Jul 21, 2016 | By Andre

LEGO is one of those brands that just about everybody on the planet has encountered in some manner since being born. The little plastic blocks, coming in all shapes and sizes, lets the user build just about anything their imagination can think up. But what if your aim was to make customizable biological research instruments (with added goal of doing so quickly, easily and affordably)?

A team of researchers at the University of California, Riverside are using 3D printed blocks that stack just like you’re used to with LEGO to do just that.

Stackable on a 3D printed base with a grid of open holes, the assembled blocks, or Multifluidic Evolutionary Components (MECs), are designed to perform basic tasks found in lab instruments like pumping fluids, measurement taking or user interfacing. What this means is that with a little foresight and planning, you can very easily construct compact bioreactors or acid-base titration tools for high-chemistry classes.

And considering we live in a world where STEM based curriculum is constantly being stretched out thin due to budget constraints, having inexpensive methods via desktop 3D printing to populate science related classrooms with educational tools is incredibly valuable. Efforts like these help ensure that the students of today can keep pace with their peers for the future.

The project (research paper here), organized by graduate student Douglas Hill, came to life after he one day realized (to his surprise) that there was no similar set of components in the scientific community that would satisfy low-cost, easy to assemble demands of what he was after.

His team partner William Grover notes that “when Doug came to UC Riverside, he was a little shocked to find out that bioengineers build new instruments from scratch. He’s used to putting together a few resistors and capacitors and making a new circuit in just a few minutes. But building new tools for life science research can take months or even years. Doug set out to change that.” And change that he did.

With a small grant from the National Science Foundation’s Instrument Development for Biological Research program (try saying that 10 times fast), he and 50 students from across the UCR campus designed and 3D printed the components necessary to build their MEC system.

In the end, the process of creating the necessary systems using the MECs allows students to create science projects and move away from the text books and briefly into sciences they can feel with their own hands. It also provides the means to understand how everything works while being perfectly customizable along the way.

It’s this hands on approach that the curriculum calls for but is often out of reach because of restrictive budgets. 3D printing has a lot to do with that and Grover is fully aware this is the case. He suggests that, “as 3D printers become more mainstream, we’ll see them being used by schools and non-profits working in underserved communities, so ultimately we would like people to be able to use those printers to create their own MEC blocks and build the research and educational tools they need.”

While the team used both a professional grade Dimension Elite 3D printer for their FDM plastic needs and a Form 1+ when more precision was needed, it’s likely that most low-cost desktop 3D printers would be up to the task of reproducing their models (and the above video suggests some low-cost 3D printing was indeed used). This would be good news for the growing number of high-schools or public libraries around the world that are bringing low-cost 3D printers into play.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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