Saturday, March 08, 2008

Open Distribution moving open source model to hardware?

Tata Nano CarIndian company Tata displayed a low cost car, the Nano, a few months ago. While the $US2,500 price got a lot of attention, the way it was to be made did not. One is Open Distribution, with Tata designing the car for modular construction and final assembly by small local factories (even garage mechanics).

Other Indian products, such as the Simputer computer, have a formal hardware distribution license. This is modeled on software open licenses, but applied to the hardware design. The Simputer General Public License (SGPL) is modeled on the GPL and permits building a Simputer, but only for non-commercial purposes. If the design is modified and units are sold to the public, the modifications must be disclosed to those looking after the Simputer specifications. Using the Simputer trademark are required to be certified they meet the specification. A similar approach is being used for open source hardware design for smart phones.

Clearly, making cars will require more care with modifications and certifications, for reasons of vehicle safety. A car crash can be a lot more serious than a computer crash. But similar principles can be used. In this way the car "maker" becomes a designer and certifier. Components are made by numerous suppliers and assembled by others. Assemblers close to the client can then supply custom modifications to meet requirements.

In a way this is not really a new approach and some of it has been done by car makers for many years. Brands such as Toyota, Fiat and Citroen, are just brands. The companies do not necessarily design, make parts for, assemble or sell their cars; they just provide a brand. The cars are produced by other companies and often the assembly and parts are shared between the brands. One example is the Toyota Aygo, which is made alongside the Peugeot 107 and Citroën C1. The three cars look different, but are the same design underneath.

This approach to manufacturing applies more so in the case of desktop computers. Standardized components are made by many manufacturers and assembled into computers which are then sold under different brands. Assembly can be done by small local "white box" makers, at customer request, or on a large production line with thousands of identical units.

Open Distribution opens the process out and makes the customer aware of what is going on, not pretending one company does everything. But this requires the customer to trust whoever is assembling the product will do it according to required standards.

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