3D printing started out as a novelty for many, producing toys and trinkets. But as more and more people experiment with 3D printers, and push them to their limits, the more practical uses 3D printing seems to have.
An incredible story has emerged from Eisen Lab at Berkeley University, California. The lab does genetic research, and an important part of genetic research includes visualizing the results of your research through electrophoresis. Even if you know nothing about genetic research, you have probably seen the DNA bands produced by electrophoresis when viewed under ultraviolet lighting (pictured above).
To make these patterns, researchers create a gel and use “combs” to place in the gel as it sets. Once fully set, the comb is removed and the well that is left is ready to receive prepared samples. Electricity is passed over the gel in a solution, and DNA fragments are pulled through the gel, separating depending on their length. Longer fragments travel a short distance, while shorter fragments make their way further to the other side of the gel. What results are the distinctive bands associated with genetic research.
The combs, among all the other equipment, are perhaps the simplest, and one would think the cheapest to replace. However, a blog post by Russell Neches who had been working in Eisen Lab, found out they were about $51 each! $51 for a piece of plastic!
So Russell went about measuring preexisting combs, designing them in 3D on a computer using OpenSCAD, and printing them out, each for about 21 cents. For the cost of a cup of coffee, he would eventually print out what would have cost him $150 to buy from the lab’s regular supplier (shipping not included?).
Of course, you cannot autoclave (using heat and pressure to sterilize equipment) most 3D printed items, unless you make a mold with 3D printing and pour into it a resin that can be autoclaved. But at 21 cents a piece, they are nearly disposable, and will certainly finish printing before even the fastest delivery service would arrive. Recycling the plastic may also be a possibility, and the heat involved would likely kill any pathogen present.
3D printing can be used to make many other pieces of lab equipment. Several designs that we’ve developed for various users are featured in a collection maintained by ProgressTH on MakerBot’s Thingiverse 3D library.
In the future, not only will personal manufacturing help save money at existing labs, it will make building a new lab possible for those who could never afford to do so before.
This will be essential as breakthroughs are made in gene therapy, opening the door to customizable treatments effective like nothing else before, but will require a vast decentralized infrastructure of cheap lab equipment to administer these custom-tailored treatments to those who need them most.