5 Ways to Make Money With Open Source Hardware

Surprising ways to use science for extra income

Individuals and organizations can—and regularly do—make money with open source software. The same rules of business and strategies for financial success can also apply to open source hardware.

Open source hardware ascribes the same types of freedoms to physical objects as open source software licenses grant to virtual ones. And that means that you can make money with it. You just need to think about the goals and needs of this particular community. Here are some ideas for how you can cash in.

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Make and Sell Stuff

The most obvious way to make money with open source hardware is to create something and then sell it. While community members generally want to do the "making" part themselves, consumers would like to have the finished products without lifting a finger. In other words, if you're willing to do the work, they're happy to pay you for it.

Write Something

If you're a master hardware hacker, share your knowledge. Of course, it would be great for the community if you devoted your life to teaching the tricks of the trade for free, but that might not always be financially possible. If you're short on cash but rich in skills, writing a book or articles for trade magazines or even getting paid to blog about open source hardware can be a great way to earn some extra income.

To get started, find out what's of interest these days by following open source leaders on Facebook, Twitter, and Identi.ca.

Create Accessories

The open source community needs more than the basic items like BeagleBoard and Arduino to survive. A lot of opportunities exist to create and sell periphery like breadboards, cases, patches, and t-shirts.

If you're an engineering wizard, like Limor Fried (aka "Lady Ada"), you could turn your inventions into an entire industry. Or, if your skills are more along the ThinkGeek lines, then you could use on-demand print services like CafePress and Zazzle to create apparel, coffee mugs, bumper stickers, and more.

Consult

With the tools of open source hardware hobbyists finding their way into increasingly complicated, professional, and commercial spaces, the world needs experts. And large companies, in particular, are generally happy to spend money on experts ​if they can really help the companies get over major hurdles.

One of the best ways to become a leader in the field is to actively participate in an open source hardware project. The more you can demonstrate your expertise–and the more visible you are–the more likely companies will seek you out for a consulting job.

Start a Hackerspace

One thing that sets open source hardware apart from open source software is the toolset required to complete the projects. The equipment you have to buy, including 3D printers and CNC laser cutters, can be expensive and take up a lot of space.

Hackerspaces provide environments where open source hardware enthusiasts come together to share tools and ideas and work as a community. A well run hackerspace takes planning: securing the location (and lease), buying and/or renting equipment, getting the utilities up and running, and buying insurance in case of accidents take a lot of time and effort. In fact, it can easily be a full-time job and a source of income if you have the right managerial skills and interest.

The open source hardware movement is about community and sharing. And while profit shouldn't drive your motives, done right, you can make money doing something you love while still contributing positively to the cause.