3D-printed microscopes changing fieldwork

3D printing provides a new avenue for quick microscopy analysis…
21 February 2022

Interview with 

Richard Bowman, University of Bath


You can now 3D print microscopes. Anoushka Handa & Julia Ravey spoke to Dr. Richard Bowman from the University of Bath to tell us a little more about how they work...

Julia - It seems Leeuwenhoek's microscopes are much smaller than those you'd see in a biology lab. Are such small microscopes still useful today?

Anoushka - Actually, yes. Now you can 3D print microscopes. We have Dr. Richard Bowman from the University of Bath on the line to tell us a little more.

Julia - Richard, 3D-printed microscopes are not what comes to mind when I think about getting a closer look at samples. How did you design these microscopes and what have you been using them for?

Richard - Thanks. Well, there are quite a lot of nice ways to make a very simple, but very powerful microscope. For example, taking a webcam apart. But often the really hard part is the mechanics. And it's exactly the same challenge that Leeuwenhoek would have had, which is that you've got to point the microscope at the right bit of your sample and then bring it into focus nicely. Big microscopes do this with lots of very nicely made sliding mechanisms. One Friday afternoon in the lab, I was curious how much of that you could do with a 3D printer. And it turns out that if you use bending of the plastic, rather than sliding, you can build, more or less, all of the mechanics of a pretty capable microscope with a single 3D printed part. It started as a bit of fun, but actually it turns out it's useful in lots of places - if you want to put a microscope in an incubator or a fume hood, or even if you want to take a microscope to places where they're very difficult to get hold of. And so a lot of our work is with colleagues in Tanzania, where we're hoping to make them the first commercial producer of microscopes for medical diagnostics in the country.

Julia - I was going to ask, why would you 3D print a small microscope rather than use a microscope typically seen in the lab. Are these microscopes are used widely outside of a laboratory setting?

Richard - Yes, they're used all over the place. And, because we released it as an open source hardware design, actually, I don't know where they all are, which is a large part of the fun of it. We recently clocked them in over 30 countries from a brief survey of our forum. And they're used everywhere from community groups to university research labs. We are evaluating them for medical uses at the moment, although I should say they've not quite achieved the certification necessary to actually use them on patients yet.

Julia - Microscopes popping up all over the shop there. But a 3d printer is not that easy to come by, not something you see every day. So how accessible are these microscopes with the areas that they've been designed to be used for?

Richard - I mean, I was really surprised. We've been working with our Tanzanian colleagues for about five years now and actually, their business started out selling 3d printers. And they were locally manufactured, often made with locally available materials, and ideally quite a lot of recycled parts from e-waste. So , they didn't look exactly like the printer that was in my lab, but they could get hold of them. And actually if you compare the cost of a typical 3d printer with the cost of a typical lab microscope, you only have to print one before you've broken even.

Julia - That is super interesting. And it's amazing how you're both using technology and also, it sounds like, sustainability as well, but what is your big hope for the future with these 3D-printed microscopes?

Richard - I think the real aim of the project is about reproducibility and accessibility of this kind of science. So, I would love for labs that are currently priced out of being able to do exciting microscopy, whether that's in hospital settings or in research settings to be able to enter there. And not just to sort of accept what we've put out there, but actually to take ownership of the project and do something exciting with it. And in the same way, it's really great to see people use the open flexture microscope as a platform to build more exciting instruments on top of. And what I hope is that pushing this approach will get us back to the way that science was often done, where we would replicate each other's experiments, which is often very hard to do these days.

Julia - Brilliant. Well, we'll definitely be looking out for the microscopes and their use in the future. Thank you so much there to Richard Bowman.


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