Lab Equipment Made With 3-D Printers Could Cut Costs by 97%

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A commercial vendor would sell this parametric automated filter wheel changer for $2,500. But a 3-D printer could fabricate one for less than $100, says Joshua M. Pearce, a researcher at Michigan Tech and co-author of a new study of the technology. (Photo from PLOS One.)

Three-dimensional printers are one of society’s latest technological miracles to provoke both wide-eyed hopes and dark fears.

Somewhere in the middle, between ending low-wage labor and secretly arming felons, lies a host of practical applications. One of them, according to a new study from Michigan Technological University, could be a sharp improvement in the efficiency and capabilities of research laboratories.

One concerted attempt to replace commercially available lab equipment with items generated largely with 3-D printing technology found that costs could be cut by as much as 97 percent, according to the study’s findings, which were published this week in PLOS One.

Scientists at universities worldwide have been making growing use of 3-D printers, which can quickly fabricate or replicate precision-crafted objects using injectable high-strength plastic. But the new study, conducted in an optical-research lab at Michigan Tech, marked the first known attempt to test the approach for an entire set of lab equipment, said a co-author of a paper about the study, Joshua M. Pearce, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, and electrical and computer engineering, at Michigan Tech.

“We’re at the tip of the iceberg, and when everybody else jumps in, it’s going to annihilate the costs of doing research for everybody,” he said.

As an example, the Michigan Tech paper describes an item known as a “parametric automated filter wheel changer.” The item would cost about $2,500 from a commercial vendor but could be made with a 3-D printer for less than $100.

It’s essentially a plastic wheel that holds colored filters in place as they rotate, testing the effects of the varying colors on the number of electrons that are emitted for each photon fired into a solar cell, Mr. Pearce said. “It was $2,500,” he said, “and all it does is move the filter around.”

Some lab equipment requires metal parts, such as aluminum rails used to hold items together, but those pieces can be bought at low cost from generic suppliers rather than as parts of a specially designed device, he said. The level of savings should be applicable to a wide variety of university labs in other academic fields, and for labs used to train students at the undergraduate and graduate level, he said.

Parts made with 3-D printers not only are cheaper, Mr. Pearce said, but allow for a greater level of customization to individual needs. The process also should allow scientists to share designs with colleagues around the world, lowering costs for all and improving the ability of labs to replicate experiments, he said.

One commercial vendor cited by Mr. Pearce, Edmund Optics, welcomes the approach, said Todd Sierer, the company’s director of product marketing.

A future in which scientists routinely manufacture their own lab equipment could cost a company like Edmund Optics some of its product line, Mr. Sierer acknowledged. But successful manufacturing companies will continue to play a role in making equipment that meets higher precision standards than are possible with at-home devices such as 3-D printers, he said.

That’s especially true in optics, Mr. Sierer said, given that glass lenses remain superior in quality to plastic lenses, and metal screws needed for exact tuning can do so with far greater accuracy than plastic versions can.

“This enables people to spend less time on mechanics and more time on optics, which is our core business,” he said.

Mr. Pearce endorsed that idea, saying he expected companies would “move away from the scrappy stuff at the bottom and go up to the top.”

The PLOS One paper is not an invitation for Michigan Tech or public or private science-financing agencies to reduce their support of his lab, Mr. Pearce said. Equipment-cost savings are important, but people—especially graduate students—remain the most important and most costly element in the lab, he said.

Supporting graduate students costs about $50,000 a year, and that’s already a bargain, Mr. Pearce said. “They’re eating beans out of a can with a spoon,” he said.

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