Nov.18, 2013

Dr. Joshua M. Pearce and his research group have become well-known for cutting the costs of scientific research by designing open-source hardware using 3D printers and micro-controllers. "The ability to make our own equipment and build directly off of the brilliance of others has saved our research program tens of thousands of dollars." says Pearce.

Pearce, an associate professor at Michigan Technological University, began printing out lab equipment in earnest after a seminal moment, when he priced a lab jack at $1,000. "All it does is move things up and down," he said. Using a printer and open-source software, his team made a utilitarian replica for about five dollars.

Lab jack / Credit: Joshua Pearce

On his desk is a dual-purpose gadget: it can measure water turbidity, like a nephelometer; and it can do chemical analysis based on color, like a colorimeter. "We've shoved two devices into one, and it's completely customizable," said Pearce. To buy them both with equivalent accuracy would have cost over $4,000. To make this hybrid on a 3D printer cost about $50 including the cost of an open-source microcontroller, sensors and LEDs.

Saving money is just the half of it. "This lets faculty have total control over their laboratory," he said. Because designs are fluid, "devices can evolve with your lab rather than become obsolete."

The technology can also result in better science, says Pearce. Replicating another researcher's work becomes much easier and cheaper. "Equipment designs can be shared as easily as recipes," he said. "Scientists from all over the world are contributing designs." And it may change the dynamic of graduate education. "We get a huge influx of students from China, India and Africa, in part because they have so few good labs," Pearce said. "If they could print their own equipment, they wouldn't have to leave their home to study unless they wanted to, and many more talented people could contribute to experimental science. We could have a truly global scientific community."

But for Pearce, perhaps the best thing about open-source 3D printing is the open-source part. Makers, as 3D printer aficionados are called, not only use designs posted on the Internet, they also post their own and provide feedback. "It creates positive scientific karma," he said. "You can share your ideas and get help from the community, and it speeds things up so much. It's like having a global R&D team dedicated to your work."

In his new book, "Open-Source Lab", Pearce provides a step-by-step DIY guide for making lab equipment. The essential tools are a 3D printer, open-source software and free digital designs. "It's a guidebook for new faculty members setting up labs," he said. "With it, they can cut the cost by a factor of 10, or even 100 for research-grade equipment. Even in the classroom, we can do a $15,000 educational lab for $500."

But Pearce cautions the reader not to rely too heavily on existing designs. The whole point of open-source printing is to join the community and share, share, share. "If the hardware is not good enough for you or your lab, remember, it is free, so quit whining and make it better!"

"This is the beginning of a true revolution in the sciences," says Pearce.

You can read chapters one and two for free here.


Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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Ben wrote at 11/19/2013 5:36:12 PM:

Lots of Lab and Hospital equipment are overpriced, some of that is due to material selection, quality control, and over-engineering that "many" don't require. This is where good-enough just brings it back to reality for useful low-usage hobbyist or educational hands on training. I like the educational aspect as it forces the student to have a bit more understanding of the tools they are using. Gives them ownership, and likely less prone to mistreating the tools. :)

Bill C wrote at 11/19/2013 6:07:25 AM:

Most lab jacks I know of in that size are <$300. A motorized one can get over $1000. I see what is being pushed towards but I think the numbers might be a little skewed.

jd90 wrote at 11/18/2013 11:43:36 PM:

I don't see a 3D printed plastic lab jack being very precise, but if it does its given job well enough, then the original lab jack was probably overkill. So you're not always replacing the whole range of capability, you're just better matching what have to what you need.

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