IST faculty, staff ahead of the curve in 3D printing technology

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The rise in recent years of 3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, has paved the way for a new generation of Internet entrepreneurs and do-it-yourself (DIY) manufacturers. At Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), faculty and staff members are ahead of the curve in both the research and practice of this emerging technology.

“Information technology in manufacturing is really transforming what’s possible,” said Irene Petrick, a senior lecturer at the College of IST.

According to Petrick, who has recently given presentations about the future of manufacturing (being disrupted by IT) at the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute/National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining Summit, and the Society of Manufacturing Engineering RAPID conference, manufacturing has traditionally taken place in a “dirty” environment that was governed by economies of scale production—the larger the better. The next wave of manufacturing, she said, will likely come from individuals and small businesses taking advantage of advances in technology. She predicted that there are three major trends that would inspire innovation on a more individualized level in the future: the availability of cloud-based services, which would allow people to download just the programs they need, the spread of high-performance computing, which would make simulations more available to small businesses, and 3-D printing, which would allow individuals to make their own products.

Additive manufacturing or 3-D printing is a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. Three-dimensional printing is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes. 3-D printing is considered distinct from traditional machining techniques, which mostly rely on the removal of material by methods such as cutting or drilling (subtractive processes).

Additive manufacturing takes virtual blueprints from computer aided design (CAD) or animation modeling software and “slices” them into digital cross-sections for the machine to successively use as a guideline for printing. Depending on the machine used, material or binding material is deposited on the build bed or platform until the material/binder layering is complete and the final 3-D model has been “printed.”  The 3-D printing technology is used for prototyping and distributed manufacturing with applications in architecture, industrial design, engineering, dental and medical industries, biotech (human tissue replacement), fashion, footwear, jewelry and eyewear, among many other fields.

“(3-D printing) just changes how we think about who a manufacturer is in the first place,” Petrick said. “I don’t have to be an engineer to design, and I don’t have to be a (traditional) manufacturer to produce.”

Last summer, the College of IST acquired a new MakerBot 3-D printer to replace the first printer that the college purchased in 2007. The printer, which is housed in the college’s Extreme Events Lab (EEL), was recently given a test run by printing out what turned out to be a rather challenging project — a “banjolele” — or a an instrument with four strings, like a ukulele, but in the shape of a banjo. The instructions for the banjo were found at www.thingiverse.com. MakerBot's Thingiverse is a design community for discovering, making, and sharing 3-D printable things.

“When (the original printer) died last year we found out it would cost $8,000 to fix,” said Wade Shumaker, a 3-D visualization researcher at the College of IST. “The new 3D printer, a MakerBot Replicator 2, costs under $2,500. The material used to build objects is also less expensive with the Replicator.”

The Replicator uses a heavy plastic line which is melted and then distributed to build an object, he said. One disadvantage of the Replicator versus the previous model is that it can only print one color at a time.

However, the newer model operates faster, the new plastic material is sturdier, and the cost savings are substantial — the banjolele cost less than $50 to print, while it would have cost $300 to $400 on the previous printer.

“The fact that the Replicator is more affordable opens it up to a wider base of users, and there is a much larger community of users which has arisen and become a very open source group of DIYers,” Shumaker said. “This open source mindset has led to users that want to share 3-D objects that they’ve designed. This has led to sites like www.thingiverse.com and www.makezine.com, where you can find 3-D objects to download for free and to buy which include everything from functional items (knobs, handles, iPhone holders, bottle openers) to art (jewelry, sculptures, toys) to medical supplies (braces, ID bracelets, hemostats, models of organs).”

While the process of creating the banjolele was fairly streamlined, Shumaker said, it also presented a learning curve. After he downloaded the files from the Thingiverse site, he imported the banjolele’s body, neck, head stock, tuning peg, nut and bridge as a STL file into the Makerware software, after which he was able to do minor edits such as scaling in size and rotating the objects. He then exported the file from Makerware onto an SD card and popped the card into the printer, commanding it lay down layers of thin molten plastic.

The next day, Shumaker said, he discovered that the tuning pegs didn’t print out and that the neck printed out “a little funky” but was salvageable. He rotated the peg in Makerbot to a laying down position, after which it printed out successfully. He also bought bolts, nuts and strings as the instructions on the website specified, and finally put the instrument together.

While the banjolele has some tuning issues, Shumaker said, it is fully functional. The instructions on the Thingiverse site had stated that there were some kinks in the process that could be smoothed out.

“It’s still a work in progress,” he said.

Shumaker said that he thinks that as the price of 3-D printing goes down, its popularity may increase among consumers.

“I think what you’re going to find over the next few years is (3-D printing) is going to become a little more mainstream,” he said. “When people break something, instead of going out and buying (a replacement), they’re going to print it out.”

While 3-D technology won’t ever replace large-scale, high-volume manufacturing, Petrick said, as 3-D software gets smarter and faster, and printing becomes less expensive, it will pose a challenge to mainstream manufacturers in the area of user-customized products.

“It’s really not the existing manufacturers that are going to drive how (the future of manufacturing) evolves,” she said.

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Last Updated September 30, 2013