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    New wellspring for science: tools of the maker movement

    screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-34-55-pmIf you think the maker movement is just for hobbyists, tinkerers, and do-it-yourself geeks, think again.

    Maker tools of the trade such as open source software, cheap sensors, inexpensive electronic hardware, and 3-D printers are rapidly making inroads into university, government, academic, and private research programs.

    Embracing the maker ethos are budget-constrained scientists in fields like energy, transportation, neuroscience and consumer electronics, representing institutions like Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Carnegie Mellon University, and the U.S. Department of Energy.


    Maker Movement Turns Scientists into Tinkerers – Scientific American

    Developed at Carnegie Mellon Unviersity, SkinTrack is a system that converts skin into a touchpad. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

    Developed at Carnegie Mellon University, SkinTrack is a system that converts skin into a touchpad. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

    By Prachi Patel on August 22, 2016

    To do science, scientists need money—and usually a lot of it because specialized equipment and tools don’t come cheap. That means researchers often have to spend a significant amount of time pursuing funds from government agencies and private entities. But the era of open-source software and cheap hardware, including 3-D printers, is making it easier for them to quickly test innovative ideas and make their own research tools. These technologies are typically considered the dominion of “makers,” a word that evokes tinkerers and hobbyists, yet many scientists have begun to embrace the build-it-yourself ethos to advance their research in a variety of fields, including energy, transportation, neuroscience and consumer electronics.

    In the hands of scientists, maker tools can help transform ideas into tangible objects, speed up research and stretch funding dollars, says Joan Horvath, co-founder of consulting firm Nonscriptum LLC, who organized the first maker symposium for scientists in June at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Pacific meeting. Especially for researchers who need a piece of equipment that doesn’t exist or is too expensive to buy outright, “the capability of maker technologies is incredibly promising,” she adds.

    The joining of science and the maker movement is “not only a great thing but an inevitable thing,” says Conor Russomanno, co-founder of OpenBCI, a company that builds a low-cost brain-computer interface kit. The kit includes a 3-D printed electrode headset that fits on the head like a skullcap, a circuit board and open-source software that controls the technology. By opening up brain-wave research to DIYers and non-experts and encouraging an online data-sharing community, Russomanno hopes to accelerate neuroscience.

    Scientists at national labs and research agencies are also getting creative with maker technologies. Last year, a group of U.S. Department of Energy scientists and engineers started using 3-D printing to make, quite literally, a gigantic change in wind turbine production. Making 30-plus-meter-long turbine blades costs millions of dollars and takes about a year, says Lonnie Love, a mechanical engineer at the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Using 3-D printing, Love and his colleagues now make them in weeks for tens of thousands of dollars. In addition to saving time and money, 3-D printing could make wind power generation more efficient. Wind patterns across a wind turbine farm change, Love says, “so ideally you want different blade shapes at different points to generate the most electricity.” Manufacturers today take a cookie-cutter approach to turbine blades because making them is costly and complex. With 3-D printed molds, they could fill wind farms with different cleverly designed turbines.

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