The University of Richmond’s Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT) is now equipped with two printers that can convert digital files into 3-D objects.
Fred Hagemeister, liaison coordinator of the CTLT, said although the conversion involved extensive computation and complex mathematical equations, the printer’s software was designed to simplify the process for users.
These codes exceed 5.5 million lines. In comparison, the entire computer system of a Boeing 777 airliner, including flight controls, navigation and landing system, is only about 3 million lines.
The user’s only responsibility is to create an object using design software, Hagemeister said. After that, the printer does all the work: analyzes the object, mathematically divides it into layers that are .3 millimeters thick and produces a visual representation of what will be printed, Hagemeister said.
The actual 3-D printing process mimics the use of a hot glue gun. Just like the trigger of the gun pushes the glue stick forward, the printer has a motor that unwinds plastic from a large spool, and the plastic is directed through heat to initiate melting. The computer-controlled placement of the melted plastic gives the printing process technological superiority, Hagemeister said.
The real question is what should we do with this technology?
The CTLT team members asked students and faculty this question when they bought the first 3-D printer in November 2011. At $1,200, this printer was considered a low-cost technological purchase, and the purpose it would serve was left open to interpretation, Hagemeister said.
Three semesters ago, Fiona Ross, an art professor who focuses on sculpture, became the first professor to incorporate the printer into the curriculum of her class. Using SketchUp, a modeling program developed by Google to construct 3-D buildings for Google Maps, the students in Ross’ 3-D design class created cubes that had three parts and fit together like a puzzle. The design is sent to the printer, and about two hours later, a physical cube exists, Ross said.
“This type of technology is great because it allows the students to visualize and create something so tiny, so precise and so completely their own,” Ross said.
Biology professor Linda Boland used the printer to create a 3-D representation of a molecule from her experimental data. This model uses different colored plastics to show the structure of an ion channel, which regulates the flow of potassium ions in and out of cells. Presenting the ion channel in 3-D allows students to actually see the chemistry of the molecule, Hagemeister said.
These projects have shown that this type of technology can enrich and enhance academics, but the CTLT team members have been experimenting to determine how else this machine can be used. The team has created iPhone stands, shot glasses and even a bust of Yoda, Hagemeister said.
This seemingly endless array of possibilities inspired the CTLT members to invest in a second 3-D printer two weeks ago. This updated model cost $800 and can print twice as much material as the original printer. Students who are interested in learning how to use the printer are encouraged to submit their designs to the CTLT staff for review, Hagemeister said.
Both Hagemeister and Ross said they believed this technology would eventually become a staple in both households and classrooms.
“Until then, we want to make this technology as accessible as possible,” Ross said. “We want students to know that they have the ability to visualize, create, print out and own their designs. We want them to know it is possible to give form to their thoughts.”
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