How to build lab equipment with open-source hardware

Dec. 4, 2013

Joshua Pearce, an associate professor at Michigan Technological University, bemoans the "often extreme prices we pay for scientific equipment" and relates this anecdote:

"Last year, I received a quote for a $1,000 lab jack. A lab jack is not an overly special or sophisticated research tool; it simply moves things up and down like a jack for a car, only more precisely and the “things” it has to move are much smaller. That price for the application I was planning on using it for (moving millimeter-scale solar photovoltaic cells into a beam of light) was absurd, but as many researchers in academia know, the prices are effectively multiplied because of institutional overheads. Thus, at my institution for example, where we pay 71% overhead for industry-sponsored research, purchasing that lab jack would demand that I raise $1710 from sponsors!"

Situations like this were among the factors that motivated Pearce to write a new book called Open-Source Lab: How to build your own hardware and reduce research costs. Pearce explains that many researchers now simply 3D-print a lot of their lab equipment -- files for lab jacks have been downloaded thousands of times, he says.

Pearce intends his book to be a sort of guide to creating your own open-source lab gear. The topics he covers include software rights, best practices and etiquette for using open-source hardware, open-source microcontrollers, open-source centrifuges and spectrometers, colorimeters, and even open-source laser welding. There are also some helpful hints for those who are 3D-printing their equipment for the first time.

The 271-page book as well covers numerous examples of lab gear Pearce or his colleagues have devised from open-sourced IP. Pipette stands, a smart-phone-based spectrometer, test tube and cassette racks, forceps, 3D-printed fluid filters, and a Geiger counter were among the projects we found interesting. Ditto for the dorm-room refrigerator converted into an open-source environmental chamber.

A lot of this stuff is made with an open-source 3D printer -- specifically a self-replicating rapid prototyper, or RepRap. And there is an extended chapter on how to build one of these things.

Pearce produced a short video to go along with his book. The book itself is from Elsevier and is available both in print and in e-book form.

About the Author

Lee Teschler | Editor

Leland was Editor-in-Chief of Machine Design. He has 34 years of Service and holds a B.S. Engineering from the University of Michigan, a B.S. Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan;, and a MBA from Cleveland State University. Prior to joining Penton, Lee worked as a Communications design engineer for the U.S. Government.

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