2-D ideas become 3-D objects

Adrienne Burch

In a small room on the first floor of Hardaway Hall, ideas go from 2-D designs on computer screens to functioning 3-D objects in a matter of hours. The new College of Engineering 3-D printing lab has five 3-D printers capable of printing anything from models of bugs to working monkey wrenches.

“I think 3-D printing is going to be everywhere in the future,” Andrew Graettinger, associate professor in the college of engineering, said. “It’s probably going to be as common as a printer in your office or maybe in your house.”

The College of Engineering 3-D printing lab opened in January. The printers create objects designed using 3-D design software programs like AutoCAD, SolidWorks and Google Sketchup. The printers take designs from these programs and slice it from the bottom to the top to figure out what each layer will look like. Then, they lay down each layer of plastic and build from the bottom up.

“Creativity is blossoming because you can think of an idea, draw it up, print it and technically get it in your hands the next day,” he said. “Then you can try it in what you are trying to do and see if works and meets your requirements. And if it doesn’t you can redraw it, and we will print it again.”

Graettinger said the idea for the 3-D lab came when the Charles Karr, dean of the College of Engineering, showed interest in bringing the technology to campus this past summer.

“[Karr] knows it’s a technology that we need to have at the University, and he got the right people together to make it happen,” Graettinger said. “He gave us the directions and said to make sure this equipment is being used, and that’s why it’s open to anybody on campus to come over here and use.”

There are currently six students who work in the lab on a daily basis, processing up to five jobs a day from departments across campus. Jarr Strydom, a freshman majoring in mechanical engineering, started working in the lab when it opened in January.

“I feel like I’m getting a new toy every time I use this 3-D printer,” Strydom said.

The first 3-D printers were developed in the 1980s, but had strict patents and were very expensive. However, in the early 2000s the patents were relaxed and cheaper versions have become available. Now, 3-D printers can be purchased starting around $1,000.

“It’s a huge step forward in technology,” Strydom said. “It’s kind of like how computers used to be as big as a room or something, and then when they became really big they made the desktop computer. That’s what they did with the 3-D printer. They made it into a desktop printer, and you now you can have it in your room sitting on your desk.”

Strydom said the best part about this lab is anyone can use it, and there is no cost to the student.

“It’s absolutely free, and the University is trying to keep it free,” Strydom said. “If we were to charge it for what it costs, no one would use it.”

Graettinger said the price of the machines and staffing the lab actually is much more than cost of the materials actually being printed.

“Some of these machines can run for less than $50 a week, running all the time,” he said.

Graettinger said it’s hard to say what other Universities are doing when it comes to 3-D printing, but he does think this new lab is something special.

“A lot of individual research groups have their own printer in their laboratories, but the concept of having it organized in one place that is staffed where we support people’s ideas and know how to get things done; it is kind of unique,” he said.

Corey Brown, a junior majoring in aerospace engineering, also works in the 3-D printing lab. Brown said he has printed a topography map for an engineering professor and a mayfly for a biology professor, among other things.

“We also made a wrench, a monkey wrench that works like a charm,” Brown said. “It works straight out of the printer.”

Jamey Grimes, instructor in the art department, uses 3-D printing for his Art 131 3-D design course. He said he looks at 3-D printing from more of an art standpoint.

“I think of 3-D printing as just another tool I can use like foam, plaster, a band saw or some other tool,” Grimes said. “It’s an excellent tool and the right tool for certain jobs.”

Grimes said his most successful project involved the printing of the skeletal structure of a sea urchin.

“There is definitely some advantages to using printers like this because the printer allows for intricate detail,” he said. “If students aren’t already using 3-D design they should start learning now.”

Students or organizations interested in printing their designs or who want to know more information can email 3D@ua.edu