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Printable library makes one-of-a-kind optics affordable

Photonics Spectra
Jun 2013

HOUGHTON, Mich. – Inspired by the need for optics used in a specialized tool for photovoltaic research, a professor at Michigan Technological University has created an open-source optics library that is gaining popularity around the world.

“We want to help build a library of tools that spans all the disciplines and helps make scientific research less expensive and much more accessible to everyone,” Joshua Pearce, an associate professor of materials science and engineering and electrical and computer engineering at MTU, told Photonics Spectra.

The optics are made using an open-source CAD software tool and are printed on open-source RepRap 3-D printers. The components provided can be 97 percent cheaper than commercially available ones. For example, outfitting an undergraduate teaching laboratory with 30 optics setups would cost less than $500 using the open-source optics approach, compared with $15,000 for commercial versions.

However, cost savings isn’t the only advantage.


Parametric automated filter wheel changer.


“Saving money is nice, particularly for cash-strapped schools, but the real advantage of this approach is that it enables researchers to fabricate custom optics equipment in-house,” Pearce said in a university statement. “You get exactly what you need for your experiments, even if they are not commercially available.”

Research groups all over the world have designed optical equipment for use solely in their labs. “By taking the extra step of documenting and open-sourcing their designs, they will not only help accelerate scientific development, but also create a virtuous cycle from which they will benefit,” Pearce told Photonics Spectra.

Currently, there are about 50 designs in the collection – most of them created by the Michigan Tech group, “but the collection grows weekly,” with “many contributions increasingly coming from all over the world,” he said. “Anyone can add to it.”


Researchers at Michigan Technological University have developed a library of open-source, 3-D printable optics components, expanding access to a broader audience than previously possible. Pictured is an open-source self-replicating rapid prototyper printing a 3-D optical component – a filter bracket.


Next, the researchers aim to build “higher value and more sophisticated open-source research tools like photo-luminescence setups and a portable nephelometer,” Pearce said. Plans to make open-source variable-angle spectroscopic ellipsometers and a printable tool to measure bidirectional reflectance distribution function are also in the works.

The designs are available on Thingiverse, a repository of digital designs for real objects, he said.

The research appeared in PLOS One (doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0059840).


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