First Dedicated Project Visit Comes to a Close

As of 10/24/09, I am no longer on site at FeF. I would like to thank:

  • Marcin for giving me the opportunity to excel
  • Inga for her support
  • The Review Team: Vinay, Ralf, Lucas, and Jeb
  • The audience out there listening

Ok, onto the goods. This is the list of things I was supposed to complete. It turned out that most of these were unrealistic to complete in a month and others fell into the category of “learning while doing” which also falls outside of the scope of this project.

  1. Align the Prototype I table in the x, y, and z directions to 1/16″ accuracy.
  2. Demonstrate level of accuracy of x, y, and z motion over the full range of motion of Prototype I by performing and documenting a series of tests from g-code files.
  3. Publish at least some key test files to test replicability by Research Director.
  4. Characterize Prototype I with regards to accuracy and precision at varying speeds and configurations.
  5. Attach torch head to Prototype I.
  6. Demonstrate that slightly over sized 1/2″ holes can be torched out on 1 inch centers in a 12″ piece of 2″x2″x1/4″ square tubing.
  7. Demonstrate that 4 such pieces laid out on the far corners of the table can be torched out successfully to within 1/16″ accuracy.
  8. Demonstrate the same as the last point with 1″, 16 gauge square tubing, but using 3/8″, slightly oversized holes.
  9. Compose and publish g-code and procedure for torching out the gantry of Prototype II which incorporates improvements made in Prototype I.
  10. Develop a business proposal that takes into account work from the last month for the purpose of bringing the project to product release.
  11. Document work as specified in “Documentation”.

What was accomplished was …


Plus lots of documentation, and … sparks!


Here is the final photo that recaps the whole project.


The Goggles, the Goggles!

Plus a Video! Wow!

Plasma Cutter in Action from Lawrence Kincheloe on Vimeo.

And, because I promised three articles about the nature of open source hardware and business models… it kind of became one… so without further ado, “The Goods”:

Musings Upon the Nature of Open Source Hardware as a Business

“If you’re not making art with the intention of having it copied, you’re not really making art for the twenty-first century.” ~ Cory Doctorow

At the core of any business are a set of core beliefs that it was founded upon. These may be stated or implied through actions, but never the less make up the “personality” of an organization. I believe that change is coming in the way we look at how products come together and the name of that change is free and open source products. Its effecting art, culture, literature, and commerce. Even now there are several articles detailing its history, and what I will be discussing in this article is how the open source movement is relevant to hardware and how to possibly make a living from it.

