Monthly Archives: September 2012

3D Printing in the Lab - Will Lab Hardware Follow Software into Open-Source?

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.

The Scientific Workspace

Today I'd like to discuss the evolution of the scientific workspace, but before that I need to address a few comments and recent happenings.  The fluxgate magnetometer project is done, I decided to not build a bandpass filter in the unit.  Hopefully I can get the schematic drawn up nicely and post a PDF on my website content section.  Website, oh yes, there is a new website for my academic life.  I'll still be doing blog posts here, but the website will have all my static content, research, etc.

Awhile back I read an interview with Adam Savage of the popular discovery show Mythbusters.  This interview was mostly getting at how Adam works and the productivity tools he utilizes.  The question/answer that caught my attention was the following:

Q: What's your workspace setup like?

A: I have several desks: One at home, one at work, and one in my own shop. I spend little time at any of them. My workplace is wherever I'm making something, which could be in a field in gold country, or in an abandoned warehouse on a military base.

The part of the statement in bold is what I want to discuss.  Scientists are often viewed as working hard in their lab with test tubes, beakers, and bunson burners (as evidenced by a colleague asking his geoscience intro class to draw a scientist on their first day of class).  This view is really valid for only a small sector of the sciences; as geologists we are often making a workspace in the field on an outcrop of rock, working on a laptop in the office or at a coffee shop, or doing an experiment in the lab. So what is the workspace and how has it changed? 

First: Do people (not just scientists or geologists) view the workspace differently than they did in the 1960's? I think so.  With the advent of mobile computing and being able to walk around with 1000+ PDF files and books on an iPad the office is becoming less and less important.  Until the late 90's the office was the place where all your paper lived, without this support it was impossible to do much work.  Now that this isn't the case, I believe the office is becoming occupied more infrequently and being replaced with the mobile office.  The internet is also making telecommuting easier each year.  While in Houston I could occasionally see updates to spacecraft flight software coming into the repository from a colleague who programed at a Starbucks frequently.   Just a few years ago that was impossible and during the Apollo days out of the question.

Next, can the creative (yes, scientists are creatives that won't admit it) work in a single workspace like an office or lab? While they could this is a severely limiting strategy.  There are several times I've found it useful to go into the shop or lab and tinker with things and setup a laptop and work there.  Sometimes I spend the majority of the week at the desk, but sometimes I'll setup for a paper reading or programming marathon in another building or at a restaurant.  

Why would you want to work somewhere that doesn't have the big monitor and files you enjoy at your desk? Chance encounters.  While working in the traditional office should still be a component of our days, some of the most useful conversations I've had occurred with people in other buildings on campus or at a coffee shop.  

For example: in December of last year I was working in a tea shop near Denver programming an image analysis code (for the laser cave mapper).  While coding away the owner of the shop (Damon) came over to refill my glass and noticed I was writing software on a Mac.  He inquired about what I did, asked if I could answer a Mac question for him, and then from the view of an outsider to the geosciences made a comment that ended up making me think a lot about other applications for this technology.  These kind of chance encounters have happened several times and even ended up in some good professional relationships being formed.

The physics rock star Richard Feynman would have loved this notion of many workspaces I believe.  Feynman loved new ways to look at things and could be looking at a complex problem from a new angle while in the outdoors, at a blackboard, or submerged in a tub of water on hallucinogenic drugs (to see Feynman's unique mind I highly suggest his book Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman).  

I suppose the biggest point I want to make with these examples and from the quote is that as scientists it's easy to get comfy in our office surrounded by a couple of giant computer screens and full of distractions.  We shouldn't throw that office out, but be sure to go into the lab (even if you're not an experimentalist) and tinker, go into the field and observe connections, or go to a coffee shop and make that a temporary office.  Anywhere can be your workspace and it's enriching to switch between them and look at the same problem with another set of tools and surroundings.