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3D Printing: A Scientific Solution

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One device looked like a piece of plastic small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Others included 3D-printed plastic parts, miniature sensors, and a credit-card sized computer – all examples of the emerging field of “maker” technologies that creates tools and devices from such things as 3D printers to solve problems in faster, safer, or less expensive ways.

A dozen teams showcased their work on 16 June at the AAAS Pacific Division’s inaugural Scientific Maker Exhibit and Symposium during the division’s annual meeting at the University of San Diego and demonstrated that the devices are finding broader applications in novel places and in multiple fields of study.

Erik Jue


Erik Jue of Caltech demonstrates the 3D-printed interlock meter-mix device. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

Erik Jue of the California Institute of Technology or Caltech, for one, created a measuring and mixing device to improve the reliability of the collection of medical fluid samples using a 3D-printer. The tool, known as an interlock meter-mix device, can speed up the detection of infectious disease by simplifying molecular testing used to detect viruses or bacteria in a laboratory or in more limited resource settings.

“The idea is that we want to mix two solutions really fast,” said Jue, demonstrating the device.

To demonstrate how it works, Jue preloads the device with a stand-in solution that, in a laboratory setting, would break open cells being tested. In this case, the intended solution, known as a lysis buffer, is actually blue water. He then inserts the device’s suction tube into a container holding what should be a patient’s urine sample but is actually yellow-dyed water  — and pulls the plunger to extract a precise amount. Next, he slides a valve and pushes a second plunger, dispensing the mixed solution — now green — into a second container for testing.

The process takes only a few seconds to complete — and not only because of Jue’s familiarity with the device. The design’s interlocking parts prevent anyone using the device from adding samples out of sequence, effectively walking users through the measuring and mixing process and stopping them from adding or extracting sample components incorrectly. In contrast, the standard process uses a more expensive device called a pipettor to meter the sample, which requires training to use correctly, Jue said.

“It’s very helpful for the end user,” he said of the new device.

Inspired by everyday mixers that combine paint and epoxy, the device is created on a multi-material 3D printer using both hard plastic and a softer, rubber-like material. The soft material forms leak-free seals, vital to devices that hold potentially infectious bodily fluids, Jue said.

Joy Shapiro and science stick


Joy Shapiro of Ocean Lab displays a science stick, a type of water drone that gathers data most effectively when used in a group. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

The exhibit also featured small drones able to be deployed underwater in groups, or swarms, to collect data for research. Ocean Lab, a company focusing on swarm robotics technologies, creates and builds the “science sticks” in-house from a 3D-printing mold. With on-board GPS technology, the devices can communicate and work together, making the swarms easy to control, said Ocean Lab’s Tony White.  

“Swarms can answer a lot of questions that rovers cannot at this point,” such as gathering data at distributed points, added marine biologist Joy Shapiro.

The lab, which has created about 20 sticks, had nearly all the devices deployed the day before the exhibit off the coast of San Diego’s Mission Bay measuring ocean waves in collaboration with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, White said.

The regulation of drones focuses largely on their use over land, and not in or over water, making the ocean a natural place to further develop swarm technology, White said. Advances in swarm robotics could be applied to the design of other technologies to make groups of autonomous devices safer and more effective, thanks to better communication and coordination among the devices. In the future, such advances could inform the development of better biomedical devices or even flying cars, Shapiro said.



AstroGro, a 3D-printed pod for growing food in space, is now being deployed to teach children about coding and citizen science. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

Betty Wong of Caltech and her team used a 3D-printer to create an artificial intelligence-enabled pod in which fresh food can be grown in space. The group is exploring additional applications for their device. Finalists in a NASA-sponsored International Space Apps Challenge, the group already has put the pod to use closer to home: in K-12 science classrooms.

The AstroGro pod consists of a 3D-printed body structure – which Wong noted allows for modularity and adaptability – and is outfitted with LED lights and a water reservoir. Sensors track the plant’s growth and adapt conditions accordingly, and an aggregator uploads data about the plant to a centralized location.

Repurposing the pod as a platform for student learning has several benefits, Wong said. By allowing students to program the pod with different light or temperature conditions, they learn about coding while contributing to citizen science projects. AstroGro can be a tool for learning more about urban farming or responding to California’s drought conditions, Wong said.

“All of that can be answered in a quantitative manner,” Wong said.