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Beyond the Hype and the Headlines: Open Source Platforms Put the Power of 3D Printing into Life Sciences

In the past, laboratories used a glass blower and an in-house machine shop to churn out customized parts needed for experiments. Then, 3D printers arrived with an on-demand supply of wares made of everything from plastics and metals to wax and living tissue. Now, open source platforms put the real power of 3D printing into the hands of life sciences discovery and technology professionals. A new JALA Special Collection reveals how easy it can be to incorporate this technology into your research.

If your lab is not already using a 3D printer, it’s feasible to start today, say James Gill, Ph.D., and Alden Hart, B.Sc., E.E., guest editors of a special collection on 3D printing in the August 2016 issue of the Journal of Laboratory Automation (JALA).

Gill and Hart eagerly anticipate reader response to the readily available, easily adaptable and relatively inexpensive advances presented in the issue, from creating microfluidic channels with wax and bioprinting living cells in precise locations for cell-based assays to making customized lab equipment. The issue also provides resources that put plans in the hands of scientists. They believe the only limit to the 3D printer’s capability seems to be in the mind of its operators.

“Today’s rapid prototyping technology, such as 3D printers, dramatically improves the scientist’s ability to get new tools,” says Gill.  Scientists can now explore hardware options with the same level of creativity they use to explore science.”

Hart, chief technology officer of Ten Mile Square Technologies, Washington, DC, agrees. “3D printing offers a way to directly get parts or capabilities that a lab needs,” he says. “It’s still a big advantage to get parts off the shelf. It’s when you can’t that you need to create something unique. 3D printing allows you to draw up an idea, print it out and work with it the same day as opposed to waiting on a machine shop or a vendor to produce something for you. The process of design, planning and cross check takes money and time at each iteration. 3D printing reduces the cost of iteration significantly, which really changes the way scientists work,” he explains. “You still need to be careful, but you can get to a finished product more quickly and make adaptations to that same design in hours or days instead of weeks.” In fact, he says, “developing modifications through 3D printing becomes part of the scientific experiment.”

What gives scientists and engineers this kind of control is the open source platform on which much of 3D printing is developed. Open source offers end users the original source code of the software that can be changed to suit the end user’s needs, and Gill says it’s the exciting factor behind the technology.

“It’s those fast modifications, enhancements and the ability to creatively develop your existing equipment to do something unique that will change the way we do things in the lab,” he says, adding that he hopes the independent spirit of open source design will come through the articles in the special collection. “If your lab doesn’t have a $5,000 shaker, you can build one with your $900 Reprap (a replicating rapid prototyper). This collection gives both biologists and engineers a flavor of how 3D printing will impact them.”

Hart stresses that utilizing 3D printing should not be daunting. “I hope that readers will use the citations in this issue to get in touch with the authors,” he adds.     

Beyond Paper and Plastic

The collection highlights four articles and opens with a comprehensive overview of the work being performed by the U.S. National Institutes of Health 3D Print Exchange. 3D Printing in The Laboratory: Maximize Time and Funds with Customized and Open Source Labware,” by Meghan Coakley, Ph.D., project manager for the print exchange and program lead in the Bioinformatics and Computational Biosciences Branch at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, offers new ways to use 3D printing and opens the door to a large library of plans and CAD files for downloading and printing.

“The NIH 3D printing hub has great things for scientists to pick up and print, such as models of organs and protein molecules, as well as a lot of lab instrumentation,” says Gill, who first delved into 3D printing in the late 1990s when he explored 3D printing in his labs to potentially supply spare parts for existing equipment, printing “a shim for this particular instrument or an attachment for that plate.”

“These are the early days of 3D printing for the life sciences profession,” Gill continues, “but the fact that NIH has a lab dedicated to 3D printing suggests that the movement has momentum. From the life sciences lab perspective, we are just beginning to see the potential.”

Hart comments that one of the interesting aspects of 3D printing in life sciences is not only the technology and the devices it can modify or create, but also its printing materials. “This topic is broader than just printing plastic,” he says, pointing to the special collection paper, Standardized 3D Bioprinting of Soft Tissue Models with Human Primary Cells, by Markus Rimann, Ph.D., of the Institute of Chemistry and Biological Chemistry (ICBC), Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW), Waedenswil, Switzerland.

In this article ZHAW researchers develop and implement 3D printing technology to deposit living cells, and print combinations of cells in precise locations, enabling researchers to develop new cell-based assays. “This process allows the scientist to build complex matrices in different kinds of cells in intricate shapes,” notes Gill, who says this latest turn in bioprinting materials intrigues him as a biologist.

