New Kensington engineering students help develop first 3-D printing kiosk

UPPER BURRELL, Pa. -- Need a new bat for your old Willie Stargell bobble head? Looking for a replacement football for your classic Lynn Swan action figure? How about a tire for that vintage pink Barbie convertible? Well, a 3-D printer created by two Penn State New Kensington students could help you.

Senior electro-mechanical engineering technology majors Tyler Leatherwood and Sage Defrances are system development engineers for a local startup company called the PieceMaker Factory. The company created a 3-D-printing kiosk that makes small toys and keepsakes on demand.

“Sage and I and a couple of others developed the first 3-D printing kiosk in the world,” said Leatherwood, who graduates in May. ”There is an ergonomic touch screen where you can customize your own piece and then watch it print right before your eyes.”

PieceMaker was founded in 2013 by Carnegie Mellon University graduates Alejandro Sklar, a computer engineer, and Arden Rosenblatt, a mechanical engineer. Leatherwood and Defrances joined the fledgling company last summer to help get the kiosk off the ground. After a successful pilot program in Toys R Us, SW Randall Toys and Gifts, and Playthings Etc. during the winter holiday, the company landed a permanent 3-D-printer kiosk in the Mall at Robinson, located 10 miles south of Pittsburgh.

“We partner with retail stores and share the revenue,” said Leatherwood, who designed the electronics for the printer. “Every pilot has taught us new things and has led us to where we are today.”

The challenge to the team was to create a printer to handle the rigors of use by the general public. It was designed to be as hands off as possible. The printer has an integrated auto bed leveling algorithm, automatic cleaning routine and automatic color flushing.

“We developed state-of-the-art electronics including a custom control board,” said Leatherwood, vice president of the company. “On top of all that, we are safety compliant. This means we can install our machines in the retail environment, and we can ensure that everyone will be safe.”

The process is fairly straight forward. Customers browse the digital product gallery and choose a gift, toy, jewelry or other item they want to customize. Using the intuitive touch-screen, they choose a color, add a personalized message or image, and send the item to print, creating a one-of-a-kind piece. The start-to-finish process usually takes under 30 minutes and costs from $5-$12, depending on the item and the personalization.

“This allows kids to design their own toys, key chains and much more,” said Leatherwood, a graduate of Kiski Area High School. "With our kiosk, your only limitation is your imagination."

PieceMaker is making a name for itself across the country. The company has been featured in the local and national media, including CNBC. The cable news network reporter John Fortt called PieceMaker’s 3-D printed toys one of the “top trending toys for 2014.”

“The next technology leap would be automatic piece removal after a print is complete,” Leatherwood said. “Also, we are working on implementing automatic color changing during prints. This would allow customers to design and create pieces in dual color.”

For more about PieceMaker, visit http://piecemaker.com/.

Leatherwood and Defrances

Technological strides provide the foundation for Leatherwood and Defrances’ budding engineering careers. In 2013, the two students, along with fellow electro-mechanical engineering technology major Joe Trisoline, engineering major Ross Jubic and information sciences and technology (IST) major Brandon Kendall built a 3-D printer from scratch as a part of an extracurricular activity for the Engineering Club, a campus organization. Ron Land, associate professor of engineering, served as faculty adviser for the project.

“One reason why Tyler and I picked a 3-D printer was that it encompasses all the engineering aspects most engineers learn in their first few years of schooling,” said Defrances, a native of Export. “Architectural, electrical, mechanical, civil and other types of engineering were all involved in building the printer. Motor/printer movement is mechanical, the circuit and wiring work done is electrical, and designing some of the parts on the printer is architectural and civil. Also what every engineer learns in the engineering design course was done by building the mainframe of the printer.”

3-D manufacturing technology is “additive,” which means making a component by building it up in layers. It’s akin to making a ball of string by continuously winding the string. Classic manufacturing is “reductive,” which means creating something by cutting away parts of it. An example of “reductive manufacturing” would be ice sculpturing. The artist takes a block of ice, and using a chainsaw and chisel, makes a replica of Leonardo da Vinci's “Mona Lisa.”

The students showcased their printer last year at the campus’ annual Research and Creative Exposition. The exposition provides students in all majors the opportunity to conduct research, draw conclusions and present their information in a public setting. The engineering students printed a plastic cog-wheel as a demonstration project. The cog-wheel was created thread by thread in about three hours. The cog was used as a part for another printer they constructed in September.

“We used the popular Mendel Mono do-it-yourself 3-D printer kit to build the first printer,” said Leatherwood. “We used that to print parts for the new printer.”

The next step was to shift their efforts towards sustainability with a 3-D printing application. A 3-D printer functions by taking plastic filament, melting it down, and applying it layer by layer. However, it can be an expensive as 3-D printing filament costs over $40 a spool and failed print jobs results in plastic that is thrown away and wasted.

Leatherwood and Defrances pondered a solution for the un-useable plastic. After a little brainstorming, they came up with a filament extruder.

“The filament extruder actually crushes recycled thermoplastics into pellets and then extrudes filament that is compatible with our 3-D printers,” Leatherwood said. “This means we can recycle old prints, water bottles, etc.”

“It allowed us to make the 3-D printer plastic material very cheap and to recycle parts that were made and have no use after prototyping,” Defrances said.

GREAT Program

Leatherwood’s rise through the engineering technology world can be traced back to four years ago when the first-year student secured an internship working on laser weapons at Penn State’s Electro-Optics Center. The freshman helped design, test and build components for the high-powered defense systems used by the U.S. military. Leatherwood earned his position at Electro-Optics through the campus’ GREAT (Growing Regional Excellence through Experience, Academics and Training) program.

A collaboration of the New Kensington campus, Electro-Optics Center and industries in the region, GREAT establishes internships at local companies for engineering and IST students. Whereas most internships are geared to juniors and seniors, GREAT interns can begin as soon as their first year in college.

“The internship was an advantage in getting an early start on competition,” said Leatherwood, a resident of Leechburg. “I got a feel for the industry while building a resume and building experience.”

For selection into the GREAT program, qualified engineering and IST majors are put through a competitive interview process with campus faculty and the business partners. Promising students are awarded four-year paid internships that provide opportunities to develop professional skills and gain workplace experience.

“The GREAT program has led me to where I am today,” Leatherwood said. “GREAT has given me nothing but experience and opportunities.”

This spring, five freshmen engineering technology students in the GREAT program received internships at well-known companies throughout the region. The newest GREAT interns are Lynsie Headley (electro-mechanical engineering technology) and Zak Hudak (computer science) at Siemens Industry; Tanya Leeman (chemical engineering) at Alcoa Technical Center; and Jim Serra and Meng Huo Tang (mechanical engineering) at R.J. Lee Group.

For more about the GREAT program, visit http://www.nk.psu.edu/greatprogram.

For more on the Electro-Mechanical Engineering Technology program, visit http://www.nk.psu.edu/Academics/Degrees/39807.htm.

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Last Updated May 06, 2015