Open source hardware, software and hybrid solutions are driving Industry 4.0. Manufacturers are using open source hardware and open source software technologies to improve interoperability, drive innovation, and cut costs. The value of open source in manufacturing is recognized by both industry startups and industry stalwarts like the German engineering and electronics company Bosch. Here is what you need to know about open-source.

Open Source Software implementations provide an easy adoption path, near-perfect interoperability with others, and reduces the cost of entering the market.

What Is Open Source and Why Is It Useful?

In manufacturing, open source takes two forms:

  1. Open source software is freely redistributable and modifiable for purpose.
  2. Open source hardware is based on a documented, freely redistributable and modifiable design.

In other words the idea is to share “Intellectual Property” (IP) in order to share R&D costs and drive innovation. A few years ago this idea would have seemed absurd. However, as technology progresses, ideas become “commoditized,” in other words there isn’t a lot of profit to be made in say, basic thermometers. The patents have long run out and even relatively primitive thermometers are good enough for everyday use. If a more complex product requires embedding a thermometer, having a cheap, basic design that can be shared among manufacturers and customized for use allows costs to be shared and designs to be fit for purpose.

In software, it is the same idea. The basic underlying file-level index has become commoditized. Our company, Lucidworks develops products on top of this engine that extend its functionality to provide modern high-end AI-powered search. We even collaborate with competitors on the underlying technology.

What Solutions Are Provided by Open Source Hardware?

open source hardware

Affordability is a major driver of open source hardware. Once a product for the education and hobby market, the Raspberry Pi and the various Arduino devices are now used in Smart displays from NEC, network monitoring tools and camera equipment. The low cost and widespread availability of these devices encourages their utility in a variety of applications. Another example is Facebook’s Open Compute Project which tech companies like Intel, financial companies like Goldman Sachs and manufacturers like Schneider Electric collaborate on datacenter components. Compared with traditional providers the pace of improvement is faster and the costs are substantially lower.

Prototyping and customization are inherent advantages of open source hardware. When creating a new product, the ability to create a virtual digital “twin” and rapidly create and modify a prototype are essential for evaluation and testing. The faster that process, the faster the time to market. Cheap, easily modified, easily programmed commodity computing components are essential to today’s smart devices. Even if ultimately a more custom-use chip is used in the final product, having these open source tools on hand at the start can facilitate rapid iteration. Because products are often modified, there is usually a 2.0 released shortly after the first version, it use useful to have easily re-programmable components and developer tools.

Supply chain and collaboration are improved through the use of open source hardware. Inexpensive open source hardware can be sourced from multiple suppliers and in-sourced if, for required, by a legislative or tariff environment. This can help manufacturers improve the robustness of their supply chains. When every vendor on the supply chain can see a design, they can help improve both the design and the way it is created.

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Recruiting talent is easier for users of open source technologies. Recruiting and developing talent is identified by most experts as a key challenge to Industry 4.0. Open source hardware and commodity components are easily accessible to colleges, technical schools and Universities. In many cases they provide standard APIs and tools for developing and configuring them.

In Industry 4.0 sensors are everywhere and open source hardware enables them. Instrumentation is one of the most important components of Industry 4.0. In a closed loop manufacturing environment everything is monitored and inspected. Doing that requires a lot of sensors and tooling. Moreover, in a dynamic line that might change, the tooling may change, the sensors may change and being able to repurpose and reprogram a component and acquire inexpensive sensors and tools is not a luxury but a necessity.

What Solutions Are Provided by Open Source Software?

open source

Scalability is critical to Industry 4.0 and IoT. With those sensors everywhere and all of the devices creating data manufacturers depend on their solution to scale in terms of affordability but also technical scalability. Solutions need to handle “that much data” and open source solutions like Apache Solr, Spark, Kafka and others are exactly the kind of innovations necessary to handle that much data often with real-time considerations.

Interoperability and Standardization is a major driver for Open Source adoption at Manufacturers. Even modern factories are a combination of older machines, newer machines and tools from different vendors. Creating a closed loop system is not possible unless the data can be rationalized into similar formats and communicated across standard protocols. That is part of why a number of manufacturers and governments have been working together with collaborations such as the one at the Eclipse Foundation. These standards include protocols like MQTT as well as their implementations. Standard like these allow manufacturers to wire together factories even if they have equipment from multiple vendors.

Analytics, AI and Machine Learning are virtually dominated by open source. Whether it is Apache Spark or deep learning tools like Pytorch, open source tools and technology dominate the analytics, AI and machine learning space. Manufacturers looking to make sense of both sensor data and more text and descriptive data rely on open source software to do it.

Low angle view of two engineers working on robotic arm in laboratory. Woman is using digital tablet.

People are still everything so search is still everything. Even smart factories are run by people. Both people and machines need data specific to them and the context of their task at hand. Today’s search is powered by open source engines like Apache Lucene and Solr. These tools make the right data available to both people and machines and can be used in near real-time contexts.

Most Solutions Are Hybrid Solutions

Heart shaped by human and robot hands. Isolated on white background. 3D illustration.

Smart factories aren’t all based on open source hardware. Manufacturers have secrets and IP that they have to protect and can’t share. Open source software, while powerful, often tends to have sharp edges particularly around usability and operational concerns. Meanwhile it is hard to buy purely proprietary software these days, even the least open platforms tend to still use open source technologies.

So what is the solution? Find open technologies and platforms combined with solutions from innovative vendors that make these tools and technologies more accessible and usable.

For hardware, typically open source solutions communicate with and are combined with more traditional equipment. Most Industry 4.0 projects are “brownfield” rather than “greenfield” meaning that newer technologies will be added to existing factories. This may involve integrating an IoT gateway to work with existing protocols, aggregate data from existing PLCs and transmit the data using standard protocols.

For open source software such as search, manufacturers may start out using Apache Solr but later may find Lucidworks Fusion easier to use, feed and operate. Fusion also includes AI and machine learning technologies built on Apache Spark. This hybrid technology combines the advantages of open source with pragmatic solutions to make it easier to use and even more powerful.

People are the engine behind Industry 4.0. Open source hardware and software are the fuel that are helping to make that smart innovation happen.

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