Today I read the article "Building Research Equipment with Free, Open-Source Hardware" by Joshua Pearce from a recent Science Perspectives section. I'd like to share some thoughts on the article as I thought it introduced what may be the next "want" item in many labs.
In the modern scientific lab there is a large assortment of sophisticated hardware necessary to conduct increasingly complex research. Generally scientific hardware is some combination of turn-key or off the shelf equipment and equipment designed and built in house. In recent years laboratory software has progressively become part of the free and open-source software (FOSS) movement; hardware is now following the same trend with the advent of open-source 3D printers from the hobbyist community.
Open-source hardware became popular in the late 90’s with the basic stamp “board of education” microcontroller circuit boards, but the Arduino has taken over the hobby market with its $30 price tag. Arduino has a number of modules, or shields as they are called, ready built with significant code libraries available. With the Arduino circuit boards scientists can perform basic hardware control with digital and analog outputs in addition to basic analog-to-digital conversion.
The RepRap open-source 3D printer is driven by the Arduino and can be constructed for <$1000. The machine prints the parts required to make another RepRap printer, so building a machine is approached by entering the RepRap community with a parts request. Users also post 3D designs on Thingiverse for download and printing by anyone. A sufficient amount of laboratory equipment from test tube racks and filter wheels to Dremel tool adapters are already online.
Printing laboratory equipment may not only reduce the cost of research, but allow the same flexibility, innovation, and rapid development cycle enjoyed by scientific software. Being able to create a custom bracket, holder, mold, or sample jig could be advantageous to almost any laboratory and allow research to be conducted more efficiently with less focus on coordinating development with engineers at commercial manufacturers. The open-source nature of the parts library will reduce duplication of work between those in a common field of research and allow cross-lab standardization of sample preparation techniques.
There are limitations to what can be easily constructed in the lab, such as 3D printing with metal. The technology to do this exists, but is too complex and expensive at the present time for individual applications. While working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory I got the opportunity to see 3D printing with titanium. The video below is a titanium ball... bouncing. (Apologies for the portrait video and quality, this was taken several years ago with an early iPhone.)
Like all community projects, the RepRap is being updated to have greater capabilities. According to the project website a major milestone will be printing with electrical conductors to manufacture rapid prototype circuit boards without milling away copper clad board material.
Just as sometimes labs must use commercial software, it is likewise not expected that all lab hardware will become open source. Some tolerances are too tight for the parts to be constructed by simple printers and some materials are not practical to print in the lab. With all this in mind it is worthwhile to monitor the progress of open-source hardware such as the RepRap, Arduino, and the new RaspberryPi single board computer. These tools may provide teaching support also as controlling and displaying data from classroom demonstrations is easier than ever and does not require the resolution/precision of research grade instruments.