Skip to main content

Open-Source Hardware and the Digital Fabrication of Electronic Devices

David Mellis (MIT Media Lab)
Location: C260

Digital fabrication technologies like laser-cutting, 3d-printing, CNC milling, and circuit board fabrication allow us to specify much of an electronic device’s design in software. This allows it to be open-sourced or otherwise distributed online, allowing others to study, reproduce, or modify the design for themselves. This approach suggests an alternative to the traditional mass-production model adopted by many hardware companies, even startups, which seek sufficient capital to invest in tooling for traditional manufacturing processes. When a device is designed for digital-fabrication, it can be produced in any quantity desired, each one can be different, and they can be made where they’re needed.

This talk draws on my PhD research at the MIT Media Lab, where I’ve been designing devices for digital fabrication and working with others to make and modify the devices for themselves. The devices include radios, speakers, computer mice, and, most recently, cellphones. Each combines a custom electronic circuit board with a digitally-fabricated enclosure (e.g. laser-cut wood or 3D-printed plastic). The workshops have addressed different audiences, including designers, architects, and the general public. These experiences have yielded insights about the opportunities and limitations of digital fabrication as a means of making electronic devices.

The first half of the talk uses these devices to showcase some general design principles. These include:

  • ways to make efficient use of the fabrication processes to create attractive and robust devices,
  • the critical role of rapid iteration and prototyping in designing devices for digital fabrication,
  • the opportunities to create alternative aesthetics and functionalities than those found in mass-produced products, and
  • the possibility for fostering new forms of collaboration and community based on easy sharing of designs.

The second half of the talk draws some more general implications of this open-source, do-it-yourself (DIY) approach to electronic devices for people and society. Lessons include:

  • When it comes to high-tech devices, empowerment exists in a network.
  • There are multiple pathways for engaging individuals in making devices.
  • Modern technology gives new relevance to DIY practices.
  • Digital device design is mediated by available software tools.
  • Digital technology requires new approach to transparency.

Overall, I illustrate the implications of digital fabrication for the production of electronic devices and the ways in which this process differs from more traditional modes of design and production.

Photo of David Mellis

David Mellis

MIT Media Lab

David A. Mellis is a PhD student at the MIT Media Lab and a co-founder of the Arduino electronics prototyping platform. His research explores ways to support people in making electronic devices for use in their daily lives, using microcontrollers, digital fabrication, and programming. David is on the board of the Open-Source Hardware Association.