Do it yourself and save: Open-source revolution is driving down the cost of doing science

Sep 13, 2012
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

The DIY movement has vaulted from the home to the research lab, and it's driven by the same motives: saving tons of money and getting precisely what you want. It's spawning a revolution, says Joshua Pearce.

Three converging forces, all open source, are behind this sea change, he explains in an article in the Sept. 13 issue of Science: software, 3D printers and . With these tools, researchers from all over the world are driving down the cost of doing science by making their own lab equipment.

The open-source Arduino microcontroller is key. "The beauty of this tool is that it's very easy to learn," said Pearce, an associate professor at Michigan Technological University. "It makes it so simple to automate processes."

Here's how it works. The Arduino—which retails for about $35 at — can run any number of scientific instruments, among them a Geiger counter, an and a DNA sequencer. But it really shines when it operates 3D printers like the open-source RepRap. This microwave-sized contraption starts at about $500 and can actually make parts for itself. Once you have one RepRap, you can make an entire flock. Pearce's lab has five.

3D printers make stuff by laying down sub-millimeter-thick layers of plastic one after another in a specific pattern. This allows users to make devices to their own specifications, so they don't have to make due with what's available off the shelf.

The Arduino controls the process, telling the printer to make anything from toy trains to a lab jack.

Lab jacks raise and lower and aren't radically different from the jacks that raise and lower your car, except that they are more precise. Pearce received a quote for a thousand dollar version, which inspired him to design his own. Using a RepRap, inexpensive plastic filament and a few nuts and bolts, Pearce and his students made one for under a buck.

Then they posted the OpenSCAD code they used to make the lab jack on Thingiverse, a web repository of designs where members of the "maker community" can submit their designs for all kinds of objects and receive feedback.

"Immediately someone I'd never met said, 'This isn't going to work quite right, you need to do this,'" Pearce said. "We made a simple change, and now I have a lab jack that's superior to our original design."

Thingiverse is a child of the free and open-source software movement, or FOSS. Not only does it provide top-notch designs for all manner of objects, it can bring thousands of expert minds to bear on a problem, Pearce said. It's the ultimate in teamwork.

"It is creating a gift economy. We've paid into the community by submitting our designs, and we get payment back in the form of excellent feedback and free access to other peoples work. The more you give, the more you get, and in the process everyone wins," he said.

"The Thingiverse community already has a whole line of open-source designs for over 30,000 things, and everyday it's only getting better."

And it's cheap, which is where the revolution comes in.

At Michigan Tech, Pearce is organizing a student-based Enterprise to do open-source projects for industry and to build custom-made instrumentation for university faculty at a fraction of the cost. "This gives students the skills they need and lets them benefit the entire field," he said.

In university research labs everywhere, thousands of dollars that once paid for equipment can now support graduate students. High schools will be able to afford good science labs. More research can be funded with fewer dollars, driving more discoveries.

"Using open-source hardware has easily saved our research group thousands of dollars, and we are only getting warmed up. This will change the way things are done," Pearce said. "There's no stopping it."

Explore further: Researchers use 3D printers to create custom medical implants

More information: "Building Research Equipment with Free, Open-Source Hardware," by J.M. Pearce, Science, 2012. www.sciencemag.org/content/337/6100/1303.summary

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VendicarD
4.6 / 5 (5) Sep 13, 2012
Open Source is Anti-Capitalism.

No wonder it is such a success.
Valentiinro
4.3 / 5 (4) Sep 13, 2012
Open Source is Anti-Capitalism.

No wonder it is such a success.


I'm not really sure what you're getting at there. Are you saying anti-capitalist forces have a strong hold in society? Are you saying capitalism is bad?

There are obviously pros and cons to any system and capitalism is no exception.

