{Hardware} corporations have to cease competing and dealing collectively to stop future pandemics

Exceptional efforts are being made in factories and industrial areas around the world to ensure that hospitals have ventilators and logistics companies have freezers and refrigerators. Behind the scenes, this production offensive has taken place on an epic, unprecedented scale. It was terribly inefficient in some places too.

Some of this inefficiency is only to be expected. Such short-term, responsive production was always chaotic. However, many of the hardware delays we’ve experienced – from bottlenecks on the production line to shortages of parts – could be avoided in the future by applying an “open source” ethos to hardware production around the world.

Open source design is a form of collective intelligence in which experts work together to create a design that everyone has the legal right to create. The software industry has long shown that “open” collaboration is not only possible, but also beneficial. Open source software is ubiquitous, and the servers that power the Internet itself are largely powered by open technology developed jointly by competing companies.

As the pandemic began, and in recognition of the looming global emergency, dozens of the world’s largest companies joined the Open COVID Pledge and pledged to share their intellectual property to help fight the virus. On a smaller scale, more than 100 project teams have set out to create and share “open” ventilator designs that can be manufactured on-site to meet the urgent need for ventilators around the world.

Unfortunately, none of these initiatives succeeded in making ventilators at the speed demanded by stretched hospitals in the first few weeks of the pandemic. After examining existing attempts to share the intellectual property of machines, our recently published paper concludes that to be successful with open hardware, projects must be open from the start. Everything from the first scribble on a napkin to detailed calculations that verify safety must be available if other experts and manufacturers want to participate in the design.

Medical ventilators have been in particular demand since the pandemic began. Dan Race / Shutterstock

The way to open hardware

Building hardware through open collaboration can be daunting. Unlike all of the virtual collaboration required for software development, hardware development requires physical parts – raw materials and machines. It needs test facilities and engineers to perform stress tests and security checks.

There are promising signs that these challenges can be met. The RepRap 3D printing project has brought low-cost 3D printing to a wider audience and enabled affordable remote prototyping. In the meantime, the CERN White Rabbit project has shown that even the complex electronics that control the Large Hadron Collider can be developed as open source hardware. But to be efficient we need better Workflows for collaboration – systems for organizing the distribution of tasks and responsibilities in collaborative hardware projects.

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The path from prototype to production is much more difficult and less exciting than the technical challenge of prototyping a device. Manufacturers must adhere to international standards to ensure quality and manage the risk associated with their products. This is especially true of medical hardware on which life depends. A key challenge for open hardware will be to obtain this certification in the same way that private companies do today.

Regardless of the impressive and safe regulations, ventilators built in rooms for volunteer manufacturers cannot be certified for medical use. For devices that are less strictly regulated, such as B. face protection, open hardware is currently used successfully.

To achieve similar success with high-tech medical devices requires companies that can be made from open designs – such as dynamic factories that respond to global emergencies. It takes time to build these organizations. But we cannot afford to wait for the next emergency: we should start preparing them today to prepare for the next pandemic.

Of course, finding sustainable business models for open hardware is a challenge: Can a system be created that shares intellectual property for free and at the same time helps designers and manufacturers benefit from it? In some ways, open hardware has an advantage here: people are used to buying products that online consumers are used to using software for free.

Still, creating an open ecosystem for hardware manufacturing is likely to require public funding or the purchase of investor money for non-traditional business models. This would follow the path of the Internet, which began its life and was funded by public institutions and is now home to the largest private companies in the world.

Closer inspection

A homemade microscope made of plastic and wiresThe open source microscope. Author provided

We experimented with our own open hardware project to understand what the future of collaborative hardware might look like. Our OpenFlexure microscope is designed for low cost manufacture in sub-Saharan Africa and is used for malaria diagnosis. We’ve probably spent more time designing the processes by which we can effectively share our knowledge than designing the microscope itself.

In the short term, this slows our progress. In the long term, we expect manufacturers around the world to understand our design and adapt it to their local context. As these processes become more standardized, sharing designs for production becomes easier and easier. The final and most ambitious phase of our project will be to work with manufacturers to produce microscopes that are certified for medical use – a big step towards the open source medical hardware that we would need to better combat a future pandemic.

Mankind knew how to make ventilators decades before this pandemic. What was lacking was the access to that knowledge, the ability to work together on customizing a design, and the logistics to quickly scale the manufacture of complex machines. It will take years to address these issues. If we start this process today, we can address global emergencies more dynamically and efficiently in the future.The conversation

This article by Richard Bowman, Royal Society Research Associate and Proleptic Reader, Department of Physics, University of Bath, and Julian Stirling, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Physics, University of Bath, is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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