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If you are using technology right now, you’re probably using something that was developed or made using open source technology. In his new book, Create, Share, and Save Money Using Open-Source Projects, Joshua guides the reader on how to create everything from art projects to common household items using Open Source projects. This is a rather interesting topic and so we sat down with him (virtually) to talk about it.
Joshua is a materials science professor at Michigan Tech and earned his Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State College. His work focuses primarily on making solar panels and solar cells more efficient so that more energy for homes and industry can come from the sun rather than old fashioned fossil fuels. However, this work does not stop there. He helped create inexpensive water filtering for the developing world using salt and sun. He has also done some interesting work in the 3D printing space. He has helped create a 3D printer that works in steel and helped create a recycle bot, which is a machine that takes plastic and recycles it into 3D printing filament that can make new objects. These creations reduce the price of both the printer and the materials needed to make new things. As a scientist, he has also pioneered using 3D printing to make scientific instruments at a much lower cost than conventional means.
In this book, he has gathered various digital and other sources to help the everyday person engage in a hobby inexpensively. There are many resources to help people get what they need for free or low cost with a little effort. His book focuses on providing a one-stop-shop resource for people to begin their journey into this world. However, his ideas go far beyond helping people make and share art and photos. He has a whole idea of a more decentralized and localized manufacturing future that relies less on centralized supply chains and more on an elaborate and open source ecosystem. He’s a techno-optimist, which is not surprising. The economy is changing, and we’re going through a big period of transition that is disrupting everything. Many people are being left behind, can all this free or low-cost stuff save our world?
The Open Source Dream
Most of our tech readers are probably aware of what Open Source is, but for the uninitiated, open source is a term that comes from coding when you make a new program. Rather than keeping the code to yourself, you share the source code, hence the term. This idea of open sharing has created a vibrant digital community where you can take the ideas and projects of others and create them together for projects of your own. This has extended well beyond software and includes Creative Commons licensing for photos, novels, and other media. It also includes designs, plans, drawings, and schematics. Open source means you share your source code, and if you change it, you have to share what you did back. Open source projects and ideas cause rapid innovation because everyone is working on it and sharing their ideas in a community. Rather than 200 engineers working in a lab, people worldwide can work on a problem.
Joshua’s book compiles many resources together so that no matter what you are interested in, you can make it yourself for less using open source projects. To get the benefit, you have to share what you’ve worked on sharing that makes the project better. Open Source is basically crowd-sourced innovation. People contribute to benefit themselves, and the benefits are attractive primarily because people who work on these sorts of things get the benefit of the ideas of people all over the planet.
Joshua decided that he wanted to write a book that would help apply the magic of open source to all areas of life. In the book, he has resources that help artists with technical stuff, have sources for free and inexpensive digital resources. The biggest advantage of all these open sources or sharing projects is that it democratizes technology in a way that wasn’t possible before. Everybody can create something new, instead of only the elite with the resources to build large projects. Students can use open source projects to hone their skills, launch their app, or solve common problems. The economics of all of this is quite interesting, and we’re going to get to that in a little bit because the economics of all of this matter a great deal.
For the reader that wants to get started, the idea of coding a program to solve a problem, create an app, or even build something might be daunting. Many people outside of engineering and programming are likely not familiar but Joshua reports that if you are new, there’s plenty of training and resources to learn how to do things, contribute code, or build projects. This is especially true in the 3D printing space.
3D Printing and Open Source
The Open Source idea has been particularly successful in 3D printing with plans to make 3d printed items using relatively inexpensive 3D printing machines. The technology behind 3d printing has been around for a while, however, it was mostly locked up in patents until the early Aughts when 3d printing patents had finally run out and a British professor released the plans online on how to build a 3D printing machine that could make parts to make more 3D printing machines. These early machines could create new parts and thanks to the open-source community, they created new plans, and the original machine was made much better by the RepRap community.
You’ve probably seen the little plastic objects and art pieces made by 3D printers. 3D printing is more than plastic now, new metal printers are on the way and Joshua talked about a new ceramics method that uses a pre-ceramic polymer that once baked, becomes a ceramic. 3D printed dishes and decorative objects could be in our future. There are even new efforts to make 3D printed electronics which matched with open source hardware could lead to rapid innovations in computers, smartphones, and much more.
Joshua believes that 3D printers in this style could be the impetus for a manufacturing revolution. Between Open Source plans and inexpensive 3D printing, new businesses can compete against centralized manufacturing by using 3d printers in their homes or communities. This creates a tremendous amount of value because the entire supply chain is decentralized. Finished objects can be sold locally or shipped, and in another future, consumers could order up a new device and have it printed in their home and then buy services for the object from the company that made the plans for it.