The key fact is that we aren’t doing anything new or radical with completely opening up the design to the public. Many institutions do this already in academia and research. In some cases they even make money from it. It’s not even novel to try to form a community around a business practice for reducing costs and living better. All these things and more have been tried, found to be successful in some cases, and fail in others.
Most businesses/groups/etc fail.
It is the rare exceptions that are celebrated.
Designing a business model that fits into the lifestyle you want to lead and the overall goals you wish to achieve, reflects your values and what the market and the rest of the world is doing. This makes crafting a business model a bit challenging because when you look behind the curtain, it’s a philosophy of how to run things.
“Put me out of business! Please!” ~ Lawrence Kincheloe
Free and Open source as defined by the Free Software Foundation and Open Source Initiative is really tough to adhere to in a traditional business sense, because a product design licensed under it would not ensure that those who put in the work see economic rewards for their efforts. A good example of this is the RONJA Project. There are ways around this, such as putting the work under a dual license like MySQL does so a company can combine your device with their closed source product. Another method lets individuals work as a contractor who makes modifications to a project for a specific need stated by a customer for a price. The point remains, though, that you cannot directly make money off an open source licensed product by keeping control of the licenses and patents to stifle competition and recoup your losses. This unfortunately removes one of the easiest ways to make money.
However, money isn’t everything. All socioeconomic phenomena are based on the human condition, and because of this, I believe that there are untapped motivational forces that are more beneficial than the desire to gather and collect, which is the fundamental bases of money. Altruism, I feel, has more desirable socioeconomic consequences for a large populace and I believe that Free and Open Source go hand in hand with altruism. So how would this work, what sound business plan uses altruism as its philosophical core? Well, they are many and varied, from charities to research foundations.
For me, I intend to build a business that holds at its core, the desire to generate and disseminate technology and information as quickly as possible. To build a community of collaboration and noncompetitive behavior. I envision a company that is an open book that doesn’t trap customers, which is on an equal footing with its customers for a fair and balanced relationship. Lofty goals indeed, but so are the rewards.
“Start simply by simply, starting.” ~ Lawrence Kincheloe
The easiest and arguably the most important feature is to build a place for a community to develop and interact. Because primarily, I am interested in doing hardware development I want to develop tools to help make collaborative hardware development possible for a wide range of different products. I envision hosting projects ranging from home made kilns to advanced robotics, with everything in between. Having and running such a website could be a source of ad revenue as well as a way to build business contacts and a community of collaborators.
Second on the list is to develop a market place for people to sell goods and services. To take on contract work and to offer up manufacturing services for different projects. Not everyone has the ability, time and tools to make any open source project, and this would be a great way to get people comfortable contributing their time to a project they are passionate about while still getting positive reinforcement through traditional capitalistic means. The key is not to “sell out” but to build attractive bridges between ideals and reality. For myself, I would in theory have some sort of manufacturing capability and could offer to build products and bill for my time. This would also be a good place to put up a market front for dealers to sell products they make that are open source in nature.
Third, is how to manage investment and community growth. Growing can be difficult, and businesses have a development life cycle just like any other living thing. When the processes that keep it running break down, it ceases to be. Because this is a loose knit community, building trust is very important. Also, because having capital and pre-orders can mean the difference between having the resources necessary to build a new product and not, there is a lot of potential for micro-investments in interesting products for a marginal price reduction. This is similar in concept to the Open Source Hardware Bank idea which allows producers take advantage of bulk purchases and guaranteed orders and generates incentive by consumers to fund projects they like. Balancing a community that’s motivated by both more traditional rewards as well as social rewards through working together with a community isn’t easy. It will be difficult to be the trusted middle man and still take part in the community. An example of a company that does this well is Valve Software and their Steam gaming platform. Valve sells their successful Half-Life 2 video games but also digitally distribute games from many other vendors. I would go one step further and open up the inner workings of the company for interested parties to view. The goal is to build trust, and to make sure the community knows that the people managing their market infrastructure can be trusted to remain unbiased. I believe the rewards for such behavior will be great.
Can’t Buy Me Love” ~ Paul McCartney
One glaringly obvious flaw in all of this is the practical side of needing to eat and live in a comfortable lifestyle. I’ve already established a business model based around good will and fuzzy feelings, but open source doesn’t guarantee you any sort of income. If you make a contribution, you don’t necessarily get a monetary reward for the work. So take a deep breath with me and learn to love living a fulfilling life by making enough to live on but not enough to get rich with. It is possible to be a great systems designer and integrator, or an expert in tractor building which could be sold as a service based contract job where you can apply what your good at directly to a problem. However, being a great designer doesn’t mean you can sell yourself and your designs, and so your brilliance might not get rewarded by people who use your designs to solve contracted problems. There are potential ways around this problem of evaluating collaboration by some sort of individual metric, but I think that discussion should wait for another essay.
However by embracing open source, there is a lot of potential for people to combine resources to slash the most pressing needs such as food and shelter. Therefore leaving any income to go towards things that a person wants to be comfortable. Open source can help develop cheap house building methods, labor free farming techniques, and products that are unique and innovative that evolve and are valued in a fluid working free market. As innovations build on past success, these get wrapped up in future releases, which benefit everyone. It just won’t make you a millionaire, and may require community living styles to reduce costs and labor. For many though, the benefits of communal living are more than just economics, its about the community itself. Its all about fitting the business model to the philosophy and life style of those who wish to participate. Its not for everyone, but it doesn’t make it any less valid.
The below links were a source of inspiration and perspective.


  1. Kevin Carson

    Congratulations on what you managed to accomplish, Lawrence. Unfortunately, I don’t have broadband. Is there any way you can summarize in writing how far along you managed to get in prototyping a torch table, and what remains to be done?

  2. Kevin Atkinson

    Congratulations, Lawrence, on a tremendous effort!

  3. Franz

    Hi Lawrence.

    it was great and wonderful to see you moving in and contributing with dedication, ableness and pride. Its good to see you working on both ends, on the concrete product as well as on the overall socioeconomic model. I would really like to see more of such people like you here in Europe, where things fall dramatically apart and intellectuals rather rarely get their hand dirty, whereas tinkerers usually are – ahem, tinkerers.

    I think the material benefit of Open Source behaviour can only show if we are able to close the cycle of mutual support and do away with money in our immediate social relations. It will be easier to achieve at the village scale. But then we will see dramatic results. It will put an end to the current paradox that every rise in labour productivity is a step towards scarcity and crisis, because it leads to a decline in business in the long run. It will enable us to truly tune into the groove of a positive feedback cycle. I believe that in the material world the core of the feedback cycle will be physical proximity, whereas in the idea development it will be globality.

    So reading your posts, here is three invitations.

    I think you are absolutely right that we need a virtual place where the communities can really meet and work. Ralf is bringing this concern to the Manchester conference in two weeks, and I hope there will be better coordination. We need things like thingiverse that allow us to identify our partners and to know who fits with us in goal, technical level and tool structure. But we need much more than that. We need a space for synchronous rich interaction with a design language, 3 D modeling and simulation tools on the web. We need repositories, version control and so on. I just talked to Ralf about that and I hope a lively discussion can be sparked before he is going to Manchester. Also, Andrius Kulikauskas is actively evolving virtual collaboration spaces. They might not meet our requirements yet, but there is a very dynamic seed and a person who resembles Marcin in zeal and dedication – at least the guarantee for the emergence of a center of activities. So I suggest bringing this discussion to the globalvillages worknet and I would like to invite you to the globalvillages mailing list. Its best to subscribe from the web:

    The second thing that you outline is the lack of a marketplace. I fully subscribe to the idea of Thomas Diener who seeks to combine the ideas of fair trade with an Open Souce hardware product marketplace. We had a meeting here in Vienna the full day yesterday and we are very close to the establishment of a foundation under swiss law to achieve exactly this. see: I confess we do struggle a bit how to basically implement OpenSource principles, but I also invite you to help in that struggle. Thomas Diener has brilliant ideas to care for the growth of the community and for the material support of developers!

