A revolution is going on, and as a scientist, I want to be part of it. It’s a revolution that started in 2008. Honestly, it started way before the 2008 (Neanderthals were crafting tools by themselves). Year after year the makers movement is getting stronger and stronger and I can assume that this is due to the cheaply available and open source 3D printers and easily programmable microcontrollers.
3D Printers are not so new, but now they are cheap, open source and easily obtainable. You can imagine whatever you want, draw it and print it in a matter of hours. So are the new generations of open source hardware / open source software microcontrollers like Arduino (Massimo Banzi TED talk is quite inspiring) or even more sophisticated computers like Raspberry Pi. The technologies that few years ago were expensive and difficult, are now broadly available and “easy”.
Unfortunately scientists are well known for hiding themselves in their ivory towers, or ivory basements, depending on your funding agency. This is not the time for closing ourself out of the real world. This it’s the perfect time for acting, learning something new, using our brain outside the box and do something innovative.
There are two main reasons why we should embrace this revolution:
1 – Money
Everything is working on money and I always had the feeling that scientists have been exploited for a long time. Just open whatever catalog is on your desk and check the smallest plastic things that they are selling. Is it twice or more expensive of what you thought, isn’t it? Just as an example 6 gel combs for the gel electrophoresis can cost more than 300$. You can print them for 1$ (http://vort.org/2012/11/20/why-doesnt-your-lab-have-3d-printer-yet/). Similarly, there are countless plastic parts in your lab that you can print/replace/repair without wasting your grant. I bet you would like to spend your money on doing something scientifically relevant and not using the for lab supply producers donations.
Money is quite important but my main driving force is:
2 – Innovation
You and only you know what you need for your project. You can buy whatever is on the market, but it will rarely fit 100% your needs. Now you can couple a 3D printer with a microcontroller, assemble a circuit and write some lines of code, and you can virtually do whatever you want. This will give us the freedom of moving from an idea to a working object that fits our needs in the lab. I’m not talking only about static 3D objects, but about programmable microcontrollers and sensors. You can detect something from an instrument, process it on the microcontroller and this will control another instrument autonomously. And this is not something trivial. Naturally you need to learn at least the basics of 3D drawing, electronics and programming. But, well, I’m a nerd, learning new stuff it’s not a big issue 🙂
Just few examples (there are hundreds online) of what you can do yourself for your lab/experiments:
Punk Science on Make Magazine 31
3D reactionware from Lee Cronin (I found his TED talk little bit speculative, but it’s a TED talk… so it’s ok… I guess)
Fraction collector for Chromatography (I should modify this one and do it with an arduino controller)
Scanning Electron Microscope 🙂
pHduino (Arduino pH meter)
DNAquiri (not really interesting, but quite funny)
Where am I now? I know a little bit of 3D and planning to buy a personal 3D printer soon (I’m still in scanning mode to find the perfect one for me). Last week I bought an arduino starting kit (it’s less than 100€) and I’m on my second day of playing around with it. So far I did just few projects to learn the basics (how to transform an analog input into a digital output and a little bit of programming).
This one for example reads the temperature from my finger and then turns on the LEDs according to my temperature.
My suggestion is that we, as scientists, should embrace and take part in this revolution. It’s interesting, useful and well, if you are a nerd, even funny.
What do you think about it? Do you have suggestions or comments or what-so-ever? Contact me by mail, smoke signal or twitter @V_Saggiomo
and thanks to Piotr Nowak for the English support.