Akin to how open source designs have helped to drastically bring down the costs of software applications to very comfortable levels so that they can now be accessed by a large cross section of the society, open-source hardware designs are now aiding the expansion of science by offering experimental opportunities to almost everyone in the scientific community. In this context, it is interesting to note that the laboratory at Michigan Technological University has published an entire library of open-source optic components (3-D printable) in the scientific journal PLoS ONE.
Joshua Pearce, a part of the spearheading research team of open source designs for hardware and an associate professor of the Department of Engineering and Material Science at Michigan Technological University, adds that the library would be immensely helpful because of the fact that it offers a low cost and flexible tool that can be used by the general public both to teach as well as conduct research in the realm of optics hardware. The designs that were published were made flexible using the computer aided design package called OpenSCAD and were printed with the help of RepRap open source 3-D printers. The open source Arduino microcontroller was used to design the electronics and controls.
Scientific studies that have been conducted have found that the reduction in cost for some of these optics hardware components is as high as 97 percent. For certain other optical components, only one percent of the current investment that went into their commercial production was required. Pearce cites an example of an optical rail wherein the sales price of one meter of the commercial sample is about $380 and the open source alternative would be able to print parts for the same rail at a cost less than what one would pay as sales tax for the former. The best part is that for the open source model, there is no sales tax to be paid, no shipping costs, and no time lost in waiting for the shipped parts to reach you.
A fallout of open-source hardware designs that have been developed and are 3-D printable has been the broader participation of the scientific community in both the research and the teaching of optical experimentation. Proprietary methods that existed prior to the development of open source hardware design and printing have not been this helpful. To equip a full-fledged undergraduate laboratory with optical equipment and setup using open-source printed versions, it costs a mere $500, as compared to the $15000 that one would need for setting up a laboratory with the commercially available versions.
Joshua Pearce asserts that this new method offers great savings for those schools that work on a low budget and are strapped for cash. However, a bigger advantage that he sees is that researchers can fabricate their own research equipment necessary for conducting experiments without having to rely on commercial supply. Joshua Pearce firmly believes that open source 3-D printing is going to revolutionize the manufacture of all scientific equipment in the future and he sees this as just the beginning of it all.