On the one hand, competition drives people to do better. On the other hand it leads to people sabotaging each-other.
Even open-source stuff can work in capitalism though, because people still feel gratitude towards the creators of something, and other people will strive to improve that creation, or make their own. I think it leads to faster development than capitalism, which in turn leads to faster development than entirely centrally planned economic systems tend to.
In the end though it is the attitude of the people that matter. If you want to sit back and enjoy what other people do, you will. If you want to create something, you'll do that.
Code_Warrior
2.5 / 5 (2) Sep 13, 2012
Open Source is Anti-Capitalism.

No wonder it is such a success.


Not at all. They couldn't afford the market price for the jack so they innovated and made the jack at a price they could afford. In his case he had more time than $, so it was worth it to him to invest his time into building the printer and designing his own jack. Also, he had other things he needed to make with the printer, so his investment of time and $500 in parts was worth it to him. Some people will have more money than time and will choose the ready made unit from the mfg. It is not accurate to say that his jack only cost him $1. His design time has monetary value that has to be added into that cost. His printer build time has monetary value as well. All he is doing is using a resource he has in abundance - time, to compensate for the resource he has little of - $. That's the essence of competition. That's capitalism at it's best.
eljo
5 / 5 (4) Sep 13, 2012
You don't need capitalism to stimulate competition. Competition exists fine without needing capitalism's blessing. In fact, these people didn't need the drivers of capitalism to invent. They just used the resources they had to the best they could. Why does capitalism get credit for something they were doing for reasons that have nothing to do with capitalism at all? They just want to invent cool stuff. If they at any moment have to earn a buck or save a buck to be able to do so, that part of the process is more of a hindrance to reach their goal (be at the forefront of invention and create cool stuff) than it is their goal. If at all they compete, it is friendly competition (and not an economical strugggle for survival) to earn respect and recognition andbe part of a vanguard of visionary creators that drive the 3D-printing revolution.

The tech might not be 'new' anymore (as 3D printers have been around for about 30 years) but the applications and possible societal implications are.
sennekuyl
5 / 5 (2) Sep 13, 2012
I'd have thought that open source is as close to democratic as is possible. Not sure how a such a system becomes capitalistic or anti-capitalistic.

There is a requirement for sharing, but no inherit ban on trading.

Are you being sarcastic VendicarD? By what do you measure success? The article seems to give a good indication of success to me.
kochevnik
5 / 5 (2) Sep 13, 2012
All he is doing is using a resource he has in abundance - time, to compensate for the resource he has little of - $. That's the essence of competition. That's capitalism at it's best.
That has nothing to do with capitalism. Everyone is born with time. Are you claiming that the stars and the animals are all capitalists?

Your definition suffers from selection bias. If the outcome was good, it was capitalism. Otherwise it was satanism, laziness etc.
DrWayne
5 / 5 (6) Sep 14, 2012
Oh the irony! The journal this article references requires that you pay to read. So it's a non open source journal, reporting on the success of open sourcing.
alfie_null
5 / 5 (1) Sep 14, 2012
Open source is a threat to capitalism (or the economy)?

As a consumer, I can only win, but for some companies, this is a specter.

I'd argue that they (or the prevalent corporate environment) are partly responsible for the situation.

People who create things don't to any large extent share in the wealth those things bring to the corporations that produce them (i.e. executive level compensation, big bonuses, ownership, etc.). Thus, there's little incentive to create things for monetary compensation.

I'm not claiming that all would be motivated by significant compensation, just that it is a factor.
VendicarD
5 / 5 (3) Sep 14, 2012
Open source is pure Communism according to Microsoft's Steve Ballmer.

Isn't he right?

A MAFIAA CABAL called the International Intellectual Property Alliance, which is an umbrella group for the entertainment cartels such as the MPAA and RIAA, has demanded that Indonesia, Brazil and India should be placed on a special trade watchlist merely because they recommend the use of open source software.

http://www.theinq...ist-plot
VendicarD
4 / 5 (4) Sep 14, 2012
MS' Ballmer: Linux is communism

http://www.thereg...mmunism/

In January 2005 , Bill Gates suggested that free-software developers are communists.

http://www.slate....ing.html

The open-source movement is a communist affront to capitalism and should not be allowed to interfere in the profitable business of proprietary software.

http://news.cnet....904.html
BikeToAustralia
3.5 / 5 (6) Sep 14, 2012
Putting capitalism vs communism labels on the activities of individuals and groups blinds and limits you. Labels create expectations, we tend to ignore or downplay behaviours that do not fit our expectations and lose sight of reality.

