An open-source design from the University of Bath gives schools, homes, and labs the chance to 3D print their own precision microscopes.
To date, over 100 OpenFlexure microscopes have been printed in Tanzania and Kenya, demonstrating the viability of a complex piece of hardware being conceptualized in one part of the world and manufactured elsewhere.
Co-creator Dr Richard Bowman said, “Our Tanzanian partners, STICLab, have modified the design to better suit their local market, demonstrating another key strength of open source hardware – the ability to customize, improve, and take ownership of a product.”
Covid-19 and 3D-printed medical devices
There has been a surge of interest in 3D printers since the onset of the pandemic, with many projects springing up around the world to develop low-cost, open-source 3D ventilators – or ventilator parts – to address the global shortage.
However, a piece of medical hardware requires years of detailed safety checks before it can be trusted for medical or laboratory use – the OpenFlexure Microscope project, for instance, has taken five years to complete. The Bath team believes it is highly unlikely that a new ventilator will be designed and approved during the course of this pandemic. They say it is much more likely that modifications of existing designs will be chosen by health authorities, where this is an option.
Dr. Bowman, who has been working on the OpenFlexure project since its inception, first from the University of Cambridge and then from the Department of Physics at Bath, said, “Building a safety-critical medical device like a ventilator takes years for an organization with hundreds of experienced engineers and an established quality management system. Making a ventilator that works in a few weeks is an impressive achievement, but ensuring it complies with even the relaxed, emergency version of the rules takes a lot longer than creating the initial design. Demonstrating to a regulator that the design and the manufacturing process meet all the requirements will be even harder.”
He added, “The flip side is that the medical device industry is very conservatively regulated, and it would be a good thing if all of this new attention (in 3D printed hardware) means there’s some rethinking done about how we can uphold high safety standards but make it easier to build something if you’re not a mega corporation.”
How it slots together
Reference: “Robotic microscopy for everyone: the OpenFlexure microscope” by Joel T. Collins, Joe Knapper, Julian Stirling, Joram Mduda, Catherine Mkindi, Valeriana Mayagaya, Grace A. Mwakajinga, Paul T. Nyakyi, Valerian L. Sanga, Dave Carbery, Leah White, Sara Dale, Zhen Jieh Lim, Jeremy J. Baumberg, Pietro Cicuta, Samuel McDermott, Boyko Vodenicharski and Richard Bowman, 8 April 2020, Biomedical Optics Express.