What Manufacturing Can Learn from Open Source

After spending a few years in an academic setting, I noticed something curious.  

While searching online databases for secondary sources, I’d come across a paper in direct dialogue with my project only to find it stuck behind a paywall. 

Often, there were no reasonable options for gaining access. If my university didn’t subscribe to the journal–or none of our peer institutions or affiliate libraries did–and there were no pirate PDFs floating around Google, I was out of luck. 

It was frustrating. That’s someone’s hard work–their peer-reviewed, original thought–completely inaccessible. 

It begs a question: 

If knowledge is published, but no one can access it, does it really exist?

Open Source Moves Industries Forward

For those of us who grew up building our skills on publicly available source code, this cloistering of information was surprising. 

Open access to high-quality information is the absolute cornerstone of individual growth. Perhaps of all education. Countless young developers cut their teeth by studying, modifying, and contributing to software they pulled from public repositories. 

Collaboration on open access projects is how networks form and industries accelerate forward.

The world would have a lot fewer qualified software engineers without open source code. Not to mention a whole lot less software. Perhaps fewer companies, too. At Tulip, we’ve built extensively on top of open source systems and libraries like Linux, Kubernetes, and React. 

Manufacturing can learn a lesson from open source. In fact, the future of manufacturing is open source. Here’s why.

At this point, you’ve probably heard that manufacturing is in the midst of a labor crisis. 

According to the best estimates, however, roughly 2.2 million jobs will remain open over the next decade, resulting in $2.5 trillion (trillion!) in unrealized profits. At Tulip, we think a lot about what it will take to create an evenly distributed future for advanced manufacturing, and there’s a real argument to make that an open source model for knowledge sharing has a role to play in this process. Open source has the potential to revolutionize the way manufacturers train their workforce, and how workers develop their skills as individuals. 

A graph showing the number of jobs unfilled in manufacturing over the last decade. It's here to show that manufacturing is in the middle of a labor crisis, and thus needs open source.
Number of jobs unfilled in manufacturing by year since 2009. (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)

So here I want to give a flash history of open source software in order to show why manufacturing needs something similar. The future of manufacturing rests on equipping individuals with the tools they need to control their own growth. 

Information Is Power

It’s no secret that the democratization of information creates profound societal change. 

It’s consensus among historians that 17th and 18th century coffee houses helped hasten the Enlightenment by improving access to print resources and creating a broad readership (and by encouraging people to drink coffee over beer, but that’s a different story). 

Information sharing changes societies. Historians argue that coffee houses sped the Enlightenment, and libraries accelerated civic participation. In this way, they're like open source.
Information sharing changes societies. Historians argue that coffee houses sped the Enlightenment, and libraries accelerated civic participation. (Source: Yale Center for British Art)

In the 19th and 20th centuries, public libraries made institutions of knowledge sharing. 

Something similar happened around the birth of ubiquitous internet. 

Namely, the consolidation of the open source movement–in name and function–created access to source code on a massive scale. In the process, it unleashed a wave of creativity that ushered in our current era of technological progress. 

Enter, Open Source: From Collaboration to Copyright

Steve Lohr, Pulitzer Prize winning tech journalist for the New York Times, defines open sources as follows.

“[Open source is] both an iconoclastic philosophy and a software development model: software is distributed free and its ”source code,” or underlying instructions, are published openly so that other programmers can study, share and modify the author’s work.”

While the term “open source” came into use around the late-1990s, it has a much longer history. 

Before the 1980s, most software development was conducted under conditions akin to open source. This is because most development was done by academics and industry-funded researchers. For these early pioneers, who were few in number and dispersed across a small number of institutions and companies interested in computer research, there was plenty of incentive to share  work and little drawback to doing so. 

Things started to change around the 1970s, with the emergence of a (small) consumer software market. With the advent of software licensing, end-users purchased access to a piece of software’s functionality, not unfettered access to the whole product (which would include the source code and documentation).

Software was increasingly valuable intellectual property. Companies protected their code with restrictive licensing, copyright, and non-disclosure agreements. Many began staking intellectual property claims to all the software their employees developed during their tenure. 

This had a chilling effect on collaboration, and stifled individuals eager to learn from cutting edge releases. 

The Free Software Movement

In the early 1980s, developers grew disenchanted by the restriction of access to source code. Access to software was an ethical matter, they reasoned, as much as it was a commercial one. 

Spearheaded by MIT researcher Richard Stallman, the Free Software Movement (FSM) sought an alternative to “black box” software licenses. 

Complete with a manifesto and an open source operating system, the FSM’s position on the matter was clear: 

The logo for Richard Stallman’s GNU open source operating system, which became something of an avatar for the open source movement.

“Copying all or parts of a program is as natural to a programmer as breathing, and as productive. It ought to be as free.”

Until the mid-1990s, support for open source grew incrementally. Until roughly the turn of the century, open source was an ethos rather than a fully-fledged movement. An informal network rather than a united front.

Code bases were exchanged, shared, and updated by individuals without a uniting organization. Its adherents were largely freedom-minded developers, rebels with little patience for the corporate hoarding of valuable information, and inveterate tinkerers interested above all in seeing what happens “under the hood.” 

