3D Printers Helping Make Cheap, Custom Science Lab Equipment


Three-dimensional (3D) printers are now being used to help researchers at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) at Princeton University create their own custom laboratory equipment.

The printers are capable of making objects with metal, plastic, ceramic or organic materials through thin layers of material placed according to computer-aided design (CAD) specifications.  Several experiments were conducted to decide how well the machines could be used in the creation of various laboratory equipment by creating plastic parts and using them as electrical indicators and for the operation of a vacuum.

“It heats up the plastic filaments until it’s just at the melting point, and a tiny little nozzle makes a single layer of whatever you want to make and goes over it again and again and again,” said Andrew Zwicker, the head of Science Education at PPPL. “The plastic then quickly cools and solidifies. To watch this thing is just absolutely amazing.”

Researchers found that while the printers can be used for a variety of laboratory equipment, they cannot substitute for intricate parts that need a high level of precision as the size of the individual layers created by the printers varies by as much as a millimeter, reports Leila Meyer for Campus Technology.

The less-intricate parts did pass the vacuum and stress tests, with a strength matching that of bulk plastic parts.  In addition, the 3D parts resisted pulling well.  So long as the temperature was kept below 167 degrees Fahrenheit, the parts also performed well in a vacuum.  When the temperatures rose above that, hydrocarbon gas was released which has the potential to contaminate the vacuum and affect plasma experiments.

“The ability to print this material in any size, shape or configuration provided an unmatched flexibility to quickly and efficiently test new configuration ideas for different experimental conditions,” said Zwicker.

Researchers at the lab in Plainsboro are now creating custom parts for experiments.  Many times these parts are available at low costs.

“The amazing thing to us was, at first we thought there was just a few things we could print. Then you go, ‘Wow, we can print so many different things,'” said Zwicker. “It changes how you think about ordering stuff but designing things, too.”

The lab printed parts for an electrode in a plasma physics experiment, producing replacement pieces including handles, lens holders and safety guards, within an hour and for less than $1.

Zwicker said that while the discovery could allow laboratories to become less reliant on outside business equipment, he believes that companies will begin to sell their design ideas rather than products.

“Many people don’t have the computer technical knowledge to build something from scratch,” Zwicker said. “For certain things, it will be an eventual evolution, but it won’t be the end of business as we know it.”

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