Using 3D printing, cheap microcomputers and some other components you could pick up at at your local electronics store, researchers have pioneered an open-source, do-it-yourself alternative to prohibitively expensive lab equipment.

A study published Tuesday in the journal Plos Biology explained how neuroscientists from the Universities of Tubingen in Germany and Sussex in the U.K. have created a low-cost imaging and microscope system for research, training and teaching.

FlyPi-lab-photo

The 'FlyPi' system costs less than $150 Cdn. (Thomas Baden Photo)

Called "FlyPi," this set-up costs less than $150 Cdn. That's a far cry from a more typical tab for new laboratory equipment, which can run into the hundreds of thousands.

Co-author Tom Baden, a neuroscientist and senior lecturer at the University of Sussex, said the system marries two low-cost approaches that have been embraced by the maker community in recent years. These include 3D printing and micro-controllers or micro-computers such as like those made by Arduino or Raspberry Pi. 

"One obvious use is schools, I think. They don't usually have microscopes but it's very instructive for biology or whatever you want to use it for," said Baden.

The FlyPi can perform numerous standard lab functions ranging from optogenetics, the use of light to control cells, to behavioural studies on small animals such as roundworms, fruit flies and zebrafish larvae — key species for neuroscience modelling.

'More people than microscopes'

Its invention came about out of necessity when both Baden and lead author André Maia Chagas were working in Tanzania, where lab equipment was scarce.

"Across many universities on the continent [Africa], you'll find that equipment is a problem," said Baden. "There are microscopes around but there are more people than microscopes."

They started shopping around in cheap electronics departments for items they could use, discovering that things like simple LED lights and web cams could be used in place of more expensive components.

Along with co-author Lucia Prieto Godino of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, they've since taught courses in 3D printing, programming and DIY lab equipment at universities in Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan and Tanzania.

The developers share a keen interest in spreading "open labware" — the laboratory equivalent of open-source software where code is made available to others to use, change and share.

'Faster and better' 

"It's a community driven effort," said Baden. "We stick it online, people say, 'you did this badly.' It makes things faster and better. The more people do it the better designs we get."

Technology like 3D printing had "made building stuff easier," he said. "The notion that scientists build things is not new. It's kind of a necessity of the job. There are some who like to doing that and some who avoid it when they can."

Until recently, building a new piece of laboratory equipment in an academic setting required a trip to a university's mechanical or electronics workshop. This yields good equipment but can be time consuming, said Baden.

Today scientists can try a design on a 3D printer, come to the conclusion it would work better with a hole drilled in a slightly different place, for instance, and try again.

"I think what's really happening here is that things are getting faster and cheaper to do."