3-D printer helps students design faster
By Kari Andren
Published: Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, 10:20 a.m.
When Westmoreland County Community College student Max Inks finds that a part doesn't quite fit in the robotic hand he's building, he doesn't have to wait weeks or even days to get a replacement.
Inks, 22, of Greensburg, works with a classmate to tweak the part's design using sophisticated computer software and outputs the new piece on the college's three-dimensional printer in a matter of hours.
The 3-D printer, about the size of a desktop laser printer, heats thin plastic strips and lays down the plastic and a support material on a printing plate one ten-thousandth of an inch at a time. The plate is put in a sodium hydroxide bath to dissolve the support material, leaving the ivory-colored plastic part.
Inks said he's trying to develop the robotic hand for a person who has lost an appendage but still has the muscle mass to operate one. The model he's developing has small motors at every joint to allow the fingers to move and bend.
Thanks to the 3-D printer, Inks has made nine generations of parts in two weeks, he said.
“The 3-D printer keeps the process moving so the innovation can continue,” said Doug Jensen, dean of workforce development at WCCC.
The cost and time needed to print, or output, an item depend on the complexity. A 3-inch ball bearing, for example, costs about $5 and takes roughly two hours to print, Jensen said.
“(3-D printing) is the future. There are lots of things you can do. ... We're not talking big cost,” Jensen said.
WCCC purchased the 3-D printer about two years ago for about $18,000 using federal grant money. Trustees approved using the grant funding to purchase a 3-D scanner and software for about $19,000 in October, with anticipated delivery in early December.
The 3-D scanner rotates around an object and sends the 3-D image to the computer software, where dimensions or other facets of the object can be changed or re-sized, Jensen said. That new object can be printed on the school's 3-D printer, he said.
WCCC could use the machines to help a company to alter an item's design quickly and cheaply or create a prototype, Jensen said.
The technology is part of the emerging field of additive manufacturing, which produces 3-D objects rather than cutting them out of a block of material.
“A big value in what additive manufacturing brings is reducing the amount of waste material,” said Scott Deutsch, manager of communications and special programs for the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining in Blairsville.
“In the world of 3-D printing, we're a direct link right to the world of design,” Deutsch said. “You don't need all the steps, the time, the manufacturing constraint. If you can draw it, we can print it.”
Deutsch's group serves as the program manager for the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, begun in August by President Obama.
The institute received an initial $30 million in federal funding matched by $40 million from the winning consortium, which includes 40 companies, nine research universities, five community colleges and 11 nonprofit organizations from the Ohio-Pennsylvania-West Virginia “Tech Belt.”
The University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University are among the research institutions participating.
“Our mission through NAMII is to bring additive manufacturing away from the research lab environment and helping to make it become a viable part of the manufacturing arsenal in the United States,” Deutsch said.
Jensen said the 3-D technology will move to WCCC's new workforce development facility when those programs relocate to the former Sony plant in East Huntingdon in spring 2014.
Jensen said WCCC's capabilities will serve as a recruiting tool to pull more companies into the space because WCCC can help them to create prototypes on site.
Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.