Toward an open-source 3D-printable laboratory

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Abstract

Premise

Low-cost, repairable lab equipment is rare within the biological sciences. By lowering the costs of entry using 3D printing and open-source hardware, our goal is to empower both amateur and professional scientists to conduct research.

Methods

We developed a modular system of 3D-printable designs called COBLE (Collection of Bespoke Laboratory Equipment), including novel and remixed 3D-printable lab equipment that can be inexpensively printed, assembled, and repaired for a fraction of the cost of retail equivalents.

Results

Here we present novel tools that utilize 3D printing to enable a wide range of scientific experiments. We include additional resources for scientists and labs that are interested in utilizing 3D printing for their research.

Discussion

By describing the broad potential that 3D-printed designs can have in the biological sciences, we hope to inspire others to implement and improve upon these designs, improving accessibility and enabling science for all.

Scientific progress is limited by the accessibility and availability of lab and research equipment. To enable science for all, easily obtainable scientific equipment is vital to researchers both inside and outside academia (Nosek et al., 2015; Price-Whelan et al., 2018; Popkin, 2019). However, many research labs operate with restricted budgets that limit the purchase of new hardware and are often forced to creatively reuse inherited, outdated, or damaged hardware to perform research. Recent technical advancements, affordability, and accessibility of 3D printers have allowed resource-restricted researchers to become makers, manufacturing the low-cost hardware needed for their specific research workflows. These custom-printed solutions can be produced at a fraction of the cost of retail alternatives and can be rapidly designed and fabricated, avoiding potential supply chain issues that often affect research equipment (Del Rosario et al., 2021). Numerous do-it-yourself (DIY) scientific equipment designs are openly available on the internet, including pipettes, microscopes, centrifuges, and 3D scanners (Appendix S1). These existing designs can be further “remixed” to answer specific research questions or retrofit existing equipment (Jones et al., 2011; Cressey, 2017; Kwok, 2017; García-Rojas et al., 2022).

This transformative shift toward open-source hardware has resulted in the development of affordable tools and technologies across broad research and educational domains (Dawood et al., 2015; He et al., 2016; Yan et al., 2018; Ford and Minshall, 2019; Hansen et al., 2020; Del Rosario et al., 2021). The addition of a consumer-grade 3D printer to a research laboratory has the potential to save thousands of dollars in lab equipment purchases. Like other common lab equipment, 3D printers require time to manage and maintain; however, they afford labs the opportunity to rapidly evaluate and implement custom hardware and tools with limited reliance on external vendors. The growing community of open-source model designers is making it possible to perform research with lab-specific, highly customized hardware that caters to the needs of researchers on an individual level.

For the biological sciences, 3D printing can be used to create new equipment, replicate equipment that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive, or customize existing models (Figure 1). Although there may be a perception that 3D printing has high barriers to entry such as cost and the requirement for specialized knowledge, these obstacles can be overcome with minimal time, effort, and a basic understanding of 3D printing (Figure 1). Scientists can evaluate the potential of 3D printing for their own lab equipment by working with public makerspaces and printing services (Grace-Flood, 2017; All3DP, 2023). These groups often hold workshops and training sessions that can help guide researchers through the process of purchasing and using their own printer. Because of these perceived barriers, the adoption of 3D printing technology has been slow, but within the plant sciences multiple projects already implement 3D printing as part of their workflow. From entire systems enabling non-destructive root and shoot imaging; tissue culture vessels; models of roots, shoots, and pollen; and bio-printed functional plant cells, these 3D-printed projects are wide reaching. They have applications in hydroponics and tissue culture (Mathieu et al., 2015; Shukla et al., 2017), root system architecture (Liang et al., 2017; Arnaud et al., 2019), phenomics (Griffiths, 2020), education and outreach (Perry et al., 2017; Wilson, 2023), and more (Gao et al., 2018; Sasse et al., 2019; Mehrotra et al., 2020; Van den Broeck et al., 2022).