaked or hacked; the entire design is out in the open. People like to make things and share them in communities because they make friends, earn respect, learn from others, and get some feedback on their contributions. There are hundreds of OSHW projects published online today.
In supporting the community, Mouser stocks and delivers the newest OSHW offerings. A simple yet powerful development board sure to become a favourite is the Arduino Leonardo. It’s based on the reliable Atmel 8-bit ATmega32u4; providing flexibility and power. This single processor, controlling both the USB communication and sketches, lowers costs by eliminating the additional processor.
Mouser also supplies the BeagleBone, developed by BeagleBoard.org and manufactured by Circuit Co. The BeagleBone eliminates barriers with easy development based on the ARM Cortex-A8 processor that runs Android 4.0 and Ubuntu software. Open-source Linux developers can easily add peripheral functionality with plug-in boards called ‘capes’ (camera, touch screen, motor control, battery power and more), enabling rapid product development.
Another solution Mouser carries, from Microchip Technology, is the chipKIT UNO32 Arduino-Compatible 32-Bit MCU development platform. The environment is based on the original Arduino IDE, modified to support PIC32 devices while still supporting the original Arduino line. This platform allows hobbyists and students to develop original embedded applications easily and quickly, including motor control, LCD display, wired/wireless communications, LED matrix control, and sensor networks. Other leading OSHW suppliers at Mouser utilising processors from Atmel, Freescale, Microchip and Texas Instruments include Olimex, Pandaboard.org, and SolderCore.
A final note is that OSHW products can be easier to repair. In ‘the old days’, appliances were kept for years and repaired; most user manuals came with a schematic. Nowadays it is often cheaper to buy a new product than to repair it. OSHW changes the game in that a customer can have access to the schematics and help online. As resources become more constrained, repair may be the lowest-cost approach again someday. A repaired product does not create waste in a landfill nor require new resources from a foundry. In the future, perhaps only a significant improvement in energy efficiency could trump repair and cause a new purchase. Meanwhile, OSHW is another way to go green.
Whatever your reason for using OSHW, Mouser has everything you need to embark on a voyage of discovery into open source hardware, whether the reason is to jump-start a new product design, investigate a new technology, or to create one of the many projects published online. Mouser is your source for the latest in OSHW kits and stocks the widest selection of the newest products with same day shipping.
Author profile: Lynnette Reese is a member of the technical staff at Mouser and holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Louisiana State University. Prior to her position at Mouser, she completed a combined 15 years in technical marketing with Texas Instruments, Freescale, and Cypress Semiconductor.