More college students are learning about 3-D printers’ utility, in part because of lowering costs and improved accessibility.
On some college campuses, clicking “print” is taking on a whole new meaning.
As 3-D printing gains popularity — Microsoft announced Wednesday that Windows 8.1 will include built-in support for 3-D printing, which a company blog post says will be “as easy as writing a document in Word and sending it to print” — the technology is also becoming more commonplace on campuses.
But for Sean MacRae, 22, the concept of printing objects is nothing new.
The mechanical engineering technology senior at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., has used the campus’ 3-D printers to create action figures, cellphone cases and parts for model vehicles.
3-D printers work by reading a digital blueprint of an object, then using a heated-up material such as plastic or metal to build the object layer by layer.
MacRae says he’s noticed more students showing interest in using the school’s 3-D printers since he started taking classes in 2009.
“It’s becoming well known that anyone on campus can use them, and more people are printing out projects and models for design classes and things like that,” he says.
The cost of a 3-D printer can be tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, MacRae says, but smaller versions can be bought for as low as $1,000 to $2,000.
Margot Vigeant, a professor of chemical engineering at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., says 3-D printers have been in many engineering colleges for “the past decade or longer.”
But as the printers become more advanced and less expensive, their uses are spreading into other fields — such as a digital sculpture course offered at Bucknell where Vigeant says student can print out figures they design with software.
“There’s this whole new world of creativity that’s opened up,” she says.
Bucknell University recently purchased a 3-D printer that will be accessible to every student who completes a short video tutorial on how to use it.
Vigeant says she sees 3-D printers becoming as commonplace on campus as inkjet printers.
“This technology takes something that’s only been in the realm of a specialist and makes it a tool for everyone, she says.
As 3-D printers continue to gain popularity inside classrooms, they’re also appearing outside of them.
Three graduates of the University of California – Berkeley recently created a 3-D printing vending machine that the public can use to print small objects at an average cost of $5 to $10.
Right now, the only public vending machine is on the UC Berkeley campus, but Dreambox co-founder Will Drevno says he and his team are hoping to add machines to more locations, including college campuses.
Drevno says people have used the machine to print out an array of objects, including cellphone cases, shot glasses, ornaments and models for engineering projects.
Some students even used the printer to design a remote-control airplane.
“Rather than having to spend hours and hours in the machine shop or using an outside service that would charge a lot of money, they were able to do it in our Dreambox,” Drevno says. “It took half a day for the fraction of a cost.”
MacRae says he wouldn’t be surprised if 3-D printers become a staple in dorm rooms in the near future.
“Everyone that’s messed around with them loves it,” MacRae says. But he adds that it’s time consuming — prints can take anywhere from 45 minutes to four hours to finish.
Hal Scholz, who teaches physics and engineering at Penn State Lehigh Valley in Center Valley, Pa., says when the school received its first 3-D printer three years ago, it arrived as a box of parts.
“We had two students put it together and it took an entire semester to get it calibrated,” he says
The school bought a new 3-D printer a few months ago and the difference was noticeable — it arrived fully assembled and with “a much more precise printing capability,” Scholz says.
He says 3-D printers both speed up and enhance the trial-and-error process for students working on design projects.
“They make the part, find out what they did wrong, redesign it and print it again until they get it right,” he says
Like MacRae, Scholz says students seem to get hooked on 3-D printing once they start.
“They’re addicting!” he says, laughing. “I think it’s worse than video games.”
Powered by Facebook Comments