In This Issue
Fall Bridge on Open Source Hardware
September 15, 2017 Volume 47 Issue 3
The articles in this issue look at how the development and use of free and open source hardware (FOSH or simply “open hardware”) are changing the face of science, engineering, business, and law.

Freedom Reigns in Desktop 3D Printing

Monday, September 18, 2017

Author: Ben Malouf and Harris Kenny

Many companies obsess over patent monopolies. Established technology firms spend millions on infringement litigation, crushing would-be competitors before they can get traction. And startups generally begin spending money on patent attorneys before they even earn revenue.

But free software projects like GNU/Linux and Wikipedia and the RepRap[1] desktop 3D printer movement demonstrated a business opportunity in doing the opposite. In January 2011 Jeff Moe founded Aleph Objects, Inc. with the goal of building a free software, libre[2] innovation, and open source hardware (FLO) company that shares everything freely. From computer-aided design (CAD) files to assembly line layouts, the company would be built on an unconventional (for hardware) foundation of complete transparency.

By 2016 Aleph Objects was the fastest-growing privately held computer hardware company in the United States on the Inc. 5000 list.[3] It employs nearly 150 people in Loveland, Colorado, where its LulzBot 3D printers are designed, built, and delivered to market. The printers (figure 1) are known for their quality, ease of use, and reliability, and the company’s market share continues to grow.

Figure 1 

Much of the desktop 3D printing industry reflects FLO values, with companies leveraging collaborative communities to innovate and grow. The industry has experienced rapid innovation and development since free software and open source hardware became driving forces.

We review RepRap and the history of FLO in desktop 3D printing and how a collaborative spirit and respect for user freedom have fueled dramatic growth and built an active and devoted user community.

The RepRap Project
What Is 3D Printing?

3D printing is a method of creating an object with a computer-controlled machine via an additive process that draws on hardware, software, materials, and content. None of these four drivers can be extricated from the others, they are all interdependent. Therefore, progress in the development of 3D printing technology requires multidisciplinary contributions from numerous individuals, typically over an extended period of time.

Insights from widely varying industries, technologies, and products are all combined to advance 3D printing technology. RepRap was successful because, as a FLO project, it brought all four drivers together in collaboration.

RepRap Innovation and Evolution

The RepRap project was born in England at the University of Bath in 2005, brainchild of Adrian Bowyer, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering.[4] The aim was to build an affordable, self-replicating, freely shared desktop 3D printer. Fundamental to the idea was that one RepRap could be used to 3D print the components to build another. In addition, the components could be given to someone else, who could do the same.

Philosophically, a big part of the idea behind RepRap was to democratize the tools of manufacturing, disrupting the concept of where things come from, changing the source from a factory overseas owned by a large corporation to a desktop machine in one’s own home, office, classroom, or library. Further, entirely freeing the hardware component of the tool chain enabled greater versatility and much faster innovation.

Figure 2 

In May 2008 the second RepRap 3D printer, itself printed by the first (figure 2), printed a part for a third “grandchild” machine. Thanks to the Internet, the RepRap project was almost instantly an international endeavor with teams and individuals around the world building their own 3D printers.

Also inherent in RepRap was the concept of evolution. As mechanical engineers, tinkerers, and hackers around the globe built their own printers they made improvements and shared them with the community. Some changes were iterative, a tweak here and there to make assembly easier; some were wholesale redesigns aimed at lowering cost, increasing performance, and simplifying assembly. Many early contributions focused on hardware as the starting point, identifying and implementing improvements to the functioning of the machine based on physics and mechanical engineering principles.

Hardware: Technology and Materials

RepRaps leverage fused-filament fabrication (FFF) 3D printing technology: a thermoplastic filament is forced through a heated nozzle (similar to the way a hot glue gun functions) and the melted plastic is applied in successive layers until an object is fully formed. Aside from their 3D-printed components, early RepRap 3D printers were largely composed of things like steel threaded rods, screws, nuts, washers, and plywood that could easily be sourced at hardware stores.

RepRap electronics were controlled by open source hardware Arduino development boards running free software firmware. Other components, like stepper motors, belts, and hot end parts, were slightly more difficult to source but could be purchased online if not found locally. Thanks to shared bills of materials (BOMs), it was easy to find good sources of specialty components. And startups emerged to offer commonly needed RepRap parts, kits for building machines, and reels of plastic filament.

