Q&A with Joshua Pearce, Engineering Professor at Michigan Tech University

Joshua Pearce
Joshua Pearce, Engineering Professor at Michigan Tech University

We sat down with Joshua Pearce – author of Create, Share, and Save Money Using Open-Source Projects. His book collects hundreds of projects for beginners and intermediate levels, showing the extensive range of goods we can make instead of buy. 


Describe what your organization does in 256 characters (a Tweet’s length)

Joshua Pearce: Appropedia is a wiki website for collaborative solutions in sustainability, poverty reduction and international development, with a particular focus on appropriate technology. 

How did you get involved in this industry?

Joshua Pearce: In graduate school I studied low-cost solar technology development. This eventually led me into the field of appropriate technology and working with Appropedia. Then as we developed our solar technology into products for the developing world, I started rapid prototyping with open source RepRap 3-D printers (self replicating rapid prototypers – 3D printers that could make their own parts). These 3-D printers really opened my eyes to the potential for open source technical development to create vast wealth for everyone.

What made you think of the idea/what inspired you to create your technology?

Joshua Pearce: My research lab at this point fabricates most of our own scientific tools using an open source paradigm where we build off of other’s work quickly. We then share our work and others do the same. We have saved millions in the lab this way. Our lab is literally assisted by hundreds of people all over the world I will probably never meet.

How is this going to benefit people/society?

Joshua Pearce: The reason I wrote Create, Share, and Save Money Using Open-Source Projects is I wanted to share what I learned sharing free and open source software and hardware as a scientist with everyone else. Open source development provides free resources that can enable you to live a more economical and sustainable lifestyle.

What’s innovative about your company and technology?

Joshua Pearce: My lab group has several firsts. We were the first to develop a recyclebot – an open source waste plastic extruder that turns the contents of your recyclable bin into filament for your 3-D printer. Roughly a nickel of electricity gets you a $20 spool. You can then use that to print hundreds of dollars of products. We also developed an open source metal 3-D printer that costs less than $1200 and can make objects out of aluminum and steel. 

How, in your opinion, has your industry changed in the past 5 years?

Joshua Pearce: Open source software is now the dominant method of software development. Consider

  • Android, an open source-based operating system, is the world’s most popular operating system, 
  • all supercomputers run on Linux, 
  • 90% of cloud servers, 82% of smartphones and 62% of embedded systems run on open-source operating systems, 
  • more than 70% of ”internet of things“ devices also use open-source software and 
  • 90% of the Fortune Global 500 pay for the open-source Linux operating system from Red Hat, a company that was recently acquired by IBM and makes billions of dollars a year for the service they provide on top of the product that can be downloaded for free.

Open hardware is about 15 years behind software – but the number of open hardware projects has exploded – there are now literally millions of products you can download and replicate for the cost of materials on a digital tool.

What has COVID done to your company/industry? Has it been affected? Does your solution assist with the pandemic?

Joshua Pearce: Although the COVID pandemic is terrible, it did have an extremely positive effect on open hardware. There was a desperate need for low-cost hardware to deal with COVID-19 all over the world. The pandemic made it clear that with the evolution of digital manufacturing technologies such as 3D printers and circuit milling systems, humanity can share designs with others who can then replicate medical-grade devices for the cost of locally sourced materials. This happened – my group and many others were running our machines full out to manufacture PPE and medical devices for local hospitals. Open hardware demonstrated it could both develop and manufacture devices faster than the old model.

Describe the future of your industry. What does the future hold? What is society going to look like?

Joshua Pearce: In the not so distant future all of humanity will enjoy incredible wealth because there will be a free (as in libre) version of all products. You will be able to download free designs, customize them and then fabricate them on digital tools from local materials.  You won’t make things you don’t need or want. All of your products can be custom, created with little-to-no-waste using renewable resources. This is the society that we can all have together if we share.

What plans do you have coming up?

Joshua Pearce: We are still working hard to make the digital replication tools better. We are using open source computer vision and artificial intelligence to detect errors in 3D printing and fix them in real time. This will make low cost printers even easier to use. We do this all with a simple web cam – again building off the genius of many others.

What would your advice be for people trying to get into your industry?

Joshua Pearce: All of this free stuff you can have compliments of the global sharing community, which will be better for having you as an active member. Some of the creations are literately free, but even those that involve material supplies (like hardware projects) will save you substantial amounts of money. There is so much free stuff that it may be tempting to grab as much free hardware and software as you can and then sit back and revel in your savings. You might never bother to share your own work. This would be a big mistake. Simply taking will unquestionably save you a lot of money; however, then you will lose the opportunities that will offer you the greatest value – when others specifically help you. It is pretty simple to get them to help you – just share your work, designs, and brilliance then others will build off it in ways you might never have suspected and because it is open source – you get to enjoy the benefits as they will be required to reshare it with you.


