3-D printing provides innovative solutions

Cruise Hall

When the desktop computer first hit the market, it was a novel technology, but nobody really knew what to make of it. Only after college students put the computer to work in new, useful applications did it become the indispensable gadget that it is today. If the history of the personal computer offers any insight into the future of the 3-D printer, college students are going play a pivotal role defining that future.

The 3-D printer, like the personal computer, is not merely an improvement on older technology, it is new technology altogether.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve been manufacturing products in bulk by refining raw materials into a desired form. Subtractive manufacturing, as it’s called, is very expensive and requires that products be made in large quantities. The 3-D printer, in contrast, creates products in smaller quantities via additive manufacturing. By methodically adding material to a tray layer by layer, the printer literally builds – or extrudes – a product from the ground up.

In this way, the 3-D printer avoids all the costs associated with conventional production techniques and turns the manufacturing paradigm on its head.

Let me briefly emphasize that not all conventional wisdom is foolishness. Additive manufacturing has its own problems that need working out, and it can benefit from many age-old manufacturing strategies. It is, however, necessary to acknowledge the fact that the 3-D printer has a unique set of strengths that make it fit to solve problems that conventional manufacturing cannot.

In this area, students can bring something unique to the table. The 3-D printer needs college students who know nothing about the mass-production paradigm and are free to think outside the parameters of the economy of scale. Low-quantity production calls for an entirely new approach to manufacturing, and anyone who is able to see these new possibilities will be ahead of the curve.

Furthermore, the 3-D printer needs students from every discipline to create a culture of cooperative tinkering. As more eyes look at a problem, more solutions inevitably arise. Likewise, students with diverse backgrounds and skill sets can identify unique problems for which the 3-D printer is particularly fit to solve.

Ultimately, the 3-D printing industry will gain a little more ground every time a 3-D printer is used to solve a problem. For anyone interested in contributing in this way, learning about 3-D printers is a great place to start.

You can visit a number of websites devoted to showcasing industry trends and 3-D-printed products. If you feel inspired to design a product of your own, you can access a suite of computer-aided design (CAD) programs at several UA libraries. And for those looking for hands-on experience, the University has multiple 3-D printing initiatives that give students the opportunity to learn about 3-D printing and to solve problems with interdisciplinary teams.

The 3-D printer is just another problem-solving tool. It is only as useful as the solutions it affords, and students can lead the way in discovering those solutions.

Cruise Hall is a senior majoring in mechanical engineering.