Sep 11, 2015 | By Alec

The combination of open source sharing and 3D printing technology has been a remarkably successful one, and we can’t help but wonder how unsuccessful and how limited the 3D printing community would be without open source designs and sharing platforms. While largely something that takes place outside the academic world, its go to know that we have friends within it as well. For a brand new study by Michigan Tech professor Joshua Pearce, offers a strong defense of open source 3D printing, arguing that it has a high rate of return on investment and that it will make science cheaper and more accessible.

Joshua Pearce is an associate professor of materials science and engineering as well as of electrical and computer engineering at Michigan Tech, and thus is well acquainted with the benefits of 3D printing technology. But how useful is that open source online community where so many of his students can be found? Well, in an article entitled Return on Investment for Open Source Hardware Development (published in Science and Public Policy), he finds that open source 3D printing is hugely beneficial for the scientific community.

And why? Well, in essence because science is very expensive but doesn’t have to be. However, that isn’t to say that it is free; instead, he sees open source development as free access to research results, data and papers, or the sharing of knowledge in order to refine and apply it. ‘In science, we all have this problem where we pay so much for scientific equipment that it overwhelms our budgets,’ Pearce says on his university’s website, adding that most of those budget breaking parts are mechanically quite simple and easy to 3D print on desktop machines.

So why spend millions on increasingly obsolete equipment, instead of redirecting that money towards open source tools, he wonders in his paper. The added benefit of those 3D printed parts would be that they are upgradable, adaptable and expandable. ‘Advances in low-cost electronics and 3-Dprinting enables a new paradigm of scientific equipment production where scientists in the developed and developing worlds can fabricate tools themselves from digital plans,’ he argues. Not only would this cut costs, but it would also expand the platform for scientists as funds can be directed elsewhere. Outside the lab, they could even advance innovation and diversity.

Of course, this all sounds fantastic and convincing, but how would it work practically? To illustrate this point, Pearce and his Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology lab quantified the concept by developing a series of open source syringe pumps – iconic tools in any laboratory, but that quickly cost thousands for an ordinary laboratory. With his team, Pearce created a set of 3D printable and completely customizable models using open source CAD software and off-the-shelf motor parts: a single pump for $97 and a double pump for $154. These files were posted on Youmagine and Thingiverse, and were downloaded 1035 times within ten months – with each download counterbalancing the cost of a purchase.

What’s more, Pearce and his team argue that their designs are far more effective than low-end pumps. ‘We know at the very least that our design is more cost-effective than low end syringe pumps,’ Pearce says. ‘You look at our syringe pump, and it’s way better than the low end ones—it matches performance of high end syringe pumps that anyone can build themselves. It’s one thing to have a cheap device, and another to have a tool you can trust to do scientific research.’

The only problem is that there’s currently no way to tack validation of quality and calibration. ‘That’s where the initial funding comes in,’ Pearce says, arguing that the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health (and others) could use funding for improving the possibilities for open source validation. ‘They can also build a centralized database to house that information—including the code—and make the hardware more accessible.’ While requiring an initial investment, that would be far more efficient in the long run.

So what kind of value can be attached to it? To calculate a return on the team’s investment, they attributed a value to each download – basically, taking the price of syringe pump and the cost of open source manufacturing, with the difference representing savings. Multiplied by the number of downloads, the team estimates that the return on investment for this project is between the 460 and the 12,000 percent. While not exact profits going into anyone’s pockets, it does definitely open the door to a far more efficient scientific community, that will also find expansion and progress much easier. In short, the 3D printer has a lot to offer to the academic world.



Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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