3D-printed syringe pumps could cut the cost of scientific research

3D-printed syringe pumps produced at Michigan Technological University cost around US$50 apiece

Used in laboratories to administer small amounts of liquid for drug delivery or chemistry research, syringe pumps can cost research labs hundreds or even thousands of dollars. But researchers from Michigan Technological University have now created an open-source library of 3D-printable designs, enabling anyone in need of the commonly used scientific tool to produce their own at a fraction of the cost.

The team of Michigan Tech students, led by Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Joshua Pearce, published a series of designs, each pertaining to different components of a syringe pump. Some parts would still need to be purchased separately, such as the electric motor that pushes the fluid and the syringe itself, but the remaining parts can be built using a RepRap 3D printer.

"What’s beautiful about what Joshua is doing is that it lets us run three or four experiments in parallel, because we can get the equipment for so much less," says Megan Frost, a biomedical engineer at Michigan Tech. “We’d always wanted to run experiments concurrently, but we couldn’t because the syringe pumps cost so much. This has really opened doors for us."

Pearce says each 3D-printed single-pump system costs US$50, replacing devices that typically cost anywhere between $250 and $2,500. A printed double-pump system costs around $120, while commercial versions are worth up to $5,000. And as the designs are open-source, they are intended to be customized and adapted for different research purposes.

“Not only have we designed a single syringe pump, we’ve designed all future syringe pumps,” said Pearce. “Scientists can customize the design of a pump for exactly what they are doing, just by changing a couple of numbers in the software.”

The team also built a credit-card sized Raspberry Pi computer into its syringe pumps to serve as a wireless module, allowing scientists control over their experiments even when they aren't in the lab.

Medicine and science aren't the only industries being seriously shaken up by 3D printing, but they stand to gain as much as any. Already we have seen a barrage of low-cost, personalized medical implants, such as replacement vertebrae and drug-delivering beads. When you pair these developments with the potential to replace expensive manufacturing of complicated scientific devices, the impacts could be quite profound.

The team's research was published in the journal PLoS One and the hardware plans, designs, and source code for the pumps is available for free here.

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