3D printers give engineering classes a boost

3D printers help students turn designs such as this one into actual models.

As technology transforms learning in classrooms across the nation, 3D printing, in which three dimensional objects are created through a system that successively layers materials on top one another, is taking hold in classrooms–and is helping to attract more students to technology-rich fields such as engineering.

Modern design uses a technology called CAD, which stands for computer-aided design, to represent 3D objects in a digital file. Today’s CAD software lets users create and draw objects in 3D, and those designs are brought to life via 3D printers.

Companies that manufacture 3D printers for education include Z Corporation, Dimension Printers (a Stratasys brand), and 3D Systems Corp.

A handful of different approaches can create 3D printed objects. One method, developed by 3D printing manufacturer Stratasys, is called fused deposition modeling (FDM). FDM uses a polymer that is heated and deposited by a nozzle, in separate layers, into a pre-made model using an STL file.

Digital light processing (DLP) exposes a liquid polymer to light from a DLP projector, which causes the liquid polymer to harden as a “build plate” shapes the layers. Z Corporation’s ZBuilder Ultra uses this type of system.

Another method uses a printer to spread a thin layer of powder, which is then hardened by a laser to form the bottom layer of the 3D design. Another layer of powder is spread on top of that layer, hardened, and connected to the first layer. This process repeats until the entire model is complete.

In general, a 3D printer is used in the design and engineering of physical goods, including everything from tennis shoes to automobiles, said Scott Harmon, vice president of business development at Z Corporation.

“Designers and engineers across many industries use 3D printers to actually print a physical object that is a direct representation of a CAD drawing,” Harmon said. Those 3D printings are used to show models or ideas to engineers, or to test certain aspects of a design before moving into a more expensive manufacturing stage.

“The way that schools use [3D printing], or should use it, frankly, is when they’re teaching students about engineering or design,” Harmon said. “Prototyping, or the idea that you’d make a model of your final design, … is good design practice when you look at worldwide firms.”

National standards for teaching engineering design discuss the importance of creating prototypes, he added.

“One reason it’s so important for schools is because if students sit in front of CAD software, fundamentally, they’re making a file … but with a 3D printer you can actually make the object, hold it in your hands, and test things,” Harmon said.

“3D printing is exciting students about bringing things to life. It’s pretty powerful for students,” he added. “Engineering is a tough discipline; more and more students are finally getting back into it, but for many years schools struggled to attract students.”

Engineering, Harmon said, has two challenges, the first of which is that it is tough to master. The second is that “when you’re younger, it’s relatively difficult to see the fruits of your labors; it all tends to be equations and diagrams. Having a 3D printer and saying, ‘Hey, look at what I created,’ is pretty amazing for a student,” Harmon said.

High schools are taking advantage of using CAD with 3D printers, as are institutions of higher education. Harmon said some middle schools use the technology, but it’s rare, because “CAD itself is not exceptionally simple.”

For instance, a color 3D printer would allow students to print out molecules for science classes, or different maps showing population, demographics, and terrain.

Z Corporation’s color 3D printers range from $15,000 to $60,000, Harmon said, with a larger machine, higher resolution, and finer printing details contributing to a higher cost. Harmon estimated that about 35 percent of the company’s business comes from high schools, vocational technology schools, and universities.

3D printing in high schools

Bruce Weirich, a computer and drafting instructor at Ontario High School in Mansfield, Ohio, wanted to use a 3D printer in his classroom but lacked the budget to purchase one.

He turned to Jay Plastics, a local auto industry parts supplier. Jay Plastics financed the Spectrum Z510 color 3D printer from Z Corporation, and in return, Weirich’s students create and print prototypes for Jay Plastics.

“Students get an idea, sketch it out, develop it, animate it, print it, and then hold it in their hands,” said Weirich. “Until then, it’s all conceptual, virtual and 2D. Completing the circle is important.”

Students in Weirich’s class print mechanical designs and models of objects such as cars, buildings, and aircraft. Weirich said students are learning important skills that will help them should they choose to pursue design or engineering fields in college.

“Students are going to college and finding it very easy to develop their skills at that level because of the advanced foundation they received here,” he said. “And when students show up at interviews with colorful models to pass around the table–that makes a big impact on whether they’re admitted or hired.”

Students in the Advanced Competitive Science (ACS) Program at Benilde-St. Margaret’s School in Minneapolis, founded and run by Tim Jump, originated as a way to teach students about science fields, but morphed to focus on engineering and problem solving.

When freshmen enter Benilde-St. Margaret’s School, they receive a tour introducing them to ACS. It is on that tour that students experience the school’s Dimension BST 3D Printer, which builds 3D models from ABS plastic one layer at a time.

“It’s a tool that has not only helped our students succeed in the classroom, but has also given them a better understanding of design engineering concepts that have translated well as they’ve pursued their engineering careers beyond this school,” Jump said.

In the three-year ACS program, students first learn how to think like engineers and approach problems. They are tasked with building an arm-like structure from Lego building blocks, and testing its structural integrity.

Next, they approach CAD modeling software and using advanced engineering tools. They expand on their initial Lego structure and create a brand new building block. Jump used to create the blocks from student prototypes after school, but using a 3D printer both saves Jump valuable time and immerses students in the learning and creating process.

Higher education’s 3D printing applications

North Carolina State University’s Department of Industrial Design (ID) focuses on solving problems in fields such as transportation design and medical instrumentation. Students use prototyping to come up with creative and practical solutions.

Spencer Barnes, an adjunct assistant ID professor who teaches a course in advanced digital product modeling, challenged his students to create posable action figures using a 3D modeling program and a Dimension 3D printer. The challenge would help students use workflow manipulation to complete the task as efficiently as possible.

Students chose characters to model or designed their own, and then drew sketches to help with the modeling process. Using CatalystTM, which is Dimension software that converts the models into a printable file format, the models were sent to the 3D printer and printed, where students then prepared the models for presentation.

Barnes said he used the 3D printer to help students focus on certain design aspects, such as how the action figures’ moving parts worked together and how the figures balanced.

All of the students effectively produced posable action figures, and Barnes said the entire process was cost-effective and quick.

3D printers help designers “to efficiently visualize their ideas,” he said, adding that the printers give designers an accuracy level that allows them to evaluate and refine models.

With the help of a grant, the University of Rhode Island’s College of Pharmacy is using a 3D printing system, along with animation workstations with animation and visualization software, to help its students better understand how different medications impact molecules and proteins.

The College of Pharmacy plans to open a 3D Center for Biomedical Sciences at URI. The 3D center will be housed in a $75 million pharmacy building that is currently under construction. Professor Bongsup Cho, a biomedical scientist, said the new center will elevate URI’s research reputation and ability.

“Flat diagrams of chemical/biological and physiological actions have always been a less than optimum way to teach students,” Cho said. “Now, we will not only have the ability to look at such phenomena on a computer, we will be able to produce physical models that students can touch, look into and physically examine how molecules interact.

“This is a great way to help them grasp complex molecular and cellular processes. Sometimes, there is nothing like texture and feeling,” Cho said.

More than 1,000 students a year will use the 3D animation and printing technologies, and the new 3D center will be open to K-12 students through URI’s Science and Math Investigative Learning Experience, which serves about 240 public school students across the state.

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Laura Ascione

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