View more...
3D Printing For Your Lab
"Isn't anyone going to ask me what's with the glasses???" - The Doctor
Doctor Who, BBC.
Printing, which is essentially the duplication of an image or text into the same or some other form of media, has come a long way since the printing press was invented in the 14th century. Even though the inkjet printer (invented in 1951) and laser printer (1969) are still going to be the most commonly used printers for the foreseeable future, a new type of printer is having a surge in popularity, and the possibilities behind it are seemingly endless.
Condensed history of printing.
3D printing was first developed in 1981, when Hideo Kodama created a three-dimensional model through AM (additive manufacturing, another term for 3D printing) with a polymer that hardens when exposed to UV light1. Essentially, these instruments follow a three-dimensional digital model, obtained either through 3D modeling through CAD (computer-aided design) or a 3D scanner. Then, the 3D printer separates the model into horizontal slices, and finally prints those slices, layer by layer, using the raw printing material (usually plastic), until the entire model has been duplicated. Though AM has been used for manufacturing goods for decades now, it has only been within the last five years that the technology has shown signs of maturing. 3D printing is becoming more and more popular by increased efficiency, customizability, and affordability (due in part to increased competition).

This is not the 3D printer invented in the 1980s.
We've already written about how artificial organs may be 3D printed. There are other medical and dental applications for 3D printing, like custom orthotics, dental implants, or prosthetics (including a customized Iron Man arm2). There are even companies that are dedicated to creating 3D printed tissues, like Organovo, who we recently featured in a podcast. Organovo performs some really interesting experiments, including ones where they use bioprinted tissue as models in disease. However, the main subject of this blog is about how 3D printing may impact you in the lab.
So, what can be 3D printed, and how can it save you time and provide convenience at the same time? Anything around you that is made from plastic could hypothetically be made from 3D printing technology. You can even use it to build your own pipette3! However, the real power behind 3D printing of lab supplies is on-the-fly printing and customization. Imagine you know you'll be running 21 sample gels every day for the next 2 months, but all you can find in any vendor catalog are 20 well combs. Now, not only can you print a gel comb to have any number of lanes, but you can even dictate the depth and length of each well. Some have even published on specialized 96-well plates that were designed specifically for positioning zebrafish embryos4.
Even with this design, people will still ask to borrow your pipette. From thingiverse.
Though it may take a while for labs to start depending on 3D printers, some groups are pushing for a more widespread adoption, including those behind the RepRap, a "self-replicating" 3D printer that has been used to build a colorimeter5, like those you use for ELISAs. There are now repositories where scientists and engineers can upload digital models of lab supplies that are compatible with various 3D printers, managed by 3D printing companies (like MakerBot6) and even the NIH7! If re-engineering old lab supplies hasn’t been enough, check out those sites for how you can print your own tube racks, funnels, and beaker holders. There's even an adapter that lets you use your phone as the camera for your microscope8.

A RepRap (self-replicating) 3D Printer (Left) and a Wooden MarkerBot 3D Printer (Right).
So, how do you think 3D printing will change your life in the lab and make it more convenient? Are there any special lab supplies that you just can't buy anywhere else that would improve your experiments? Let us know if you have any great ideas by e-mailing
  1. Method For Fabricating 3D Plastic Model, Review of Scientific Instruments
  2. The Collective Project: Delivering a Bionic Arm, YouTube.
  3. 3D Printing Your Lab Equipment, ElsevierConnect
  4. Orientation Tools for Zebrafish Screening Assays, BMC Technology
  5. Open-Source Colorimeter, Sensors
  6. MakerBot Thingiverse
  7. NIH 3D Print Exchange
  8. iPhone Microscope Adapter, NIH
Contributed by Ed Chen, Ph.D.
View more...
Forgot your password? Reset Password
Request an Account