Early material development efforts focused on finding commonly available plastics that would be compatible with the hardware specifications being developed. Plastics common in early use included high-density polyethylene (HDPE), acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), and polylactic acid (PLA). Many other experimental materials were adopted and modified from other industries and applications, but ABS and PLA proved to be the most useful and easy to work with. As the project grew, materials science and filament extrusion companies developed to greatly expand the number of materials available for RepRap 3D printers.

Software

Of course, software was required to operate the machines. 3D CAD files had to be converted into tool paths that the 3D printer firmware could execute. G-code, a programming language in use since the 1950s and still common in computer numerical controlled (CNC) milling machines and laser cutters, was an obvious choice. In essence, it tells the 3D printer’s tool head how to build the object—where to go and how fast to get there, with simple coordinates, layer by layer.

In line with the collaborative mentality of the RepRap project itself, developers began work on free software tools to run the printers. The first was developed by Bowyer and was simply called RepRap Host.

In 2009 a more accurate and full-featured application called Skeinforge was released by Enrique Perez. -Skeinforge was the default slicer and printer host software for most early RepRap users, but it was both notoriously slow at processing files and complicated to configure. Eventually, Slic3r/Pronterface and Cura, also free software, made leaps in functionality and ease of use and became the standards in the RepRap community. They remain in active development, with numerous forked versions specific to different printer brands available. Other free software options (e.g., OctoPrint and Matter Control) have emerged, adding features such as wireless and network functionality.

3D Model Files

As the number of RepRap 3D printer owners grew exponentially, so did their demand for content—3D models—to print on their machines. Free software 3D modeling options (e.g., Blender, FreeCAD, and -OpenSCAD) grew with the hardware community. Users flocked to these resources because of the free licensing, ubiquity of freely licensed tutorial content, no-cost availability, and continuing improvements in reliability and ease of use.

A 3D model created in native file formats needed to be exported in a standardized format that could be easily converted to G-code. The de facto standard became sharing the 3D model file in .stl or .obj format, simple mesh 3D model files, which the printer operator would then convert to G-code in their slicing software of choice.

The standardized and open file format enabled rapid proliferation of content across the Internet. One of the earliest and most successful websites to facilitate this sharing was Thingiverse; others are YouMagine, Pinshape, Yeggi, GitHub, and Repables.

Like the hardware and software, the model content was also generally freely licensed and shared, most commonly through Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) and Creative Commons Attribution-Share-alike (CC BY-SA). An increasing number of public domain models are also being created as digital derivatives of sculptures, busts, vases, statues, and other antiquities and works of art.

RepRap’s Legacy

Fast forward to 2017. While desktop 3D printing has been largely commercialized, with hundreds of thousands of such printers sold annually, the legacy of RepRap is still evident in the roots of almost every machine on the market. 3D printer brands like LulzBot grew out of the RepRap movement and remain committed to their free software and open source hardware roots. In addition, supporting the original equipment manufacturers are numerous companies offering accessories, aftermarket parts, and an ever growing variety of filament materials.

The desktop 3D printing category simply never would have developed so quickly were it not for the collaborative community that formed around RepRap.

Selling Technological Freedom
Free Software: A Success Story

Red Hat, a software company based in Raleigh, North Carolina, shares all its code under free and open source licenses. It is a multibillion-dollar publicly traded company. How has it achieved so much success?

The company’s founders recognized that the stability, flexibility, and security of free software GNU/Linux-based operating systems were extremely appealing to enterprise customers. What was not appealing was the prospect of building an IT team to deploy and support the software since there was no central organization developing, selling, and supporting it. Red Hat filled the niche, offering corporate customers a tested and supported version of a GNU/Linux operating system.  

Red Hat has grown without compromising its commitment to FLO principles by being a service-based, highly customer-focused organization. Its customers appreciate its software and world-class support, and the community respects its contributions to free (and open source) projects.

Could the same model work with open source hardware?

Open Source Hardware: Improving on RepRap

When Jeff Moe founded Aleph Objects, he didn’t set out to design and build 3D printers, he set out to build a successful open source hardware company, one that would make such hardware as influential as free software projects like GNU/Linux and Wikipedia.

By 2011 the RepRap community had designed, iterated, and heavily tested numerous designs. RepRap kits were available from a growing selection of sources online, but often with multiweek lead times, little to no assembly documentation, and generally limited technical support. The hobbyist RepRap community was growing and the printers were getting more sophisticated and capable, but businesses, educators, and other users needed a less time-consuming path to adoption, something that would ship immediately, that worked out of the box and included access to technical support.

