On the Viability of the Open Source Development Model for the Design of Physical Objects

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  • Title: On the viability of the Open Source Development model for the design of physical objects. Lessons learned from the RepRap project.
  • Thesis, for the degree of Master of Science.
  • Faculty of Economics and Business
  • URL = http://thesis.erikdebruijn.nl/master/MScThesis-ErikDeBruijn-2010.pdf
  • Date of submission: 9th of November 2010
  • Graded with an A.


"While open source software development has been studied extensively, relatively little is know about the viability of the same development pattern for physical objects. The present research reviews the literature on open source and user innovation communities followed by a case study and survey of the RepRap community in which both software and physical objects are collaboratively designed and freely revealed. Patterns observed in the RepRap community provide insight into how the distributed development of physical objects could become a more general phenomenon."

Where to find it


Thesis details:

  • Author: Erik de Bruijn
    • Email: [email protected]
    • Dept. of Information Management
    • Faculty of Economics and Business
    • University of Tilburg, The Netherlands
    • Thesis for the degree of Master of Science
  • Supervised by:
  • Additional advisors:
    • Prof. R. O’Callaghan. TiasNimbas Business School and University of Tilburg
    • J. de Jong, Erasmus University, and
    • E. von Hippel, MIT Sloan School of Management


In this thesis I have argued that there are several ways in which the distributed and collaborative process of designing physical objects can be facilitated. Design information needs to be shared at low cost. It is helpful if the design can actually be fabricated, because private benefits resulting from the physical outputs may be a motive. As we have seen in the case study, the considerable adoption and development of sharing and collaboration tools and infrastructure makes these lowered costs possible. These tools include the several variants of the RepRap machines and design sharing infrastructures like Thingiverse.

The survey reveals substantial adoption and development of 3D printer technology, comparable to the larger vendors in the industry. At the rapid exponential growth of the community, doubling every 6 months, it is feasible that its adoption and levels of innovation will exceed that of the incumbent industry. Apart from thousands of modifications to the hardware development tools themselves, the tools were employed by users to develop and manufacture many thousands of other objects ranging from household items to robotics platforms. Within the community there is a higher incidence of modifications of hardware than in software, and, surprisingly, hardware modifications are expected to be relatively easier for others to replicate. The level of collaboration is also higher for hardware than for software. In the RepRap community, the creation, transfer and diffusion of open hardware does not appear to be unfavorable compared to software does not appear to restrict its viability.

This thesis shows that, with its tools, infrastructure and incentives, the RepRap community uses the open source development methodology for the design of physical objects in a highly successful and democratizing way. There are many implications of the extensibility of this phenomenon. Obtaining the digital design for a product becomes increasingly attractive compared to having to acquire the physical object. This is partly due to logistics of physical objects involving lead-times and transportation costs. It also mitigates the problem of underprovisioning, such as inmarkets with heterogenous demand or where the prospect of capturing rents from sales is estimated to be low, or is hard to substantiate (von Hippel and Franke, 2003).

In chapter 5, special attention is given to the role of the capability that RepRap tools provide, and their effect on the ability to collaborate. It affects the cost of development, production, reproduction and distribution of physically embodied innovations. While artifact embodied tacit knowledge influences the locus of innovation, the implications of this ‘embodiedness’ can bemitigated (section 5.3.2). Evidence from the survey makes this a plausible explanation for the thriving distributed activity in open design.