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Open Source Toolkit: Hardware

PLOS Collections joined forces with Andre Maia Chagas and Tom Baden of University of Tübingen, TReND in Africa and Openeuroscience to create a collection of Open Source Hardware projects with application in a laboratory setting. Open Source Toolkit: Hardware will be updated on a regular basis. 

Open source hardware follows the philosophy of open source software, which means that designs and documentation are freely available for everyone to copy, modify, improve and re-share them. Of course, many open hardware projects come in very useful in a scientific setting. For example, why not build your own centrifuge ([e.g. 1] ,[e.g. 2]) or microscope?

Open Source MicroscopeParticularly in recent years, this branch of open hardware, dubbed “Open Labware”, has gained considerable momentum, with designs and modifications being published in online repositories and academic outlets on a daily basis. Here we seek to curate a collection of some of these projects in the hope to broaden their impact and lend further momentum to this global movement. Just as it was the case for open source software only one or two decades ago, the key is to achieve critical mass. We need to draw on the enthusiasm and talent across professionals and hobbyists, teachers and students, parents and children. In this world, anyone can meaningfully contribute, and quality comes from both dedicated individuals and sheer numbers of contributors. This means you will soon have a cosmic ray detector on your desktop! Jokes aside, the implications for the scientific community and for the public in general could be huge:

1) Prices for Open Labware tend to be substantially smaller than their proprietary counterparts. No patents and intellectual property needs to be accounted for, and the required bill of materials often lists simple items that can be picked up from any local hardware store. For example, the Open Syringe pump is built with simple stepper motors, an Arduino controller and a handful of screws and 3D printed plastic parts.

2) Because prices are smaller, more people can have access to them. This could mean that schools can gain access to machinery traditionally only found at universities. Or underfunded research labs could be given a real chance at catching up with those few elite institutes where money is not a primary barrier. In an ideal world, lower costs and open plans might lead to a true democratisation of science, where no one is left behind, and ideas – not funding – determine success.

3) “Normalising” research equipment across labs could also tackle one of science’s ancient and lingering problems: reproducibility and representation. For example, experiments that require the participation of human subjects frequently draw on local student volunteers which are not representative of the world’s population as a whole.

4) Building your own equipment also promises to bring back some of those often-faded virtues that used to dominate research before big funding agencies and, with them, big science-equipment companies came into play: truly knowing how your machines work and being able to improve upon them, or simply being able to fix them when they break.

Of course, not everything is as rosy as advertised, and open source hardware comes with its fair share of hurdles. For one, some types of research equipment are still difficult if not impossible to match using readily available tools. While steady advances in consumer-oriented manufacturing technologies may allow home-built tools to catch up with the current industry standard in the long term, for extreme-precision instruments in particular, industry will likely keep the nose ahead for quite some time. Related to this, because there still aren’t many companies selling open source hardware (Backyard Brains, OpenPCR and OpenEphys are exceptions), maintenance of Open Labware is done by the end user and this can sometimes be frustrating and time consuming.

Taken together, Open Source Hardware has the potential to do great good to science education and research. But for this trend to really kick off to the point where it may truly challenge the industry standard, the road ahead is still long. However, there are many things that could be done to push the trend forward. In the below, we present our wish-list:

  • Let’s reach critical mass! The contributor base to Open Labware needs to grow, drawing from talent and enthusiasm from all walks of life, be it just for fun or with a definite goal in mind.
  • Share your ideas! They might be good! Even if you don’t know how to go about realising them, ideas alone can spark projects and products if planted in the right place.
  • Scientists, publish your existing little “machines”. Probably you have a few little inventions stashed away somewhere in your lab. Big projects get published in high-impact journals, but the little ones are too often left behind. Not everything needs to be written up formally – a comprehensible description on an online aggregator such as Hack-a-day, or Instructables may well do. Said that, why not earn some academic credit by submitting them for peer review?
  • Publish “work in progress”. Maintain on an open GitHub. Upload manuscripts to preprint servers like bioRχiv while they undergo peer review for faster dissemination. And critically, tell people about it. Your colleagues will thank you!
  • Learn and teach basic electronics and 3D design. If you have no experience in these fields, go online and teach yourself, or join a local Makershed/Hackerspace – it’s surprisingly easy! If you are already an expert, consider teaching others!

And finally, allow us to point out a lingering business opportunity! There already hundreds of fully open designs for lab equipment available online. However, the entry hurdle for individuals not versed in simple electronics or additive manufacturing to attempt recreating these projects can be high. Why not go through available designs, test them and choose your favourites and sell “Bags-of-parts” together with streamlined assembly? Or go straight for in-house assembly, with customer service added as appropriate. In most cases, the project will be vastly more cost effective than other commercial solutions, and there will be no shortage of new designs popping up on a daily basis. Free R&D!

This post was authored by Andre Maia Chagas and Tom Baden, the curators of Open Source Toolkit: Hardware

Andre Maia Chagas: Hertie Institute for Clinical Neuroscience, Graduate School for Neural and Behavioural Sciences, International Max Planck Research School, Werner Reichardt Centre for Integrative Neuroscience (CIN), Bernstein Centre for Computational Neuroscience (BCCN); all University of Tübingen. TReND in Africa; Openeuroscience;

Tom Baden: Werner Reichardt Centre for Integrative Neuroscience (CIN), Bernstein Centre for Computational Neuroscience (BCCN), Institute for Ophthalmic Research; all University of Tübingen, Germany. TReND in Africa.

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