A prototype of the RepRap general-purpose 3D printer that not only could be used to make structures and functional components for open design projects but is an open-source project itself. RepRap is also being designed with the ability to make copies of itself.

Open design is the application of open source methods to the creation of physical products, machines and systems. People apply their skills and time to projects for the common good, perhaps where funding or commercial interest is lacking, for developing countries or to help to spread ecological or cheaper technologies. At the other end of the scale, open design may provide a framework for developing very advanced projects and technologies that might be beyond the resource of any one company or country and involve people who, without the copyleft mechanism, might not otherwise collaborate.

The "open design" movement is currently fairly nascent but holds great potential for the future. In some respects design and engineering are even more suited to open collaborative development than the increasing common open-source software projects, because with 3D models and photographs the concept can often be understood visually. It is not even necessary that the project members speak the same languages to usefully collaborate.

However there are certain barriers to overcome for open design when compared to software development where there are mature and widely used tools available and the duplication and distribution of code cost next to nothing. Creating, testing and modifying physical designs is not quite so straightforward because of the effort, time and cost required to create the physical artefact; although with access to emerging flexible computer-controlled manufacturing techniques the complexity and effort of construction can be significantly reduced (see tools mentioned in the fab lab article).

Suitable open CAD software for more advanced collaborative design[]

With respect to the issues mentioned above, it is likely that at some point advanced open-source CAD software with built-in physics engines and the ability to model kinematics and dynamics will aid engineers and designers greatly by allowing a lot of testing to be done virtually. For advanced collaborative design projects, the availability of user-friendly open-source CAD software will be essential along with open standards for associated file formats, as well as file converters to extract data from files created with proprietary CAD packages.

For simpler designs – those aimed at end users in developing countries, for example – simple text, sketches, diagrams and photographs are perfectly adequate, although perhaps not as straightforward to modify as CAD files. Where textual instructions are concerned, the overhead of translation efforts should be considered to enable the designs to reach as wide an audience as possible.

Open design organizations[]

Open design is currently a fledgling movement consisting of several unrelated or loosely related initiates. Many of these organizations are single, funded projects, while a few organizations are focusing on an area needing development. Only one organization to date is attempting to organize the movement into a large-scale collaborative effort whose role is analogous to that of sourceforge in the open source software movement.


  • Anansi Spaceworks are applying the principles of open source to the colonisation of space.
  • Architecture for Humanity is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization that seeks architectural solutions to humanitarian crisis and brings design services to communities in need. They provide innovative, sustainable and collaborative design where resources and expertise are scarce. In addition to responding to recent natural disasters and systemic issues they are working with a number of high tech companies, including Sun Microsystems, AMD and Creative Commons to develop the Open Architecture Network to allow for online collaborative design and project implementation. A beta version of this network launches March 8, 2007 at the annual TED conference.
  • Designbreak is a new open design organization – a nonprofit organization with an elegant development interface including a system for displaying CAD files in context. Designbreak purports to actively seek out or fund the manufacture of designs that have an application for the social good. Users may apply for both open design and research grants under this organization; paid employment is available where appropriate to leaders of funded projects.
  • Instructables is a website where people can share how they construct something in a step-by-step format. It was started by the MIT spin-off 'Squid Labs' originally as a quick and easy way to document and collaborate on their many projects, but is now open for everyone to use and is growing fast. Full of fun, interesting and useful things to make.
  • O.Design - open source Italian Design community
  • ThinkCycle is perhaps the oldest successful open design organization. ThinkCycle has a small, active community of participants. Several ThinkCycle projects have won development and innovation awards. Features limited message board type collaboration. The primary focus of Thinkcycle is on challenges among underserved communities and the environment.

'Open standards' but not 'free and open source'[]

These links relate to open standards but are not truly open in the free and open-source sense due to certain license restrictions.

  • Open Design Alliance The Open Design Alliance is an association of software developers and users committed to promoting open, industry-standard formats for the exchange of CAD data.
  • IntelliCAD Technology Consortium is an independent organization committed to promoting a cooperatively developed CAD engine. The IntelliCAD Technology Consortium is one of several Founding Members of the Open Design Alliance.

Examples of Open design projects[]

  • The Open Source Green Vehicle (OSGV) Project is an open source project and business plan aimed to create affordable and super fuel efficient cars and trucks to reverse greenhouse effect and to provide an inexpensive means of transportation to developing countries.
  • SHPEGS project - collective development of a system that uses indirect solar collection to generate electricity, produce clean water and store thermal energy
  • RepRap - an open-source rapid prototyping machine from the University of Bath with the additional aim of being substantially self-replicating, i.e. for the machine to be able to make most of the parts necessary to create a copy of itself.
  • Fab@Home - an open-source rapid prototyping machine from Cornell University
  • Eunicycle - partially self-balancing motorised unicycle
  • Hind/CM - a conceptual computer of Indian origin.
  • RONJA - a completely open source optical wireless networking device
  • The Open Prosthetics Project
  • Whirlwind wheelchair - a wheelchair designed to be made in developing countries with local resources.


  • Episodes of Collective Invention (Peter B. Meyer, August 2003) An article on several historical examples of what could be called "open design."
  • The Political Economy of Open Source Software (Steven Weber, June 2000) An article outlining the development of Linux from a political-science perspective. The conclusion suggests that the open-source development model is suited to disciplines besides software development.
  • [1] (Alex Steffen, November 2006) An interview with Lawrence Lessig on the use of the Developing Nations License by Architecture for Humanity to create a global open design network.

See also[]

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