    A third current bottleneck is that we do not have enough physical places in the world to start with experimenting. We are already thinking about encouraging the crowd that Marcin met here to figure out possibilities in Austria based on very clear project outlines, for example also for pursuing the Ingas House project and so on. (We are also putting our minds together how they would be able to meet the different security standards in Europe, where even building a steam engine comes with legal restrictions. Its not always control and monopoly that create such restrictions, but also widespread safety concerns.) There is some indications that we will be able to find such a place, and it would be very helpful if we could circulate a letter of intent of yours saying that you would be willing to come to Europe under certain conditions to continue your work on the torch table. Would you?

    all the best


  4. Kevin Atkinson

    I’d like to contribute $100 to this project, but I see the ChipIn Event is ended. How can I contribute?

  5. Lawrence

    Kevin Carson,
    We successfully have a method for going from high level concept drawings, suck as Inkscape svg files, to metal. However, there is a host of fine tuning and technical difficulties which all have solutions but were not addressable in the time left.
    The two biggest issues are a blown motor controller channel and electromagnetic interference from the plasma cutter. Documentation will address the most likely solutions.

    Thank you for your comments, and I would be happy to accept all three invitations. I’m interested in seeing other peoples take on these ideas, and fostering discussion.

  6. […] — the last one mentioning it I just read is Lawrence Kincheloe’s excellent essay Musings Upon the Nature of Open Source Hardware as a Business at the end of his project visit summary at Factor e Farm. Roja did fail (in the sense that it […]

  7. Marcin

    Regarding Pingback from Runtux Blog:

    On Funkfeuer, what is the extent of the network? How many different towers does it have for broadcasting signal, and at what range? Is it a closed network (linked to itself) or also to the outside world? And, what are the limits of such a network for truly free communications? Are there any regulatory restrictions that get in the way?

  8. Marcin

    From Kevin Atkinson:

    Glad to help.

    >What would you like to see come out of our work in general?

    Big picture, the whole ball of wax — sustainable, prosperous, off-grid, free communities, based around a rich IP commons and a culture of sharing. I’ve been watching your work with avid interest, and rooting for you from the sidelines, since I’m searching for more humane and livable models for work and community than most of the developed world seems to offer. Yours has to be the most rigorous and thorough model for making that happen that I’ve seen.

    I enjoy my work now (I write software for the visual effects company that made the Lord of the Rings and other movies), but I do long to build things, and wish for a more well-rounded and self-determined way of earning a living than staring at a glowing rectangle for 50 hours a week.

    A more immediate fascination is digital fabrication, so the Torch Table project is of particular interest. I love the ethos of modularity and radical simplicity in your designs.

  9. susan butler

    I found Lawrence’s FeF production visit report quite exciting because here is a young guy with some shop skills and some computer savvy (goes with the territory of being a bright young guy), who gets the OS culture (likewise –at a bit more advanced level of savvy –but still a fairly widespread capacity in youth culture) making a significant contribution in his “musings” piece to the invention of critical new social norms.
    As a result of this one month experience (even though maybe he didn’t complete his ambitious agenda nor instigate a stream of business revenue)he has been invited to participate in the highest levels of action and discourse globally in truly revolutionary culture-creation. Touche!
    Talk about efficiency and rapid evolution! Laurence has bypassed the conventional route to this level –many years of toiling and moiling at university to end up serving the powers that be. He has a bright career path in front of him at the beginning of his working life on the front lines of a new sustainable culture. What a resource he is! Surely there is survival potential, some form of sustenance for him in this.
    How many other bright young guys and gals (or bright, unemployed old guys and gals for that matter)are there out there ready for this? Lots.
    I really see the beginnings of a new cultural/political/economy here.
    Marcin and colleagues are about putting the means of production into the hands of local communities. I agree with Franz that the consequent proliferation of value within these empowered places will close the cycle of mutual support and amply provide for the initiating institutions such as those being set up today. With or without money, nevermind intellectual property law.
    In the meantime surely there are ways to “package” and “market” many aspects of the endeavor to attract multiple streams of income from mainstream society just as conventional universities and institutes do.

  10. Open Source Ecology - Overview

    […] CNC Torch Table is a cutting table. A computer can control the torch head making clean sharp cuts on XYZ axes. Prototype I has been built, but has not been operated successfully because the radiation emitted by the plasma cutter that was used with the table caused electronics failure. We will finish Prototype I by retrofitting it with open source stepper motor controllers. […]