3D Printing for Science Research

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Buying a 3D printer started as a desire to experiment and to feel empowered by the ability to create. Ten weeks after placing the order—and following some hectic unboxing—the printer was in the lab and ready to use. We hoped it would give us the ability to design and manufacture parts that would be needed for future experiments.

This article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Current Exchange Magazine.

Most labs have equipment that was hacked together by clever souls. Those range from custom-made PC cards to the plate colony replicators, made from just few pieces of common-use items. Whenever I come across custom-built equipment, my mind fills with excitement when I think of all the creativity that went into it, a creativity that should be commonplace in the scientific environment. This goes against all current trends, however, since most of molecular biology is reduced to kit-based science, which makes it more difficult—especially for scientists in training—to understand the underlying biology. Let’s not forget that the greatest discoveries in molecular biology happened by hacking something together to achieve something new; just think of the proverbial Hershey blender.

What stemmed from these thoughts was the realization that when starting up the lab, one need not necessarily buy all the equipment; rather, labs could simply print what they need. It is no longer surprising to life science researchers how expensive enzymes and other molecular biology products are. A price of $200 per 100µL of enzyme lies on the cheap side of the spectrum. What is surprising is how this pricing also extends to mundane lab necessities such as Western blot boxes, tube racks and pipette holders.

While some high prices are understandable due to the limited production run, other price increases seem to come straight from the moon. Consider the magnetic racks used for magnetic bead separation. Those are simply Eppendorf tube racks with permanent magnets fitted to them. Not exactly high tech, but this item carries the price of $500 if not more, and all for a product that is dwarfed in complexity by many a child’s toys. Although you could use a magnet if tight on budget, a more ergonomic solution is preferred for everyday work. Hence, the racks are here to stay and become a highly coveted item in laboratories with few resources.

This is where the 3D printer solution comes into play to print your own equipment. But how do you justify its purchase? Simple: Print five items and you’ve already recuperated the cost of the printer. Of course, you must still order magnets (eight pieces, $1 each) and do some simple assembly but it’s worth the trouble.

A quick search in the standard repository of printable things produces examples of many useful objects, like electrophoretic boxes (just add platinum wire), gel combs, magnetic racks, pipette hangers and holders, ice box solutions, etc. You can even find parts for a functional tabletop spindown microcentrifuge! Although additional parts and assembly are required, you are again getting a $500 item for much less.

With examples like this, an idea came to mind. What if we could put together several useful 3D designs to make a ‘lab seed’ for starting scientists? New faculty who are just getting started could simply manufacture what they need.

This is a great idea, but is it realistic? From our experience, we were pleasantly surprised by the performance of the printer we purchased. We would stand by the printer, watching in awe as the object emerged as per the specification of our design. What came later, however, was an even greater surprise: the printed object’s hardness combined with its low weight. This is due to the internal structure produced by the printer, which occupies only 10% to 15% of the internal volume (and resembles a honeycomb). Interestingly, the level of the infill can be regulated to produce objects which are more solid and durable.

As for the object’s finish, while it is potentially watertight, the surface has a rough appearance as it is composed of plastic extruded from the nozzle and the machine has no way of smoothing it out. This can be rectified by rubbing some acetone or sand paper across the surface. The plastic filament is relatively cheap, with 2 lb spools priced at $50, and there is a selection of colors and properties to choose from. It is possible to print transparent or flexible objects, or even dissolvable ones for use in particularly difficult models that require support. The possibilities are endless and the modeling software can be surprisingly easy to use nowadays, with Google Sketchup being the leading example.

We are still far from push-the-button-and-forget consumer model. Although the print process is automatic, you still need to process the design file even if you downloaded it. This process translates the 3D model into the series of commands for the printer. Next you need to transfer the file to the printer’s SD card, level the working area and start the print. Additional calibration and filament maintenance is sometimes required, so some practice is needed to run things smoothly. There are additional problems that may manifest themselves during your printing adventures, such as the clogging of the printing head, unexpected power losses which stop your print, uneven shrinking of the plastic or sagging of overhanging parts. About half the time, we got exactly what we expected, while most of the problems were addressed by revising the design or experimental conditions. Of course, creating your own design requires more work.

In summary, the time for obtaining a 3D printer for your lab is right around the corner. It can justify its cost in a stunningly short time and with a relatively small investment of curiosity and some persistence.

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