Much as Red Hat had built a software company around making GNU/Linux easier for businesses to adopt, Aleph Objects would manufacture and sell assembled, calibrated, tested, and well-supported RepRap 3D -printers. The bet was that customers who did not have the time or skill to build their own 3D printers from a kit, let alone calibrate and maintain them, would -value the collaboratively engineered reliability and open source hardware versatility of RepRap 3D printers. To that end, the first LulzBot 3D printer, the Prusa v1.0 (figure 3), was developed.

Figure 3 

As with Red Hat, foundational in the philosophy of Aleph Objects is a commitment to sharing all development under free and open source licenses. Hardware designs are not restricted by patent monopolies, or even kept secret. From day one, the public-facing development (devel) server has been automatically updated every half-hour with the latest working files from the Aleph Objects research and development (R&D) team, including not just CAD but BOMs, testing documentation, assembly instructions, and more. The greater 3D printing community is actively encouraged to learn from the files, build their own printers and components, and even sell clones if they are so inclined. Of course, all of this seems counter-intuitive to anyone who has worked for a traditional hardware company, particularly in a global economy.

What is to stop another company from replicating the LulzBot machines and selling them at a discount? How does the company continue to succeed even as it seems to stack the deck against itself?

Going with the FLO

While it may look like a disadvantage from the outside, the FLO philosophy incorporates quality and a commitment to customer service. The philosophical reasons to share are easy to understand. Ownership of ideas has always been a troublesome concept, but even more so now, in the internet age, when information can blanket the world instantly.

Children are taught to share, but that ideal doesn’t apply to adults in business. Conventional wisdom says the reason is that businesses have to keep secrets to stay competitive. But do they?

Scenario 1: The Monopoly Approach

Company A is founded around an idea for a widget. The novelty of the widget is considered a revelation, the reason Company A will succeed. Intuitively, it does not do Company A any good if Company B and Company C start making the same widget. Whether they came up with the idea on their own or copied it from Company A is immaterial.

Company A focuses on “protecting” the idea for its widget with a patent monopoly. Law firms and government programs exist to help companies do just that, so why would they question it?

Several years later, Company A has cornered the widget market, selling 10,000 per month despite an unreasonably high price. The company makes minor improvements to its widget, adding and patenting little features and accessories here and there to boost revenue, but because it has a monopoly, there is little incentive to spend on R&D. Those funds are better allocated to marketing and lawyers.

Company B was sued by Company A for infringement and forced into bankruptcy. Company C never started up at all, never hired a staff, and never contributed to widget innovation.

Scenario 2: The Open Source Approach

In a collaborative, FLO-based scenario, Company A starts up around an idea for a widget, but does not keep it secret. It shares everything about it with the public, and before it has even started making the widgets, an online community has sprung up and is helping implement improvements to the design. From that community, Companies B and C have also started up, making their own (also shared) versions of the widgets. None of the companies can compete by simply having a -widget. All three must focus on making the best widget for the best price, taking care of their customers, and getting improved versions of the widget to market faster. The rate of innovation and improvement is dramatically increased, customers are happier, and monopolies are avoided.

Real-Life Scenarios

Perhaps the examples above oversimplify things, but the business argument against patent monopolies and for collaborative innovation is not just a thought exercise. Companies like Tesla Motors have taken steps to disarm their patent monopolies, acknowledging the value in having innovative competitors and recognizing how their patent monopolies prevented good ideas from emerging.

In desktop 3D printing, manufacturers favoring proprietary designs and restrictive print material choices have struggled to gain traction and/or maintain relevance, while more open companies have grown steadily, leveraging community participation and evangelism to improve products and build their brands.

Specific Commitments to Openness

Aleph Objects is committed to sharing and publishing all its development under free licenses that allow others to learn from and utilize the company’s work in their own, and it puts a priority on maintaining the infrastructure to make this possible.

Public Access Servers

Here are the four primary public access servers maintained by Aleph Objects and what can be found there:

  • download.lulzbot.com: complete source files for every LulzBot product released by Aleph Objects, minus development files that did not end up in the final product, managed with an Apache Webserver
  • devel.alephobjects.com: work-in-progress source files, automatically updated every half-hour with working files from the LulzBot R&D team, managed with an Apache Webserver
  • code.alephobjects.com: work-in-progress source code in development, managed with Phabricator (version control software)
  • ohai.lulzbot.com: assembly and maintenance instructions, for both internal and customer-facing -processes, managed with a custom Django web application (OHAI stands for open hardware assembly -instructions).

