New 3D-printed devices continue to amaze us. The earliest 3-D printed medical devices were rudimentary prosthetics. More recent (and mind-blowing) applications include living skin complete with blood vessels developed at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, and the University of Warwick‘s collaboration with several British companies to 3D print a custom dynamic bionic hand in ten hours.

Bath University recently raised the bar for 3D printing. Bath physics researcher Dr. Joel Collins and physics professor Dr. Richard Bowman are the co-creators of the OpenFlexure Microscope Project. Collins and Bowman led a team comprising participants from Bath University, Cambridge University, and two institutions in Tanzania. The team published a paper describing the project in Biomedical Optics Express.

The OpenFlexure Microscope is a laboratory-grade 3D-printed machine with fully-automated sample positioning and focus control. The microscope is highly customizable with what the team describes as an intuitive software interface and alignment procedures. The complete microscope is printed in layers with bridges between components. The software includes 3D-printed tools to install non-printed parts such as lenses.

There are multiple versions of the OpenFlexure Microscope. The cost estimates for printing media and non-printed components for the three versions are fractions of the cost of conventionally-manufactured lab-grade microscopies. The estimate for a low-cost version with no motors, a cheap webcam, and no microcomputer is $15. A Basic version of the microscope with no motors, Raspberry Pi microcomputer, and Raspberry Pi camera as sensor and optics costs about $70. A high-resolution, motorized version of the microscope would cost about $230.

The Bath researchers released the OpenFlexure Microscope Project software in the open, so designers worldwide can build the microscope and customize the design for their own specific needs. The project took five years to complete. During that time STICLAB in Tanzania modified the design for local applications. Designers so far have printed more than 100 OpenFlexure microscopes in Tanzania and Kenya.