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Hardware companies must stop competing and collaborate to prevent future pandemics

In factories and industrial estates across the world, exceptional efforts are being made to ensure hospitals have ventilators, and logistics firms have freezers and refrigerators. Behind the scenes, this manufacturing drive has been taking place on an epic, unprecedented scale. In some places, it’s also been horrendously inefficient.

Some of that inefficiency is only to be expected. Manufacturing responsively at such short notice was always going to be messy. But many of the hardware hold-ups we’ve witnessed – from production line bottlenecks to part shortages – could be avoided in the future by applying an “open source” ethos to the world’s production of hardware.

Open source design is a form of collective intelligence, where experts work together to create a design that anyone has the legal right to manufacture. The software industry has long shown that “open” collaboration is not only possible but advantageous. Open source software is ubiquitous, and the servers that power the internet itself are largely run on open technology, collaboratively designed by competing companies.

Early in the pandemic, and in recognition of the global emergency that was unfolding, dozens of the world’s largest companies did actually sign up to the “Open COVID Pledge,” promising to share their intellectual property to help fight the virus. On a smaller scale, more than 100 project teams set out to create and share “open” ventilator designs that could be produced locally, helping address the pressing need for ventilators around the world.

Unfortunately, neither of these initiatives succeeded in producing ventilators at the rate required by stretched hospitals in the early weeks of the pandemic. After examining existing attempts to share the intellectual property of machines, our recent paper concludes that projects must be open from the start in order to make a success of open hardware. Everything from the first doodle on a napkin to the detailed calculations that verify safety must be available if other experts and manufacturers are going to participate in the design.