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Benjamin Franklin would be proud: hundreds of open-source hardware designs for scientific equipment proliferate

By: , Posted on: June 9, 2014

Franklin-Benjamin-LOC-head
Benjamin Franklin the founding father of American open source hardware

Benjamin Franklin, founding father, scientist and inventor, was perhaps America’s first open source hardware advocate. Open-source hardware is hardware, where the design (i.e. CAD files, schematics, bills of materials, PCB layouts, etc.) is made freely available following free and open source software principles.

In a compelling section of his autobiography Franklin explained why he refused patents on his inventions like a more efficient stove explaining: “That, as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.”

With the success of the free and open software movement and the rise of low-cost digital manufacturing, scientists have begun to rediscover the powerful advantage of building on one another’s work in an open intellectual ecosystem.

Even more potent than the open sharing in Franklin’s day, scientific hardware designs shared and replicated with technologies like 3-D printing provide an unprecedented opportunity to radically reduce the costs of experimental research. I have documented dozens of examples in Open-Source Lab: How to Build Your Own Hardware and Reduce Research Costs, which was only published this year.

Now there are hundreds of free scientific tool designs available on the Internet:

screenshot appropedia
Appropedia categories for open source hardware tools for science contains hundreds of digital designs.

For example, using open source 3-D printers (full free plans for the $500 RepRap available here) my own lab has already saved tens of thousands of dollars using 3-D printable scientific and engineering equipment. We have developed 3-D printable tools to test water quality, recycle waste plastic and test solar cells.

There are now dozens of open-source microcontrollers like the Arduino, which can control experiments. Scientists are also using credit card sized Raspberry Pi Linux computers to Internet enable custom scientific research. All of these automation tools are available for less than $100, with several hundred examples to choose from. There are also several hundred 3-D printable designs from every area of science – from microscopes to weather stations.  There are low-end tools like test tube racks to high-end tools like open-source scanning tunneling microscopes and everything in between like a sessile drop goniometer. What they all share in common is that they can be made for the fraction of the cost of commercial systems and they are evolving rapidly.

Goniometer
The sessile drop goniometer is an instrument used to characterize solid and liquid surface energies by looking at contact angles of droplets.

Because of the rapid churn in innovation due to the nature of open source technological development, the costs have been pushed so low that research-grade equipment is now quickly becoming available to all. Scientific funding bodies are considering the logic of funding the development of open-source tools and then harvesting enormous savings as the tools can be digitally replicated in dozens or thousands of labs and schools for only the cost of materials. It is far less expensive to design and fabricate (often 3-D print) research tools than to buy them, particularly if the intellectual progeny of Benjamin Franklin have started the designs for you.

 

Many research groups already design some of their own customized equipment. By taking the extra step of sharing these designs with the open-source scientific community, they can not only help other researchers lower their laboratory costs and make their equipment available in the developing world, but they will also directly benefit as the international open-source community hacks their equipment to improve it and re-shares the results.  By using, developing, and re-sharing improvements of equipment for research and teaching labs we can all make major contributions to the common good. If Benjamin Franklin could see what is happening, he would have to be proud.

About the Author

 

Joshua Pearce BiopicDr. Joshua M. Pearce received his Ph.D. in Materials Engineering from the Pennsylvania State University and holds Chemistry and Physics degrees from the same institution. He currently is an Associate Professor cross-appointed in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering and in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the Michigan Technological University where he runs the Open Sustainability Technology Research Group. His research concentrates on the use of open source appropriate technology to find collaborative solutions to problems in sustainability and poverty reduction. You can learn about his lab here at the Pearce Research Group.

OSLJoshua has more than 100 peer-reviewed publications based on his research. Most recently his group has become well-known for cutting the costs of scientific research by designing open-source hardware using 3-D printers and micro-controllers. He is an energetic advocate for sustainability and open-source development in the sciences and due to his interdisciplinary background, he is uniquely positioned to provide a broad yet detailed view of this exploding area of exploration. His work in this area has been published or featured in Popular Mechanics, ArsTechnica, Nature, Chemical and Engineering News, PLOS One, and in Science: on “Building Research Equipment with Free, Open-Source Hardware”. Dr. Pearce is an administrator on Appropedia, the largest online wiki dedicated to sustainability and poverty reduction and a frequent contributor to Thingiverse, a repository of digital designs of real objects.

Dr. Joshua M. Pearce runs the Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology Research Group. He is the author of the Open-Source Lab: How to Build Your Own Hardware and Reduce Research Costs.

Free access to parts of the Open Source Lab.

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