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3-D printer helps students design faster

| Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, 10:21 a.m.
Westmoreland County Community College student Sean O'Donnell of Greensburg explains how the school's new 3-D printer operates on Nov. 7, 2012. Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Westmoreland County Community College student Max Inks of Greensburg displays a prototype of a human finger at the school's Youngwood campus on Nov. 7, 2012. Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Westmoreland County Community College student Sean O'Donnell of Greensburg uses a computer program to create a virtual prototype of a human hand at the school's Youngwood campus on Nov. 7, 2012. Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review

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

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