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3D Printed Optical Hardware Cuts Lab Costs

| Medical Technology, RepRap, Shapeways | April 2, 2013

3D Printed Optical Components

3D printing optical components with open-source printers dramatically cuts costs

A Michigan Technological University lab has published a scientific paper that shows how they have designed a set of open source 3D printable optics components. Joshua Pearce, an associate professor of materials science and engineering and electrical and computer engineering, decided to explore how open-source 3D printers, like the RepRap, could be used to reduce the costs of creating optics tools.

Open-source software has become a standard method of software development, for applications such as the Firefox browser or the Linux operating system, which has significantly reduces costs for institutions and companies around the world. Pearce’s lab explored how open source 3D printed optics equipment could be used as a flexible low-cost public-domain tool set for use in research and teaching roles.

“This study demonstrates an open-source optical library, which significantly reduces the costs associated with much optical equipment, while also enabling relatively easily adapted customizable designs.” , Joshua Pearce et al.

Keeping with the open-source ethos all aspects of the project were developed using open-source software and hardware. The optics were designed with the open-source CAD application OpenSCAD and printed on RepRap 3D printers. The study notes that the RepRap is an open-source 3D printer, which is controlled by a Arduino microcontroller that is an open-source IC.

The open-source optics library is made from 3D printed parts and other low-cost parts that can be bought from most hardware stores. For example, an optical rail built from an open-source aluminum extrusion system called OpenBeam costs around $10-12 per/m whereas commercial rail costs over $300/m. When the 3D printed components are factored in the cost reductions are over 97%, with some only costing 1% of their commercial price.

3D Printed Optical Rail

Open-source optical rail costs a fraction of the price of the commercially available part

The Report explains that an open source optic setup suitable for a undergraduate teaching lab would cost less than $500, compared to over $15,000 for commercial versions. With a RepRap costing less than $1000, the investment in an open-source 3D printer setup will pay for itself with even the smallest of optics lab setups.

The optics library is now available on Thingiverse for anyone to download, and currently consists of about 60 components and tools, with more being developed.

Yet again we see 3D printing being used to cheaply replicate tools and equipment that costs significantly more, and without any significant reduction in function and performance. It remains to be seen how long the commercial manufacturers wait to react to this onslaught to their businesses.

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