Shaping the future: VT makes push for 3D printing technology

In his mission to help shape the next the generation of mechanical engineers, Virginia Tech Professor Christopher Williams is making the push for an emerging field that deals with — well, shapes.

“It’s really important for our engineers to start learning about this technology, so that when they go off to their jobs they’ll actually know about the technology, they’re able to talk about it intelligently, and they’ll be able to use it,” said Williams.

The Mechanical Engineering Department at the university has several industrial 3D printers — machines that create 3D figures layer-by-layer out of materials like plastic and metal — but students have limited access to them.  So Williams turned to his graduate students to come up with something more accessible.  The end result — The Dream Vendor.

“The whole project is funded by students, created by students for students,” said Amy Elliott, a Virginia Tech graduate student who worked on the project.

They received funding from a student organization to build a small scale 3D printer that resembles a vending machine.  The Dream Vendor is free to students and uses a melted plastic to print whatever they can come up with.

“I’ve made a cell phone holder for my sister for her car,” said Elliott.  “I’ve also printed her broken wrist.  She gave me her CT scans and I turned that into 3D data and printed her a replica of her broken bones.”

To make it work, first you have to design a 3D model of whatever you want to print using a special program on a computer.  Then you save that file to a card, stick the card in the machine, hit start — and about 20 minutes later, your creation is complete.

The Dream Vendor made its debut in Randolph Hall at the end of the 2012 school year.  Williams says the response from students has far exceeded his expectations.

“It’s been wonderful,” said Williams.  “They’re in constant use.  Students are showing up early to get in line to use the printer.”

He says they’ve already gone through 220 pounds of the plastic material — and expects that number to get much higher as the printer experiences its first full school year.  To that end, Williams says it’s doing its job.

“We have students just doing this for fun to learn about the technology, to learn about how to do design, and manufacturing,” said Williams.  “And that’s really why it’s here.”

Williams says 3D printers are already being used to make Invisalign braces, hearing aids, parts to NASCAR engines, and even about a dozen pieces of the Mars Curiosity Rover.

“Everybody wants things personalized,” said Nick Meisel, another Virginia Tech graduate student who has worked on the project.  “So that’s where this technology really shines and that’s where you’re going to see it come in to industry and to people actually getting final products out of this.”



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