The Rise of Open Design

Applying open-source principles to real products

Alongside the rise of the Internet, the open-source movement has exploded over the past several decades.  It happened because the barriers to contributing to these types of projects were so significantly reduced that anyone with the desire and capability to participate, could. The Internet provided a place to learn, to write and easily share code, to collaborate with others. And because of the fundamental nature of software, anyone could get value out of the project by simply hitting compile on their own machine.

The same enabling factors haven’t been present to design actual products. Access to design tools has been limited. There aren’t frameworks for sharing designs online or easily allowing others to contribute. And information about product design isn’t as ubiquitous online as tutorials and training for writing code. But much of this is now changing, and open-design is beginning to pick up steam.

Accessibility of design tools

In the past, engineering design software was fairly cost prohibitive to those entrepreneurial spirits with groundbreaking ideas, but not anymore. Due to the proliferation of cloud computing, mobile technologies and software as a service (SaaS), there has been an over-arching trend towards lowered costs. A few Computer-Aided Design (CAD) tools are now even freely available to people using them for non-commercial purposes. With a lower barrier to entry, more design-oriented individuals are joining teams, developing projects and gaining experience. For end-users, they have their chance to be seen and heard, while having direct and near-immediate impact upon how their favorite products are being made.


Github has created the mold for how open-source collaboration should be done with more than 14 million users and 35 million code repositories. They key capability is branching and merging, allowing for additional development and changes to be written in parallel, and then merged into the ‘production’ version of the code.


This same concept can be applied to CAD data—create a branch of the design, work on the specific changes or additions, and then visualize those changes relative to the production model prior to commit. This would allow many more people to contribute to the project, rather than the serialized nature of product design today.

Access to information

For those who have the desire to design innovative products but lack the design or engineering know-how to get it done, there is increasingly more credible information online for low to no cost. For engineering design, many respected educational institutions, such as MIT’s OpenCourseware offer free online courses that cover many disciplines of engineering, from electronics to manufacturing.

Moving forward

There is still one major, yet fundamental, hurdle when comparing software to actual products—when you compile code, you basically get a finished product in the form of a release, whereas in engineering when the design is completed, it still needs to be manufactured.  But even this is changing with the growing accessibility of 3D printing and on-demand, contract manufacturing.

The number of challenges for open design to become more widely adopted are slowly being diminished, thanks to the Internet providing a place to learn, a meeting place for communities, lowered costs of entry, and accessibility of manufacturing. What is most promising is when this type of innovation flourishes, we all benefit from newer, better designed and built products.

Brian Sather is a product marketing manager at Autodesk. An engineer by trade, he likes taking things apart and putting them back together. Half the things in his home work twice as well as they should, and the other half don’t work at all.

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