3D printer – The beginning of a true replicator

DIY lab equipment, courtesy of 3D printing
[Via Ars Technica]

A lot of scientific software is freeware or free/open source software (FOSS). That’s appropriate: just as the process of science should be open to enhance reproducibility, its tools should be as transparent as possible. Researchers often share their data and algorithms, and publish the output from their simulations on open-access databases such as Cornell’s arXiv. Research hardware—including computer hardware—is another matter entirely. Even small, common pieces of laboratory equipment can be costly, and may not be hackable without (at minimum) violating warranties or terms of use.

Imagine a world where lab workers can create their own custom equipment in-house, using either their own designs or ones they’ve downloaded. A glimpse of that world appears in today’s issue of Science, provided by 3D printing, the relatively low-cost fabrication technique where ceramics, polymers, and other materials are deposited in layers to build up a three-dimensional shape.

With the prices of 3D printers dropping, laboratories at companies and universities have begun using them to build up research equipment. Even better, the printers themselves are often open source—meaning their designs are available and modifiable by end-users—and controlled by FOSS programs. Students in teaching-focused institutions can be involved in the process as well, providing hands-on instruction in design principles.


We are not there yet but 3D printing is moving closer and closer to mainstream uses. Replicating complex objects in any location at very low cost is on its way though.

The pressures of the exponential economy will drive these printers. In a few years they will be cheaper, more powerful and smaller. We may be able to not only make things with them but perhaps also replicate things like food or organs.

These researchers talk about creating cheap hardware using open source approaches. They have created a cheap easy to use centrifuge. They can create lab equipment that usually costs well over $1000 for less than $200.

And what happens to the companies that supply these expensive devices when they can be replicated in site? How are the plans for such a construction spread?

Lots of work for the lawyers ahead.