You say that real wealth comes from sharing your own work. Can you explain how?

There are four ways:

First, when you post your work freely on-line there is the potential for massive peer review. Peer review is a fancy way of describing having others take a look at your work. This starts from perhaps simple compliments and comments or questions about your art work. This feels nice and may be modestly helpful. It can, however, be far more useful. For example, have you ever had a cool idea for a new technology and wondered if it could be brought to life – but didn’t have the money or time to bring on an engineering firm to have a go at it? Now you can. By sharing your idea in the appropriate circles, it can go all the way to detailed technical discussions of your new technology designs by trained engineers – for free. Sharing provides an avenue to new friends that share your interests and passions. Feedback often comes from others with the same interests. They can be amateurs or even professionals in your field of interest. Their feedback can improve your skills or even your specific projects. Often, truly different perspectives from people living all over the world can be invaluable themselves.

Second, by sharing, you are gaining visibility for your interests and passions. Ironically, freely sharing your work could lead to your getting a job! If you are considering working or volunteering for a business, NPO or community organization that could use such talents and skills, you are essentially advertising your skills. Open source has helped my engineering students when talking with recruiters because they are able to talk about their project in depth and the recruiters can see for themselves what the students have worked on. For example, it is quite common now for software programmers to advertise their skills by helping on open source software projects. This advertising can be useful for helping you get a job or recruit collaborators, customers and even employees. 

Third, by providing high-quality documentation for your creations, they can also be used as educational aides. This has the benefit that the young and those training in your field of interest can learn ‘your way’ of doing things. Thus, future collaborators or employees can be trained using your techniques. The most successful open source projects are those that became a platform. They provide a base that others can use to build upon – often in unexpected ways.

Fourth, when you share something in the global commons, you are planting a seed. Others may help that seed grow into a mighty tree – perhaps beyond your wildest ideas in value. Through a modest effort on my part to share the designs for something I had already made for myself, I helped out others. I may never meet them or benefit, but making the world a slightly better place is its own reward. That said, improvements built on your seed idea are re-shared back with others and continue to be built upon.  Best of all these improvements, remixes and mashups are all available for free to you as well.

Create, Share, and Save Money
Create, Share, and Save Money Using Open-Source Projects (McGraw-Hill, 2020)

How have you saved the scientific community millions of dollars sharing open source designs?

My group has shared over 100 designs for scientific tools that generally cost 1-10% of the cost of a proprietary one. It is perhaps easiest to see how this works with a single example. We developed an open-source syringe pump design.  

The majority of the pump parts can be fabricated with an open-source 3-D printer, while other necessary parts are readily available, such as a stepper motor and steel rods. The design, bill of materials and assembly instructions are globally available to anyone wishing to use them. You can use your cellphone to drive the device over Wi-Fi. The original study on the syringe pump found that it is as good as (or better than) commercial syringe pumps.  The low-cost, open source variety of syringe pumps, however, are completely customizable, allowing both the volume and the motor to scale for specific applications, such as any research activity, including carefully controlled dosing of reagents, pharmaceuticals, and delivery of viscous 3-D printer media.

 So how much is it worth?

The cost to purchase a traditionally manufactured syringe pump ranges from $260  for a single pump up to $2606 for a dual pump.  The cost of the materials for a single open source pump is $97 and for the double, it is $154. The time to assemble either the single or double pump is less than an hour and can be accomplished by a non-expert. Assuming the assembler hourly rate $10/hour because no special skills are needed this provides a savings for substituting the open source syringe pump for a commercial one of between $153 for a single up to $2,442 for the double pump. Thus, the free pump designs saved the global community from over $64,000 to over $1,000,000 for the global community in the first month. A million dollars of value in a month! Not bad. 

Performing even a simple extrapolation for a single year provides a total value between $778,000 and $12.4 million. It has been five years and the values of wealth actually generated by the humble pump, has reached many millions of dollars. As the open source syringe pump saves between 59%-93%, and it meets the standards for research it has first been adopted by scientific and medical labs all over the world. 

We now have syringe pumps in my lab that are better than the originals we made because other people made even better designs from them and re-shared.

What are some of the secrets of open source so everyone can save on products they want in their daily lives?

Share! If you share your ideas whether it is a simple game you play with your kids or complicated AI program, by giving freely others will build on it and you will get better – more valuable – gifts back.


Joshua Pearce
Joshua Pearce, Engineering Professor at Michigan Tech University

Joshua Pearce is Engineering Professor at Michigan Tech University. He uses open-source projects to tackle sustainability and poverty issues. Joshua shares instructions and blueprints for making things as complex as cars, security systems, and electricity—and as simple as toys, sporting goods, and clothes—free to anyone with internet access. He also relies on others to do the same as part of a decentralized open-source community that lives richly without spending.