By integrating the public servers into internal processes, Aleph Objects adheres to a “release early, release often” philosophy. Making R&D information available as it is created allows outside developers and potential customers to give feedback before prototypes are even built, let alone final products ship. This level of transparency has engendered a great deal of trust from the 3D printing community, whose core is still largely composed of former RepRap developers and operators who value control over the technology they use.

Internal Consistency

Further enhancing Aleph Objects’ reputation in the FLO community, the company “eats its own dog food,” so to speak. The entire company runs on free and open source software (all workstations run the Debian GNU/Linux operating system) and leans heavily on programs such as Odoo, Drupal, FreeCAD, Blender, Libre Office, NextCloud, OpenProject, and Phabricator.

The company benefits in numerous ways, including access to and control over its systems, input into the features and offerings of the tools it uses, rapid scalability of its infrastructure, and avoidance of licensing and support fees associated with proprietary software. LulzBot customers benefit by not having to pay for expensive proprietary software to make use of shared source files from the company.

Open Source Certification

Two independent organizations have built programs to certify open source hardware, the Free Software Foundation and the Open Source Hardware Association. The former has a program for certifying hardware -products called Respects Your Freedom,[5] and the latter governs the Open Source Hardware certification program (http://certificate.oshwa.org/). Both programs serve to quell the growing practice of “open washing,” or using the term “open source” in marketing materials to earn a nod from the community while not actually adhering to any open source principles or practices. At the time of this writing, LulzBot 3D printers are the only FFF 3D printers to have either certification, and the only 3D printer of any kind to have both.

Mass Replication

Finally, Aleph Objects still adheres to the RepRap ideal of using 3D printers to make more 3D printers. At the heart of the company’s manufacturing facility is the Cluster: more than 150 LulzBot 3D printers operating 24/7 to print components used to build more 3D -printers. The Cluster is an unparalleled test environment for design changes and new products. It can -quickly accumulate thousands of hours of test data, driving a better customer experience when new products are released.

To date, Aleph Objects has printed nearly 2 million printer components. The Cluster has also enabled the company to scale as demand has increased by simply adding more printers. Further, LulzBot users can 3D print their own replacement parts or design their own modifications.

The Open Future

Aleph Objects’ R&D team is working on development of its next-generation LulzBot 3D printer,  code-named “Athena.” Like other LulzBot 3D printers, its development is shared publicly on the devel server.

Athena represents a departure from some of the early RepRap hardware and software, demonstrating some exciting leaps forward. It will feature all-new electronics with a control board running embedded GNU/Linux, and state-of-the-art, nearly silent motor controllers. The tool head will have on-board logic and a kinematic semipermanent electromagnet coupling that enables the printer to exchange tool heads during a print. The machine is slated for release in 2018.

Conclusion

Desktop 3D printing started as a free software and open source hardware project, and with those roots FLO principles have remained a driving force in the -industry. Recently, IC3D, a maker of premium 3D printing filaments, released the world’s first open source -hardware–certified filament.[6] While 3D printers, 3D printing software, and 3D model content have been freely licensed for years, this is the first time a filament manufacturer has made such efforts. The move opens up a whole new category of technology to the community and serves as another example of FLO’s expanding role in the industry.

The desktop 3D printing space has changed -radically since the early days of RepRap, with many once--dominant manufacturers losing ground and former upstarts claiming their market share. The latter succeed by partnering with the community and sharing progress and lessons learned.

Looking ahead, effective companies must continue to focus on their users and to maintain a rapid pace of innovation. Thanks to the pioneering collaborative efforts of RepRap designers, free software developers, materials scientists, and content contributors, FLO—free software, libre innovation, and open source hardware—development continues to drive innovation in the 3D printing industry.

[1]  “RepRap” stands for replicating rapid prototyper.

[2]  The term “libre” has been adopted to convey the freedom (of access, use, and discovery) that comes with free and open-source materials, not only the lack of cost.

[3]  Available at https://www.inc.com/profile/aleph-objects.

[4]  Information about RepRap history, hardware, and software is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RepRap_project.

[5]  Information about the certification program and a list of certified products are available at www.fsf.org/resources/hw/-endorsement/respects-your-freedom.

[6]  Open Source ABS 3D Printing Filament (Rev 0), available at Github.com.

About the Author:Ben Malouf is director of marketing and Harris Kenny is president, Aleph Objects, Inc.