Obrary, on a challenge: marketing Open Design (or Open Source Hardware)

By on September 25, 2014
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Few days ago I had the chance of exchanging few tweets with the Obrary team about file availability

and later on this led to a short mail interview with co-founder Scott Austin, that I share with you. It’s interesting to see how the guys reinterpreted the OSHW definition in a way that they feel more clear and how their efficiently pursuing distributing open and simple products (mainly CNC manufactured furniture) on the market.

They still have something to work on but we thought was worth for you to know a bit more about the project.


[Simone Cicero] Ciao Scott, tell me about Obrary

[Scott Austin] At Obrary, we believe in the promise that digital manufacturing brings for creating products locally in small batches.  But digital manufacturing is still too complex today to be a cost competitive or widely adopted solution.  We are going to fix that in two big areas.

The first area is to build a library of truly open designs that everyone can access, customize and improve upon.  Two things differentiate our open designs from many others that claim to be open.  First, we provide access to the source design file, not just a DXF or PDF.  Is the file was done in Rhino, we’ll provide the 3DM files.  If SketchUp was used, the SKP files.  Etc.  Second, we do not restrict people from commercial use of the designs.  We use the Creative Commons Free Culture License.  Most others use a more restrictive license.

The second area we are going to improve is the overall digital design/manufacturing process.  Today’s processes are based principles developed for mass production and can be greatly improved upon to maximize the benefits of small batch manufacturing.  Imagine this.  You are at the console of a CNC router.  You select that you want to print a table.  You then specify the dimensions you want for your table.  You also input the diameter of your bit and the thickness of your material.  Then the router immediately begins creating the table for these exact inputs.  We will develop the processes and software solutions to make this a reality.

We have chosen to start with subtractive manufacturing on CNC routers and laser cutters.  One reason for this is these tools allow us to make products in the meters scale; so they are useful, real world solutions.  Also these tools use wood as a common material which is a renewable and locally available resource.  This will allow these products to be made wherever there is demand.


[SC] Why have you decided to not use Open Source Hardware Association’s definition of Open Source Hardware? Looks pretty aligned with yours (availability of files, commercial use…)

[SA ] The Open Source Hardware definition is great and applicable for the work we are doing.  But we chose to use the term Open Design over Open Source Hardware.  Those terms are close to synonymous to us, but here’s why we use Open Design.  In the technology world, we understand ‘source’ to mean ‘source code’ or ‘source file’.  Source as in original.  But outside of the technology world, other people think of source differently to mean where or how materials are procured.  Source as in origin.  Design is more intuitive to more people to mean design files.

Also, hardware is not a broad enough term for the products we have in Obrary.  For example, a chair is not hardware.  Here is Dictionary.com’s definition of hardware:

  • metalware, as tools, locks, hinges, or cutlery.

  • the mechanical equipment necessary for conducting an activity, usually distinguished from the theory and design that make the activity possible.

  • military weapons and combat equipment.

  • Slang. a weapon carried on one’s person: The rougher types were asked to check their hardware at the door.

  • Computers. the mechanical, magnetic, electronic, and electrical devices comprising a computer system, as the CPU, disk drives, keyboard, or screen.


[SC] What happens when I buy an artifact on Obrary today? How is it manufactured (do you already have a network of makers)?

[SA] Manufacturing is done by the Obrary team at a shop in San Diego, CA.  The shop has a CNC Router and a few Laser Cutters.  There’s also all the post processing equipment (sanders, routers, etc.) we need to bring the products to the quality finish that our customers desire.  We ship from San Diego to the whole United States.  Our expansion plans call for partnering with local makers to be able to sell products outside of the US.  By making products close to where the demand is we’ll be able to reduce transportation costs and reduce their carbon footprint.

[SC] Does the original designer get a fee?

[SA] The open designs on Obrary are shared freely and without cost, so the designer is not getting a fee.  One of the things that is important is the concept of open source designs.  That means the source code (CAD file) is shared out to the community not just an interchange format like PDF or DXF.  The reason for this is that we want the community to iterate on and improve the designs.  This concept has worked remarkably well for software and we can do the same thing for designs.  If designers would to get a fee for each file shared or product made, it would change the openness and collaborative nature of the community.  It could happen in a couple of ways:

  • Let’s say DesignerA creates an open design and gets paid a fee every time a product is sold.  Then DesignerB takes the source code and changes the design some.  How much should DesignerB get paid when a product is made versus DesignerA.
  • Or DesignerC might come along and make the smallest change to every design in the library just to get a piece of the revenues.

If the above starts happening, the community starts having conflict and disagreements instead of working together collaboratively.


Hope you’ve found this discussion interesting, few key simple topics of Open Source powered business are touched. Food for thought!


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About Simone Cicero

Simone Cicero is a blogger (at meedabyte.com), strategist & speaker. Simone is also a long time Open Source advocate and Open Source Electronics editor. Follow him on twitter at @meedabyte

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