Together, they created substantial, public repositories of code accessible to anyone who asked.

The Turning Point 

The late 1990s represented a turning point for open source software. 

First, open communications protocols–like HTTP, for one–allowed people to communicate more freely on projects. Second, a more mature internet, though still nascent, enabled teams to collaborate closely across wide distances. The subcultural success of Linux Kernel, the open operation system brainchild of Linus Torvald, gave proof positive of what open source collaboration could achieve. The number of revolutionary new projects “forked,” split off from a previous open source project toward a new end, by the early 2000s is staggering. 

Second, the emergence of the term “open source” named a phenomenon and an attitude already in wide circulation. It helped developers, corporations, and other interested parties understand what was at stake with free access to source code. The foundation of formal organizations that could advocate on behalf of the open source community further solidified the consolidation of open source into a cultural-technological force. 

Finally, a spate of high-profile leaders in technology began to embrace open source as part of their business strategy. Forward thinking companies observed that open source wasn’t a threat. Quite the opposite. Open source was a boon to productivity.

In the uncertain period following the unceremonious bursting of the Dot Com bubble, tech companies began to announce their support of open source.

First a trickle, then a flood. 

An early adopter always, in 1999 Steve Jobs told the New York Times that Apple, when it came to open source, planned to “start by walking, and then later this year we’ll be jogging, and by next year we’ll be running.”

By 2002, HP, Sun Microsystems, and IBM joined Apple in their support of open source. A growing number of startups and consultancies sprung up to help enterprises navigate the open source landscape.

By the mid-aughts, the release of several version control systems (such as today’s leader, Git)helped create developers iterate, fork, and version with greater organization and integrity. 

A senior strategist for HP outlined the views of many when he stated that, “All of this is about empowering the individual with technology.”

Why It Matters

The trend that began in the late-1990s accelerated in the aughts. 

Within a decade, open source was the norm. 

Today, 98% of enterprises use open source. If that doesn’t qualify as revolutionary change, I don’t know what does. 

It’s no coincidence that the birth of the open source software movement coincided with the birth of the modern software era. Think about what open source actually enables. Instead of limiting the circulation of user-ready, productionized code to a company’s engineers, open source democratizes development. It lets anyone study, modify, and experiment with code-in-progress. It’s akin to a library, if each book contained detailed notes about their author’s thought process, the stumbling blocks they faced while writing, and Easter eggs scrawled in the margins for savvy meddlers to find. (Imagine finding a nugget like “#This section is really hacky”, a real comment from a Python module for statistical analysis, in War and Peace!).

Line of source code committed in the millions over time. There's a radical acceleration around the turn of the century. Manufacturing can benefit from a similar adaption of open source.
Lines of open source code committed over time (adapted from Deshpande and Riehle, “The Total Growth of Open Source”)


Beneath the explosion of creativity, acumen, and innovation that enabled the rise of tech giants that define the landscape to this day was software worked out in public communities. 

In reality, the corporate embrace of open source made it possible for a generation of developers to learn the tools of the trade by contributing themselves. 

What open source enabled was the simultaneous education of developers worldwide, and nothing short of the birth of the modern tech industry.

Why Manufacturing Needs an Open Source

The biggest lesson manufacturing can learn from open source is this: giving individuals the tools they need to learn and contribute benefits everyone. 

It benefits the companies that support it, who stand to gain from more skilled and productive workers. And it benefits individuals, who can access raw materials that can be used for creating anything from trivial games to world changing software packages. 

My co-founders and I started Tulip with the idea of open source software in mind. We wanted to create a platform that would bring the creativity and innovation of open source software to manufacturing. 

Here are some of the ways open source is poised to transform manufacturing in the next 10 years. 

Community – To date, manufacturing has lacked a robust digital and physical community for sharing ideas and collaborating on common goals. We often talk about information silos on the shop floor, but they’re just as real between engineers at different organizations. 

One thing open source teaches us is that information sharing is a community initiative.

Application Exchange – Applications are increasingly important in manufacturing–it’s not just Tulip, this is simply where manufacturing is going. Manufacturing could benefit from an open-source style application exchange. Engineers would share their apps, and others could purchase, download, fork, or version them to fit their own processes. 

Distributing Best Practices – Why should every factory have to reinvent the wheel? Open source taught us that sharing tricks and best practices helps codify them. 

It’s reasonable that manufacturers would worry that sharing best practices would be akin to giving away their competitive advantage. Maybe so. But many of the manufacturers we talk to–especially in biotech and pharma, where the value is in R&D and intellectual property–want to know what their peers are doing. They want to share what they get right. 

Workforce Training – Silver tsunami, skills gap, workforce crisis–call it what you will, but manufacturing is at a crossroads when it comes to human labor. 

Humans aren’t going anywhere any time soon, and there aren’t enough to go around. 

Open source training tools can help manufacturers skill and reskill their workforce faster. And it can help workers build the skills they need to take their career in the direction they desire. 

If we’re going to make good on the promises of the fourth industrial revolution, we need the accelerated, networked action that open source makes possible.