In essence, V_D, you created a transparent lie. Why?

Plants and animals all have ways of using available resources: competing, cooperating, predatory, parasitic and symbiotic. Even the characteristics of tree species are different to more efficiently gain more energy and raw material. Life is not limited to economic systems.
Code_Warrior
1 / 5 (1) Sep 14, 2012
All he is doing is using a resource he has in abundance - time, to compensate for the resource he has little of - $. That's the essence of competition. That's capitalism at it's best.
That has nothing to do with capitalism. Everyone is born with time. Are you claiming that the stars and the animals are all capitalists?

Your definition suffers from selection bias. If the outcome was good, it was capitalism. Otherwise it was satanism, laziness etc.
Your comparison is a straw man and utterly without merit. Capitalism is about the opportunity to make a profit from your effort and available resources regardless of the outcome. Profit is defined by the person pursuing it and does not have to be about $. Succeed or fail, he had the opportunity because an open source option was available to him that was created by someone whose profit came in the form of satisfaction and being able to make things they needed with a 3D printer of their own design.
kochevnik
3 / 5 (2) Sep 15, 2012
@Code_Warrior
Your definition suffers from selection bias. If the outcome was good, it was capitalism. Otherwise it was satanism, laziness etc.
Your comparison is a straw man and utterly without merit.
LOL you don't even know what a straw-man is. HINT: I used none.

Capitalism is about the opportunity to make a profit from your effort and available resources regardless of the outcome.
No, capitalism is the ability to preserve capital by building a legal and legislative framework to do so. If you don't have capital already, you're a resource to be exploited.
ValeriaT
1.3 / 5 (4) Sep 15, 2012
Open Source is Anti-Capitalism. No wonder it is such a success.
Fortunately not, because the private publishing companies are living from public money spent with tax payers for science development. If the Open source publishing will decrease the amount of this public money, it will move us toward capitalism instead. I don't consider the private companies which are parasiting on mandatory fees a supporters of capitalistic principles: they're motivated on expansion of governmental sector and public taxes instead of its reduction.

Apparently, these simple connections may not be so apparent even for supporters of Open-source movement here.
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (4) Sep 15, 2012
MS' Ballmer: Linux is communism
At the case when Open Source doesn't deal with publishing of scientific journals payed from public taxes, but with spreading of software, it may appear so. But the publicly available codes are pilling up so they represent a valuable public resource, which can decrease the cost of scientific research. If Open Source software may lead to savings of tax payer money, it's pro-capitalistic movement again.

After all, even the capitalism uses the publicly available resources (water, air, transportation) at none or low costs. But the usage of open source software doesn't mean, it should be sold with no price (free as a speech doesn't mean free as a beer).
Code_Warrior
2 / 5 (1) Sep 15, 2012
LOL you don't even know what a straw-man is. HINT: I used none.
A straw man is a sham argument, like the one you made, that you intended for me to defeat in a way that you would exploit later on to your advantage. I didn't take the bait and rejected your entire premise, leaving you to deny your straw man.
No, capitalism is the ability to preserve capital by building a legal and legislative framework to do so.
It is Profit and private ownership, not capital preservation, combined with a legal framework and political system that defines Capitalism and creates opportunity. Profit doesn't have to be in the form of $. This is consistent with what I have already said.
If you don't have capital already, you're a resource to be exploited.
Those without capital can borrow from those that have capital with various forms of payback based on perceived risk vs. potential profit.

LOL. Keep trying to steer the debate away from your failed straw man.