Open hardware for open science

Inspired by the open source software movement, the Open Hardware Repository was created to enable hardware developers to share the results of their R&D activities. The recently published CERN Open Hardware Licence offers the legal framework to support this knowledge and technology exchange.


Two years ago, a group of electronics designers led by Javier Serrano, a CERN engineer, working in experimental physics laboratories created the Open Hardware Repository (OHR). This project was initiated in order to facilitate the exchange of hardware designs across the community in line with the ideals of “open science”. The main objectives include avoiding duplication of effort by sharing results across different teams that might be working on the same need.

“For hardware developers, the advantages of open hardware are numerous. For example, it is a great learning tool for technologies some developers would not otherwise master, and it avoids unnecessary work if someone has already designed what one needs. Furthermore, having all work reviewed increases its quality,” explains Javier Serrano, an engineer in CERN’s Beams Department and the founder of the OHR. “For the users - engineers, scientists, researchers, etc. - the OH concept offers some attractive freedom. Everyone has the possibility to criticise and modify the design, as well as manufacture the hardware specified in the design files. Moreover, everyone can benefit from better hardware, better support from local hardware designers and can request or add new features easily.”

It was in this regard that some members of the OHR team felt the need to regulate the use of the designs published by CERN. The first version of the CERN OHL (Open Hardware Licence) was created with the support of the Knowledge Transfer group and was published two months ago on the OHR. And a few days ago, a second version of the OHL was presented. Although the principles behind the two versions are the same, a few changes had to be made after feedback was received from the Free Software community. “With this licence, CERN wishes to offer an additional means to maximise the dissemination of its hardware design and to foster collaboration among public research hardware designers,” says Myriam Ayass, the legal advisor of the Knowledge Transfer group and the author of the CERN OHL. “Everyone is able to see the design documentation, study it, modify it and share it. In addition, if modifications are made and distributed, it must be under the same licence conditions – this is the “persistent” nature of the licence, which ensures that the whole community will continue to benefit from improvements as everyone in turn will be able to make modifications to these improvements.”

The fact that the designs are “open” also means that anyone can manufacture the product based on this design – from individuals to research institutes and big companies – and commercialize it. “The CERN OHL specifically states that manufacturers of products based on those designs should not imply any kind of endorsement or responsibility on the part of the designers,” points out Myriam Ayass.

The OHR already hosts more than 40 projects developed by institutes including CERN, GSI (Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung) and the University of Cape Town. “Open source software was our source of inspiration for Open Hardware, and we are starting to see that the benefits seen in the former translate well to the latter. We are proving that there need be no contradiction between commercial hardware and openness," concludes Javier Serrano.

For further information, read the recent CERN Press Release on OHL.

by CERN Bulletin