3D printing in the lab: Precise, affordable research tools

3D printing in the lab: Precise, affordable research tools

  • By David Roberson
    Sep 28, 2017

How do you go from your first print of a Hello Kitty Darth Vader model to using a 3D printer to create your own groundbreaking lab experiments? Using their Ultimaker 2+, Cranfield University’s Centre for Engineering Photonics did just that, delivering results which will impact fields such as medicine and space research, all at a fraction of the cost of their previous modelling method.

The team works in microfluidics. This is a branch of technology which involves moving very small samples of liquids – often about the size of a single drop of water – over sensors to analyze the contents. You’ll find it used in medical diagnostics, DNA chips and even research in outer space – anywhere that it’s more efficient or only possible to use tiny samples.

In 2014 Dr Matthew Partridge, Research Fellow at Cranfield University, convinced the department to get its first 3D printer. He spotted the potential 3D printing has for enabling much cheaper design iteration, whatever you are trying to make. As Matthew explains, “When developing microfluidics, you tend to want to change the channels in your device a lot and that is not a cheap process, even if the final product can be made in bulk very cheaply”.

Design for 3D printed device showing interior channels
3D design of the device showing the channels inside.
Microfluidics device being 3D printed
An Ultimaker 3D printer can achieve the required level of detail.

As well as reducing the cost of iterations, 3D printing also helps the team create better final designs. Before, they were paying for machining and the cost of materials like aluminum and steel. The problem, as Matthew says, “Is once you have a model that ‘just about’ works, you tend to stop because it’s double the cost to get another one”. With material and labor costs of FDM 3D printing being so low, the design process can carry on until the device is perfected.

Having a 3D printer is like having instant access to a technician who works nights, rarely complains and likes to be well oiled about once a month.

Micro-scale design for 3D printing

The microfluidics devices move liquid samples through very small channels – a few hundred microns or less in diameter – to pass it through sensors. To develop a new device, students start by turning their ideas into a 3D design using Sketchup software.

A rough version is printed to check it prints well and all the parts fit together, then more details is added step by step, with the designer printing and testing one property at a time until they are sure the device is ready.

And when the design is finished, simply print as many as you need!

If you want to see one of their devices, you can download the design and even try printing it yourself.

Getting results

Matthew and his team published their research in a paper, “Fabrication and optimisation of a fused filament 3D-printed microfluidic platform”.

When they first presented the findings at a conference, they say the response from many fellow researchers was along the lines of “You can’t do that, what are you talking about?”. But since they showed off the results and shared their models they’ve had other groups get in touch to say they’re also working on using 3D printing in microfluidics.

As well as using their Ultimaker 2+ to create microfluidics devices, it has become a vital lab tool for all sorts of other uses. This could be printing laser mounts, visualization aids or giving an opportunity to help other departments with their projects.

“This was very unexpected,” says Matthew. “It didn’t occur to us we could use it so flexibly. It’s a great tool for scientists. We now run a one-day course on 3d printing for researchers in London where we tell them about these benefits.”

Are you using your Ultimaker printing for scientific research? Or got an experiment you’re thinking of trying out with 3D printing? We’d love to hear from you in the comments or in the community.