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Bringing Ideas to Life With 3-D Printers

September 19, 2012 – Printing at The University of Alabama is taking a step into another dimension – literally.

Construction has started in Hardaway Hall on a 3-D printing lab that will allow students across multiple areas of studies to bring their three-dimensional creations to life. Expected to be completed before the end of next semester, it will consist of four 3-D printers and two 3-D scanners.

“The idea is getting manufacturing into the hands of people,” associate professor in The College of Engineering Andrew Graettinger said.

Graettinger is part of an informal committee to oversee the project comprised of faculty members from across different areas of campus, including Shane Sharpe, dean of the UA Honors College, and Craig Wedderspoon, an associate professor of art and sculpture.

“The really exciting thing to me is the interplay between handmade and digital,” Wedderspoon said. “And being able to explore where that’s going to take us on the arts side of things.”

There are different styles of 3-D printers, each with different functions and uses.

The most common technology is called fused deposition modeling, which works almost like a hot glue gun. The printer splits the part into layers and prints each layer with a fine plastic filament material, the location of which is controlled by computer software.

The second type uses the Objet poly-jet process, much like an ink-jet printer. The jet head slides back and forth, laying down a liquid photo-polymer material. An ultraviolet light then shines on the material, hardening it before the next layer is laid down.

Both types of printers will be featured in the lab, which will be housed in Room 160 of Hardaway Hall, in addition to 3-D scanners, which can make digital models out of existing objects. These objects can then be modified on the computer and reprinted for more accurate and refined results.

Animation and game design students could print out physical models of their creations. Anatomy students can create models of bones and other structures to examine more closely. All students will be able to use the printers.

“What that does is it enables us to merge the handmade and digital worlds,” Wedderspoon said. “There’s just so many possibilities”

3-D printing is not an entirely new concept at Alabama. The Computer-Based Honors program installed its own 3-D printer in the spring for its students to use on their independent research projects. The College of Engineering already has one and other faculty have their own as a result of research grants.

A variety of projects have already been completed. One CBH student printed fake fish and later painted them to resemble actual species. When placed in a tank with living fish, the real fish reacted to the printed models. Amy Lang, an associate professor of aerospace engineering scanned a shark fin and printed a new one that was placed in a water tunnel to examine the difference between a real shark fin with moveable scales and her model without them.

Hisham Ali, a senior majoring in aerospace engineering and CBH student, researched 3-D printing in his internship with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville this summer. Ali used his experience with the 3-D printer in CBH to support NASA’s development of 3-D printing in space.

The project examined the effectiveness of printing by sending the designs from earth to space, allowing plans to be flexible by printing one set of parts for one use, melting them down, then reusing the material to print another set of parts for a different use, drastically reducing the cost of certain missions.

“If you need one set of tools going to Mars, maybe once you get to Mars you need a separate set of tools,” Ali said. “It saves you from bringing so much mass into space.”

Ali later used his experience to consult the UA lab, advising Graettinger and other faculty on which technologies would be most effective on campus as a result of his research.

Students will be able to use the lab at no cost to them. Graettinger said the lab will be tracking factors such as the users, material use and costs. But instead of the cost to run the lab, the focus is on encouraging students to make their creations come life.

“These 3-D printers will allow you to print anything you want,” Graettinger said. “It’s really a shift from manufacturing by few to manufacturing by everybody.”

 Source: Marc Torrence – Crimson White

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