Four Strange Places to Find Open Source

Open source is about more than code: it's about unlocking all possibilities. Here are four unusual projects made possible by open source.


Years ago I hung out with a friend who had a prosthetic hand. It was a stiff plastic hand, like a store mannequin hand, that could open and close in a simple grip. It didn't have much functionality, but it had a bit of fun factor -- my friend liked to remove it to scratch his back. In public, of course, with a freaked-out audience. Americans seem to have a hard time looking at these sorts of things.

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Prosthetics have advanced since those days, especially in cost. It's amazing how labeling an item as medical equipment makes it cost 10 to 100 times more, even ordinary parts like nuts, bolts, batteries, and power supplies. A prosthetic limb starts at five figures, and in these here kindly times good luck getting insurance to pay, because it's become a one-way flow -- we're supposed to pay our premiums without desiring to collect any benefits.

And so, once again, open source has made it possible for one person to step up and try to change an unsatisfactory state of affairs, and that person is Jon Kuniholm. Mr. Kuniholm is a war veteran who lost part of his right arm in Iraq. He was given an assortment of prosthetic arms to use, from an old-fashioned hook to a shiny new myoelectric arm. None of them were completely satisfactory. The fancy myoelectric arm was fragile and heavy, and had to be protected from moisture and dirt. The most popular upper-body prosthesis is the oldest, the body-powered hook. This is fastened to your torso with a harness that transfers movements, such as a shrug, to control the elbow, hook, or hand. Hook-type prostheses have been around for decades, and are rugged and relatively inexpensive, which is not to say they're cheap, just less costly than newer technologies.

Mr. Kuniholm is a biomedical engineer, and after leaving the Marines he returned to his job at Tackle Design, Inc., an industrial design and research company. He and his co-workers took the arms apart and studied them, and looked for ways to improve them. Then they founded The Open Prosthetics Project (OPP). The Open Prosthetics Project focuses on helping people with missing limbs. (If you have an interest in bringing open source to ears and eyes, the field is wide open.) OPP collects information and data, does design research, and freely shares plans, specifications, and information.

Building a good prosthetic foot or leg is moderately difficult. Building a hand that works anything like a human hand is incredibly difficult. But remember playing with Legos as a little kid? Legos are not just kid toys -- they are also articulated hand prototypes. (It looks like a Terminator hand.) Motors and batteries keep getting smaller and better, so someday this will be a reality.

You can learn more about Mr. Kuniholm in this interview and book excerpt on National Public Radio.

Affordable, practical small-scale manufacturing

Way back in the last millennium, in the 1970s, there was a brief "back to the land" movement. Idealistic city folk threw off their corporate shackles, bought land, and had this idea they could be self-sufficient. Of course there is a whole lot more to living off the land than bib overalls and good intentions. It's a lot of work, requires a lot of tools and machines, and a lot of skills and knowledge. Practical manual skills are in short supply in these modern times and tools are expensive, so the learning curve, costs, and hard physical labor defeated a lot of wannabe hardy pioneers. The concept was sound: to take control of the production of life's essentials such as food, energy, and shelter, to live more harmoniously and leave a less-destructive footprint on the planet, to live in a healthier way, and to control technology for the benefit of the people using it. It all sounds good, but making it work was the beastly part.

Fast-forward to now, and open source and the Internet have changed everything. Marcin Jakubowski is a physicist who tried farming, and quickly learned that he had no practical skills or knowledge. So he began his education anew, and came up with the concept of affordable, practical small-scale manufacturing to build and maintain a small, sustainable civilization with modern comforts. He figured that it would take a set of 50 different industrial machines to do this, and this is the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS).

The GVCS includes a tractor and implements, brick press, sawmill, well-drilling rig, induction furnace for melting scrap metals, 3D scanner, 3D printer, welder, solar concentrator, and a CNC circuit mill for printing circuit boards. The idea isn't to scrape out a marginal existence, but to build high-quality essential tools for a fraction of the cost of their commercial cousins, use them to help build a good life, and possibly some income-producing surplus.

The stakes are considerably higher for people in poor countries. GVCS offers the potential to put the means of essential production directly into the hands of the people who need it.

The specifications for the GVCS machines are the opposite of mass-produced commercial technology: low-cost, user-serviceable, high performance, durable (no planned obsolescence), and open source. The open source aspect covers designs, instructions, schematics, budgets-- everything anyone needs to know to build their own machines, and it is all freely available and free to share. A single dvd is a civilization starter kit.

The GVCS is in its infancy, and is already attracting a lot of attention and support. Check out this two minute video to see some of the machines in action.

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