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Open source ... hardware? Someday, say ETech attendees

Conference panelists say hardware is becoming more like software

If sci-fi author William Gibson's claim that "the future is here, it's just not evenly distributed yet" is correct, then how we will manufacture physical goods tomorrow may be augured by how we make software today.

Open-source, object-oriented development, personalization, even hacking, are presaging and inspiring new manufacturing methods that will overhaul today's plodding techniques born during the Industrial Revolution, according to panelists speaking Monday at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego.

"We're seeing hardware become more like software, and rapid development become a competitive advantage," according to John Hagel, a business consultant and author.

Take the Chicago-based clothing maker skinnyCorp. The 7-year-old collective started a Web site called Threadless.com through which they solicit T-shirt designs from the public. Visitors to the site can vote on their favourite designs. The most popular ones are made into T-shirts and sold by Threadless.com, while their creators get US$2,000 in cash.

This open-source style of product development allows Threadless to get by without hiring any professional designers, said Jeffrey Kalmikoff, the company's chief creative officer.

"We just ask people what they want and then we give it to them," Kalmikoff said. "It's not an exact science. But we've never not had a T-shirt sell out."

More than 40,000 designs have been submitted. So far, 750 designs have been made into T-shirts. Through pure word of mouth -- the company only puts its logo on the tag -- Threadless.com now sells more than 80,000 t-shirts a month. At an average of US$15 per shirt, that adds up to a US$13 million per year business with 30 employees.

Kalmikoff said a conventional clothing maker trying this open-source product development on a limited basis would probably fail. "A big company is a like a skyscraper. If you tried to change the foundation, the building would probably fall down," he said.

Speeding up motorcycle development

In the Chinese metropolis of Chungqing, according to Hagel, open-source techniques have helped a booming motorcycle industry develop from scratch in just the last decade and a half, "taking dramatic share from the Japanese [manufacturers] throughout Asia."

The companies have profited by modularizing the development process so that they can outsource as many individual parts of the motorcycle as possible to outside suppliers, many of them small firms focused on only a few parts or even just one. That contrasts sharply with the traditional supply chain model of Japanese and Western businesses, which try to keep the number of suppliers small to reduce management costs, Hagel said.

For the Chinese companies, they have been able to cut the average price of a motorcycle in the last five years by 70 percent, to US$200, without compromising quality, Hagel said. At the same time, they are able to innovate very quickly -- a key advantage in China, where copycats are common because of relatively weak intellectual property laws -- despite lacking Internet access and doing most of their meetings face-to-face in teahouses, he said.

The Chinese have also made major advances in rapid prototyping. Potenco, product design company currently involved with developing the US$100 One Laptop Per Child computer, has been able to get in one week fully finished plastic prototypes of the innovative on-board power generator they're working on, according to Brian Warshawsky, the company's vice president of manufacturing. That compares to the four to eight weeks it used to take companies to build a steel or aluminum mold and then create a prototype using injection moulding.

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