The Cube 3D printer model can print 5.5 inches cubed over a period of a few hours.
Sean Sullivan/the Gauntlet

Building the future one layer at a time

U of C engineering has embraced 3D printing

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Three-dimensional printing technology will soon be more readily available for undergraduate engineering students. Traditionally available only to fourth-year University of Calgary engineering students doing their capstone design project, the department of mechanical and manufacturing engineering has made 3D printing available to second-year students in their computer-aided design course and a workroom is planned to open by spring semester for undergraduate students to use 3D printers outside of specific classes.

Allowing more opportunities for students to experience a variety of equipment earlier in their education is beneficial, said mechanical and manufacturing engineering department head Ron Hugo. Students will become more “comfortable with the technology by the time they get to their fourth-year design so they can go in and very quickly realize a product.”

3D printing is rapidly becoming 2013’s hot topic, with the manufacturing process already used to print machine parts, jewelry and new culinary delights — such as the collaboration between Cornell University’s computational synthesis laboratory and the French Culinary Institute in New York, a concept reminiscent of Star Trek’s food replicator. Though the ability to 3D print has been around for decades, recent innovations are pushing the technology to centre stage. Last month London-based architecture firm Foster and Partners announced plans to 3D-print habitats on the moon. This month, researchers at the Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, collaborating with stem cell company Roslin Cellab, revealed a technique that may soon print human organs. Cornell University researchers created a new ear through 3D printing and living cell injections.

But U of C engineering students shouldn’t expect to see those forms of additive manufacturing during their academic career just yet. 3D printers that can handle materials like titanium, for building medical implants or jewelry, can cost as much as US$1 million dollars.

“If the cost comes down, we may [purchase one],” Hugo said, “but right now it would be cost prohibitive. Plastic is probably what we’ll stick with.”

Hugo said the department has developed a similar system able to print metal. He co-supervised a PhD student experimenting with the process of laser sintering to fuse copper and iron particles with a carbon dioxide laser. “We won’t turn that over to the undergrads because the laser is quite powerful,” he said.

The mechanical and manufacturing engineering department purchased a Stratasys Titan shortly after 2001 for graduate students and research purposes. The printer model used fused deposition modeling, a process of layering heated plastics to print functional prototypes. Materials and design technician Brandon Ferguson said the Titan cost $380,000. Before that, Ferguson said the department was provided a cubital rapid prototyping system for research. The machine took up half the lab and weighed 16 tonnes, he said.

About three years ago, the department bought their second type of 3D printer, a Zprinter 450, for use in students’ capstone design projects. The printer, Hugo explained, sprays a type of crazy-glue to bond layers of powder into shapes. It is the size of a couple large photocopiers and had a suggested retail price of $39,900 upon release in 2007.

“One of the advantages is you can have variable colours,” Hugo pointed out. “The downside is that [the prototype] is very, very brittle.”

“We’ve found that students are not as keen with that as they are with the fused-deposition rapid-prototyping machine that will put out an ABS plastic,” Hugo said. “It’s more functional.”

Last summer the company 3D Systems came out with a new model that Hugo calls a “breakthrough technology” because of a lower cost. 3D Systems’s Cube 3D printing system costs US$1,299 and is about the size of a coffee maker. After purchasing one to try, the department bought eight, and Hugo said they are looking at getting more.

“The price has dropped significantly from the earlier machines that we purchased,” Hugo said.

The cost is so low compared to previous 3D printing models that Hugo said some of the researchers are simply buying them for their labs, rather than borrowing the department’s ones.

3D Systems’s Cubify system is relatively easy to use. Once a student has built a 3D design template on the computer, they run it through Cubify’s software, upload it to a USB drive and plug it into the Cube 3D printer. The student selects the file they wish to run and lets the machine go. The printer creates the shape over a couple of hours.

“The [models] we’ve had previously have needed a lot of tender loving care,” Hugo said. Problems, including print heads clogging, required a technician to be on hand at all times. The department expects fewer problems with the new “robust” Cube models.

The department plans to have a supervised workspace available by spring semester where engineering students can utilize the Cube printers.