"Like it or not, all scientific research costs money, and we in the research field work hard to be creative about how to do the most research and the most exciting and groundbreaking research for the least amount of money."
That’s Michelle Oyen, a researcher at the University of Cambridge. She and student Daniel Strange are growing bones in the lab. That sounds impressive enough, until you learn that they’re not just growing bones. They’re growing bones using off-the-shelf Lego Mindstorm kits.
You may call the idea innovative. You may call it playful. But really? It’s just cheap.
"Industrial equipment is expensive, and Lego does the job for a fraction of the price," writes Oyen, matter of factly. "Our process is very repetitive and takes several hours, so the automation with the Lego frees up a student to work on the more creative and interesting parts of the research while the Lego robot does the dull and repetitive tasks for hours at a time."
Their process is repetitive. It basically consists of dipping and redipping a bone sample into various chemicals over and over. You don’t need a PhD to do such work, but you do need a presence, a physical body of some sort, to make that work happen. This Cambridge lab was only able to work around their problem inexpensively—to replace a worker with an extremely affordable robot—because of the rise of maker culture.
These do-it-yourself projects for the technologically inclined—be they music synthesizers or 3-D printers—enable someone without an entire corporation behind them to design and construct a relatively advanced, extremely niche solution to their particular problem. At first it seems incredible that Lego could possibly do such important lab science, that is, until you realize there are so many other maker technologies that could have taken its place.
"While there are a few other prototyping alternatives to Lego, including Arduino or LabView, these mostly focus on only one area of automation (such as electronics)," writes Strange. "Lego Mindstorms has electronics, software, sensors, motors, gearing, and structures which are all designed to quickly be put together and taken apart."
Even if you don’t plan to grow bones in your office, there’s a lot one can learn from Oyen and Strange’s Lego robots. Most importantly: Customization no longer dictates expense, and there’s no reason to be snobby about the solution to a problem. Because, as it ends up, those Mindstorm kits are no longer just growing bones at Oyen’s lab; they’re working on all sorts of other studies now, too.
[Hat tip: inhabitat]