3D Printing Saves Money and Time in the Lab

3d printed lab supplies© Russell Neches

Johnathan Eisen's lab at UC Davis focuses on "phylogenomics of novelty" where things like the genomic basis for the origin and evolution of new functions and the ecology and evolution of microbial communities are studied. While the research is complicated, the supplies needed in his lab are pretty basic in design.

A graduate student in his lab, Russel Neches, recently discovered that instead of paying high dollar for supplies that were essentially little pieces of plastic, he could put the 3-D printer they had to good use and save them time and money on ordering supplies.

Below is from Neches's blog post talking printing lab supplies:

Here in the Eisen Lab, it turns out we've been using Marc Facciotti's electrophoresis stuff for years. He keeps his stuff organized, and, well... that's not been our strong suit lately. John, our lab manager, has been gently but inexorably herding us towards a semblance of respectability in our lab behavior. As part of this, he decided that it was time for us to get our electrophoresis stuff straightened out. So, he ordered a bunch nice of gel combs from one of our suppliers. They cost $51 each (see the "12 tooth double-sided comb", catalog number 669-B2-12, for the exact one pictured below). We bought six of them with different sizes and spacing, for a total exceeding $300.

While I appreciate that companies need to make money, this is a ridiculous price for a lousy little scrap of plastic. $300 for a couple of gel combs is cartel pricing, not market pricing. Fortunately, we happen to have a very nice 3D printer. It is very good at making little scraps of plastic. So, I busted out the calipers and tossed together some models of gel combs in OpenSCAD. A few minutes of printing later, and the $51 gel combs are heading back to the store.

The plastic for the 3-D printer was $42 per kilogram, meaning each of the gel combs cost 21 cents to print. The 3-D printer cost $1524.62 and Neches calculated that the savings on the gel combs have recouped 18 percent of the cost of the printer. Also, he had new lab supplies in the time it took to write a blog post and eat an enchilada, which saves a lot of time over how long it takes to get new ones shipped.

The frosting on this DIY cupcake is that not only was he able to get supplies at 1/243rd the cost and in a matter of minutes, but by making his own design he was able to improve upon the mass manufactured ones by making little tweaks that better fitted his needs.

"It's also important that I was able to make some minor improvements to the design," he says. "The printed combs fit into the gel mold a bit better than the "official" ones. I also made separate combs for the 1.0mm and 1.5mm versions, and the labels are easier to read. If I wanted, tiny tweaks to my SCAD file would let me make all sorts of fun combinations of thicknesses and widths that aren't available from the manufacturer."

We've seen before the potential of 3-D printing to improve our lives by letting us make exactly what we need, when we need it in the place it will be used, with little to no waste. From creating magic arms for a girl that couldn't lift her arms to hug before to making DIY gadgets on the go, the possibilities are endless. This latest example is just more proof that the technology is empowering us to be both designer and manufacturer.

3D Printing Saves Money and Time in the Lab
A lab at UC Davis has discovered the usefulness of 3D printing for making specific supplies as they're needed.

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