Architects, designers and engineers use 3-D printers to make research come to life
Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014
MANHATTAN -- Researchers and students at Kansas State University are thinking in three dimensions.
University engineers and designers are developing ideas from concept to prototype using some of the latest 3-D printers. The layer by layer printing process has helped professors and students explore new possibilities for creating prototypes, formula car parts, models, tools, and -- on a less conventional note -- eyeglasses, custom-made clothes and intricately designed puzzles.
In the College of Architecture, Planning & Design, two professors -- Dustin Headley, assistant professor of interior architecture and product design, and Nathan Howe, assistant professor of architecture -- are using 3-D printers to help students explore the limits of gravity and to challenge themselves as designers.
The college has two 3-D printers: a uPrint that uses strings of ABS plastic and a Form1 printer that uses liquid resin and lasers. Students in Howe's architecture classes have 3-D printed model pieces for projects while students in Headley's product design classes have printed tiles and product prototypes.
"The printers get students to operate at a scale where they can actually touch things," Headley said. "If they aren't engaging in that, then everything becomes kind of pie in the sky. When they are forced to make things more reasonable, students discover holes in the design that the computer fails to highlight in its gravity free environment."
The architects also say that using 3-D printers helps students learn important job-related skills and makes them more marketable.
"In architecture, we are designing in an age where it is possible to build more complex forms," Howe said. "However if you can design it in a computer, it doesn't necessarily make it right. The best tools the students have are their eyes. 3-D printers allow the students to make complex forms physical, allowing them to get a lot more information out of their design process. The printer provides a mechanism to strive for more complexity that can still be rationalized."
As the college obtains more 3-D printers, it becomes quicker and more cost-effective for students to use the technology. Headley and Howe already plan to integrate the printers in spring semester classes. Headley plans to have students use the Xbox Kinect to create body scans and design and print their own custom-fit apparel or action figures of themselves. He also plans to have students in product design courses print children's toys.
The architects also have used 3-D printers for their own research projects. Howe printed a model chair to better understand the manufacturing process and create a mold for the chair. Headley used a 3-D body scan to create an elaborate custom-fit armband. Both researchers earned awards for their work.
In the College of Engineering, a large 3-D printer uses multicolored ABS plastic to create parts, tools and prototypes for research and student projects. Another 3-D printer in the Electronics Design Laboratory also is used for research projects and prototypes.
In mechatronics classes, engineering students design robots and 3-D print the pieces. Several laboratories and the college's competitive design teams -- such as the SAE formula car and the SAE aero team -- use the large printer. Several laboratories, including the materials testing laboratory, also use the printer.
Perhaps one of the printer's biggest advantages is that it helps researchers prototype pieces more cost-effectively, said Eric Wagner, research technician for the department of mechanical and nuclear engineering who manages the large printer.
"We can print a product out of plastic much faster than machining one out of steel or aluminum," Wagner said. "The printer helps researchers check their design and make sure it is going to work before they invest the time and money to make the final product."
The larger printer runs nearly 24 hours a day. When classes aren't in session, the printer generates revenue by creating pieces for companies and industry, Wagner said. Past industry partnerships have involved a project with CrustBuster, a Dodge City-based company that makes wheat seed drills, and a partnership with an Oregon-based company to provide prototypes.
For students, the large printer is a valuable design tool. Some students are even using the 3-D printer to print pieces for another 3-D printer.
"The printer really helps students take an idea from a concept to a physical part," Wagner said. "They can go through all the steps, from design to finished product. The design is really the only limitation. If you can design it, we can pretty much print it."