DIY and save: A scientist's guide to making your own lab equipment

DIY and save: A scientist's guide to making your own lab equipment
Scientists can furnish research and education labs for a small fraction of the cost by printing their own equipment, says Michigan Tech's Joshua Pearce, who explains how in his new book, "Open-Source Lab." Credit: Joshua Pearce/Elsevier

Joshua Pearce is not one for understatement. "This is the beginning of a true revolution in the sciences," says the author of "Open-Source Lab." For cash-strapped researchers, he could be right.

His new book, published by Elsevier, is a step-by-step DIY guide for making 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."

In keeping with the open-source concept, parts of "Open-Source Lab: How to Build Your Own Hardware and Reduce Research Costs," will be freely available at different times on the Elsevier Store. Chapters one and two are free now.

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.

Pearce hasn't looked back. 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.

DIY and save: A scientist's guide to making your own lab equipment
After Joshua Pearce priced a lab jack at about $1,000, he decided to make his own using a 3D printer and open-source software. The resulting piece of equipment cost him about five dollars. Credit: Joshua Pearce

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 goes beyond slashing costs; it 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 ."

"Open-Source Lab" is written for a wide audience, from novices to those who are "at one with the force of open source," who can skip the introductory material and get right to work printing their own equipment.

At the close of the Acknowledgements section, 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!"

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

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Nov 18, 2013
The resulting piece of equipment cost him about five dollars.

On top of the $5000 he paid for the 3D printer.

There is still a certain cost of entry to the game.

Nov 18, 2013
Walters: Glass isn't strong if you sinter it though :-\

The cost of the 3d printer and the feedstock materials is nothing compared to the amount of utility it would bring to a lab. Also, multiple labs could pitch in for a single printer, further reducing the cost.

This is an exciting development indeed! I just wish it was around back in my ol' lab days.

Nov 18, 2013
One of the first things I did at Columbia's labs was to toss the $85 wobbly aluminum blue stockroom lab jacks in my fume hood with four $350 mail order ones, back in the late 1990s. Four years later I won the organic division's top Ph.D. student award. The luxury of smoothly operating bronze sleeve bearings allowed me to enjoy rather than lament after midnight holidays and weekends in that old rusty lab. My younger lab mate who inherited my jacks soon became chairman of the department.

Fuck soluble plastic! Enter now a world of true 3D nano-printing that Harvard and Columbia can afford for every lab. Plastic isn't the future. Not everybody can afford the latest iPhone, but they better hope mass production eventually comes through for them assuming their junk fed metabolic syndrome X bodies last long enough.

The Singularity cultists swarmed to 3D printing and Gorebull Warming after their 2012 Mayan apocalypse petered out.


-=NikFromNYC=-, former Whitesides group postdoc.

Nov 18, 2013
What 3D printer will soon usefully replace injection molded composites?

This enthusiasm is exactly like a cargo cult.

Symbolically, yeah, that's a "lab jack."

Oh look! I see an aeroplane:

And the supply cargo is arriving!:

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