“From my perspective, it has been clear that 3D printing offers incredible capabilities that we need especially around bioprinting,” he comments. “Having this resource gives our community the ability to create novel experiments. We know that cells behave differently in the presence of other types of cells. With 3D printing, not only can we generate mixtures of different kinds of cells, we can make spatially accurate blends.”

This dimensional environment is critical not only to how cells behave, but also to how scientists study that behavior, Gill asserts. “The models we have of a single cell lying in the bottom of a Petri dish weren’t working very well to predict behavior. I think it’s because we overlooked that complexity,” he explains. “Bioprinting allows us to get to a cell environment in which we can do complex experiments. The Rimann paper is at the forefront of science. The technique for achieving this has been around for a while, but every time I see it, something new emerges.”

From complex to practical, two other studies in the JALA Special Collection emphasize 3D printers as the technology to support all other technology. Both studies come from Michigan Technological University’s (MTU) Open Sustainability Technology (MOST) Lab initiative, a resource of ideas and plans for instruments that can be custom built by researchers using 3D printed parts. The reports, written by Joshua Pearce, Ph.D., associate professor in Materials Science and Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering, as well as faculty advisor in the Open Source Hardware Enterprise at MTU, provide an excellent overview of how to create custom apparatuses using the 3D motion platform.

The paper, “Open-Source Wax RepRap 3-D Printer for Rapid Prototyping Paper-Based Microfluidics,” focuses on the development of a reprap device that extrudes wax, instead of plastic, onto filter paper, which allows the team to build microfluidic channels inexpensively. The other report, Open-Source 3D Platform for Low-Cost Scientific Instrument Ecosystem,” presents the development of a general purpose instrument that can be used for a variety of laboratory chores.

“This paper captures the control scientists can have over their existing tools through open source platforms,” comments Hart, who came to 3D printing with an electrical engineering background, focusing on motion control systems. His company has developed an open source, motion-controlled circuit board called TinyG, marketed under the banner of Synthetos, that has been used in a number of commercial applications where light motor control is needed to move things, from pick-and-place technology and milling machines, to 3D printing and pipetting.

“The open source printing community provides a remarkable tool kit for making small pieces and trying things that you wouldn’t otherwise have available to you,” says Hart. “Scientists and engineers can assemble an extruder, for example, using motion control equipment and heaters that will do things that no one else has done so far.”

Printing the Future

Hart sees the future opening up for 3D printing as scientists begin to explore its possibilities. He enthusiastically describes creating vasculature with sugar and working with conductive and semi-conductive materials to make circuits. “If you have electrical connectivity you can start to build very complex and specialized arrays and electrodes with small materials,” he explains.

Gill and Hart discuss the special issue with David Pechter, M.S.M.E., in the August 2016 JALA podcast. Hart further describes trends in the technology, such as how in the past two years 3D printing has been adapted for mass production in certain industries that build farms of printers for specialized assembly. “This would be materials that don't work well in traditional industrial processes, such as carbon fiber, and instances where each output product is just slightly different from another, such as with ear pieces. You have the start of industrial 3D printing – a factory where hundreds or thousands of 3D printers work in parallel," he comments in the podcast.

Gill anticipates what the future holds for the next generation of scientists and engineers as they flex their creative muscles. Having grown up with the technology, Gill forecasts that these scientists have the advantage of greater fluency in the language and design of 3D printing.

One thing that will not happen, according to Gill and Hart, is the replacement of instrument companies. “This technology enhances and improves the ability to collaborate, whether you are working with colleagues or vendors,” Gill says. “It’s one thing to build a part on a 3D printer for your individual lab. It’s quite a different situation to scale that up so that everyone can use it.”

Hart believes that 3D printing opens possibilities for vendors, who have a long history of working with clients to create customized applications. “Vendors will do well with this technology if they make 3D printing available for clients,” he comments, asserting that 3D printing is not the goal of the lab, but is instead a means to an end.

Learn More in the August 2016 Special Collection of JALA

The JALA Special Collection on 3D Printing Technology features four original research reports from the U.S. and Switzerland and an editorial introduction by Gill and Hart. It is available now at JALA Online for SLAS Laboratory Automation Section members, JALA subscribers and pay-per-view readers. Free public access becomes available one year after final publication.

JALA and the Journal of Biomolecular Screening (JBS) are the official journals of SLAS. Both are indexed by MEDLINE and ranked by Thomson Reuters. Both accept manuscript submissions on an ongoing basis from SLAS members and nonmembers.

In 2017, the names of the SLAS journals will change. JALA will become SLAS Technology (Translating Life Sciences Innovation) and JBS will become SLAS Discovery (Advancing Life Sciences R&D).

July 25, 2016