3D printing scientific open hardware

  • Written by Professor Joshua Pearce
    Sep 24, 2018
  • Category:
    / Education

Pioneer Joshua Pearce shows how 3D printing with open source hardware and software can benefit classrooms and research labs.

As one of the founding editors of opensource.com , I covered how Elsevier, the largest academic publisher in the world, announced the new open-access journal HardwareX to help accelerate the distribution of low-cost high-quality open source scientific hardware.

Since then, there has been huge interest in developing 3D printable open source hardware as scientific tools. The interest is driven by the potential for customization and cost savings that open source 3D printing provides. For example, hundreds of articles have already covered the open source RepRap 3D printing project this year (and a whopping 894 last year). Libre hardware has gone mainstream – with even the authority of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering dedicating a special issue of their magazine to it last year. Strategic professors open source valuable equipment to garner citations as others use it and cite it for years to come. The payoff for society is a high return on investment for accelerated and improved research and development. Already, scientists have focused on making their own open source equipment and are even creating entirely open source labs. This drives down the cost of science and accelerates the development of technology. Plus, if you have a 3D printer, you can print these high-value sophisticated tools yourself.

But what can you really do with a 3D printer if you are a scientist (professional or hobbyist)? Consider the following three examples from HardwareX to provide just a taste of the potential of 3D printing and science.

First consider, the lab sample rotator mixer made up of two distinct versions:

1. A laboratory sample rotator that can be used for tumbling as well as gentle mixing samples in a variety of tube sizes by mixing them horizontally, vertically, or any position in between. Changing the mixing angle is fast and convenient, and doesn't require any tools. The device is battery powered and can be easily transported to operate in various locations in a lab including desktops, benches, clean hoods, chemical hoods, cold rooms, glove boxes, incubators, or biological hoods.

2. An on-board Arduino-based microcontroller is incorporated that adds the functionality of a laboratory sample shaker. These devices can be customized both mechanically and functionally as the user can simply select the operation mode on the switch or alter the code to perform custom experiments.

Cost savings: The open source laboratory sample rotator mixer can be built by non-specialists for under $30 and adding shaking functionality can be done for less than $20 more. These open source devices are technically superior to the proprietary commercial equipment available on the market while saving over 90% of the cost.



Second, consider an open source 3D-printed 1,000 μL micropump .

The 1,000 μl 3D printed micropump is a practical and simple design inspired by pipette pumps. The present design was printed with a 3D printer and assembled very easily with common tools. Upon comparison of the micropump’s performance, it exhibits a systematic error between 1.4 and 3.8 % of the volume and a random error between 0.38 and 9.5 % of the volume. The pump can be printed for under $44, but replaces commercial pumps that cost hundreds of dollars.



Finally, not all 3D printed hardware is necessarily for the conventional laboratory. Shybo, an open-source low-anthropomorphic robot for children, can be 3D printed for children, both as a research tool and as a toy. The robot, resulting from the combination of open source hardware and software, is able to perceive sounds and react through two non-verbal behaviors: the hat’s movement and by lighting. By taking advantage of open source machine-learning software, the robot can be easily trained by children. This robot can be employed in research to support human-robot interaction studies with children, for investigating perceptual aspects of the robot’s features, or for investigating children’s cognitive abilities. It can also be used for applications in educational contexts to support playful learning experiences.



There are now literally hundreds of free and open source 3D printed scientific tools – and it is clear from the rate that new ones are appearing that the scientific community is just getting started. Whether you are a professional scientist, researcher, or just someone that wants to know a little more about science, these 3D printable tools can help you better explore and understand our world.