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Friday, September 21, 2012

Build your own lab equipment

What do you get when you combine free and open-source software with 3D printing? Anything you want! Joshua Pearce of Michigan Technological University wrote a piece in Science explaining the wonders of do-it-yourself lab equipment construction.

Michigan Tech's Joshua Pearce with a second-generation, open-source, 3D printer called a Mendel RepRap. The machine is made up of parts available in any local hardware store, open-source electronics available online, and parts that it can make for itself--all the red, white and blue components. Pearce has saved thousands of dollars by building his own lab equipment with this machine and others like it.
Credit: Sarah Bird/Michigan Tech.

To make your own lab supplies, the first thing you’ll need is a 3D printer. As the name implies, this is a device that prints solid objects. Instead of using ink, these printers build up a series of sub-millimeter thick layers of plastic or metal until they create the desired object. Pearce recommends the RepRap, which is not only under $1000, but can halfway replicate itself. This means that by adding a few components, you’ll soon have as many RepRaps as you need. 

You can see a 3D printer in action below (vastly speeded up):

Next, you’ll need an Arduino. This is a microcontroller that can run either your 3D printer, or the items you end up fabricating. There are specific Arduino programs for running oscilloscopes, ph meters, Geiger counters and even DNA amplifiers. You can pick up an Arduino for about $30.

Finally, you’ll need to input a design or blueprint. Luckily, you can find free digital designs for everything from test tube racks to centrifuge rotors at Thingiverse. Just perusing the examples of things people can fabricate with their 3D printers is fascinating.

Obviously, we have a ways to go before labs can manufacture everything they need, especially complex or sensitive electronic machinery. In the meantime, labs with these 3D printers can save money while never running out of pipette tips or Petri dishes again. If you add in the fact that you can modify designs to create precisely what you need, you have a real winner.