Which then moves us to the economics of all this. If the knowledge isn’t owned by a business and everyone is just working on it for free, how does anyone make any money?
The Economics of it All
Joshua is a techno=optimist. He looks at these developments we’ve been talking about as incredibly encouraging for an entirely new way of organizing the economy. He views our current business model as broken. The business model around things has to change so that people can use open source and still get paid. The biggest example of this monetization of open source is Red Hat. This company sold a service on top of its distribution of Linux (which is open source) and was recently acquired for billions of dollars. Joshua says that working on an open-source economic model would work better because the business would not be protected from competition. If the information is out there, then a competitor or new startup can immediately improve, which means that anyone selling that product needs constant innovation and new services to give the customers what they want. Joshua believes that it is time to leave behind the patent system and move to an open-source system where the source of plans, drawings, and software is open to all to innovate and monetize as they wish. 3D printing is already generating a new kind of business. These 3D printing companies are making all sorts of things from common household items to parts for cars and other large appliances.
However, we’ve already seen what democratization of information has done to books, music, movies, and especially journalism. Opening up information destroyed the business model of legacy institutions and left all aspects of media scrambling to find a way to make money. The music itself doesn’t pay artists the way it used to, and most major artists monetize their brand with corporate sponsorship tie-ins. Movies are still struggling to figure out streaming, theatrical releases, and their business model. The audiobook has done great things for publishers (as have movie adaptations), and journalism is still struggling with journalism jobs being axed and daily newspapers becoming a thing of the past. How could we take advantage of open source technology to prevent this from happening to millions of jobs worldwide? We put that to Joshua, and he was hopeful that with the right structure and business model, these technologies could actually improve our economic outlook.
Joshua believes that besides the business aspect of this, 3D printing could help solve some of the major economic issues of our time. He thinks that Open source and 3D printing could give people greater control over products in their homes. He also believes that open source helps people have control over some technology to counter the proprietary march of automation. Automation has already eliminated a large class of jobs and is going to eliminate more. A decentralized manufacturing base could provide new opportunities for people to make money and possibly make something like universal basic income possible. Joshua agrees that if automation, in a proprietary way, is allowed to proceed, UBI will be the only way to keep the economy going. But instead, he proposes a different future where vertically integrated manufacturing goes away in favor of a decentralized future using open source technology and better 3D printers (among other things) to allow people to turn their garage into a factory.
But what about the social costs? Today, it’s easy to look back at the Luddites, who sought to destroy the new machines of the industrial revolution with much sympathy. A few years ago they had become a historical joke. Honest tradespeople trying to stop progress with axes and hammers. Now, their quest to save their own livelihoods isn’t so funny anymore. We are facing the same situation as the Luddites. They were made obsolete by cheaper manufactured goods. Today, workers face increasing pressures of automation from robots and machines that can do it all and do much faster and more efficiently. The days of putting 100,000 hands to making things are long gone. The social upheaval this has caused in developed nations is massive.
Start Your Own Little Shop
The point of this book is to create a stepping off point to help people introduce themselves to open source projects. The best way to get started is to find a community around your interest and then begin making your own stuff. Joshua’s book helps make this possible.
What does this future look like? In the future, when someone wants a new object, they would download the plans to their 3D printer, and the printer would make the object, and then the user would subscribe to services for that object if any are needed. People could use machines like Joshua’s recycle bot to make the necessary filaments to make objects and sell the excess. People could hire out their machine to make objects for larger companies. All of the tech for this would be constantly innovated upon using open-source sharing. People could use various creative resources to make new and original works of art for their home or sale. When something breaks or needs to be fixed, the method to do that would be a few clicks away. No more planned obsolesce or paying a company a lot of money for the latest thing that isn’t even that great but is always more expensive.
Much like how, in pre-industrial times, the cottage industry was the industry except for a few factories where work was organized, we would move back to this model. It seems like a nice idea: people making and selling their own goods and services but it is hard to imagine that the current corporate model is going to fall apart so easily. The internet was supposed to democratize journalism, art, and information. Instead, it left complete economic devastation in its wake. Let’s hope that we can embrace the optimistic future that Joshua Pearce proposes rather than the reality that we’ve been living in for the past 20 years or so.
Editor’s Note: To hear the entire conversation with Joshua Pearce on this topic and his book please see his episode on The Cameron Journal Podcast with our Editor-in-Chief, Cameron Cowan. Subscribe or listen everywhere podcasts are heard.