Friday, November 02, 2007

Open Source Hardware: A Proposal



A mixed bag of successes and failures in the nascent entrepreneurial rocket industry demonstrates that it's having growing pains, and why shouldn't it? Each group is developing its own rocket engines, IMUs, etc. on its own. While this provides development on a broad selection of designs, it makes one wonder if all of this parallel reinvention is all that necessary. After all, the space industry has existed for over 60 years, with a very broad spectrum of designs and data already available in many cases.

One of the big advantages the big aerospace companies have is access to their own voluminous databases of designs and test data, especially information that is not publicly accessible. Meanwhile, entrepreneurial space is just getting started, designing various liquid-fueled engines in each of their shops, and going through the trials and tribulations of rocket design, such as hard starts, combustion instability, etc. and slowly building up their own knowledge bases and sharing what they will between each other. (I have to admit that aRocket is a very good forum in this capacity.) But in this industry, it occurs to me that intellectual property, especially the hording and selling thereof, has a cost associated with it that's prohibitively high. A collaboration model might work better. For instance, if company A and company B build their own versions of a LOX-alcohol engine of a partuclar thrust it may take X amount of time to come up with two solutions to their common problem. If they were to collaborate on a common design, each trying their own variations on it, but keeping the elements that work and cycling them back into the common design, then it may take X/2 amount of time to come up a common engine solution. Not only that, since the solution is common, the two companies could share parts as needed.

It's still possible for two companies to make money independently this way. Although the engine design may be common, there are still issues of manufacturing capability and customer management to allow both companies to flourish. For instance, company A may be better at manufacturing the engines, so company B may buy their engines from them or company C may do the same for that matter, because in an Open-Source method, everyone knows the engine's specifications, requirements and performance, or they may opt to build their own if company A is charging a really prohibitive price for the manufactured product. Everyone can also determine how well the engine works and uncover bugs much more quickly than one company could do alone. So potentially this could result in lower-cost, safer, hardware.

I once worked for a company that was oriented along product groups. Although at first this seemed like an inefficient way of running a company, the benefit was that each group could come up with unique solutions to their problems, and although this sounds like how the current entrepreneurial rocket industry is working, the critical difference was that if team A's product or tester or software was working better than your own, there were no barriers for you in team B to leverage their design for your own purposes, and visa versa. Everyone had the common goal of making money for the overall company, and it was a remarkably healthy environment to work in.

The people behind the entrepreneurial rocket industry may want to decide if they're in the business of building rockets or the business of flying customers. If they choose the former, then I fear the growth of the industry will be slow and expensive, if they choose the later, I expect something much faster.

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