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3D Printing

The 3D printer prints white plastic model

At the Digital Forefront of Creative and Technological Design

By Taylor Smith | Lead photo from shutterstock.com

As a medium, 3D printing’s roots stretch back to the 1980s, but it has since grown into a technology that provides artistic experimentation and manufacturing-grade industrial products. 3D printers also find applications in architecture and design, building models that provide mathematically accurate prototype design concepts. A wide range of people are using 3D printers these days — there are 3D printers for home use that are geared towards young teenagers and adults, and those for multimillion-dollar businesses and universities that conduct regular work on them.

Imaginepaper Crafts Pallas’ Cat Sculpture; $10; etsy.com.

In terms of expanding the production and use of mechanical parts, 3D printing allows laypeople to take matters into their own hands, rather than relying on manufacturers. All that is required is access to a nearby 3D printer, a few lessons, and a model diagram of what it is you want to produce. Of course, materials are also a factor. Most local 3D printing services, like the Plainsboro Public Library, will offer thermoplastic filament such as PLA (polylactic acid) or ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene). According to Darren Miguez, director of the Plainsboro Public Library, “PLA is a lower melting point thermoplastic and very forgiving; it’s great for rapid prototyping and general use. ABS is harder, akin to LEGO pieces, but is less forgiving of changes in room temperature; it gets a lot of use making parts for robotics teams in the local area, and replacement parts that require increased durability. These two filaments meet the needs of almost every job we have processed. We charge generally 3 cents per ounce to cover the cost of materials, and nothing more.”

Resin 3D printing is a bit more complicated and does involve the handling and cleanup of toxic materials, which is best done at a lab or worksite. Websites like Thingiverse, Printables, Etsy, MyMiniFactory, and Thangs provide instructions for pre-designed 3D objects that can then be produced at the Plainsboro Public Library or New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT).

There are also 3D modeling software options for a variety of skill levels, from the novice to someone who uses 3D printing professionally. These include Tinkercad (beginners), Meshmixer (intermediate), FreeCad (intermediate to professional), and Blender (advanced to professional).

At my own regional public library outside of New Jersey, there is a Creative Studio where a 3D printer is regularly used by library patrons. The room also contains graphic design software, a sophisticated podcasting station, sewing machines, and video editing software. In other words, it is a hub of activity on any given day of the week and people of all ages use the space for personal projects.

I was struck one day to learn that a patron had successfully used the 3D printer to replace a missing part in his refrigerator. This refrigerator was old and the company was based in Italy, making the cost of shipping and replacing the part very expensive. He said that his refrigerator would not function without this broken part and that he preferred not to replace the entire appliance. Instead, the manufacturer in Italy sent him a technical drawing of the part, which he then used for the 3D printer software. The part was successfully printed, and the cost of printing was less than $2. All that was left was for someone to install the part — an overall winning solution.

Technically speaking, 3D printing is an additive technology, since each item is built one layer at a time, using specific materials. Computer-guided laser beams will melt powders of plastic, composite material, and metal to create and shape each object. Prior to 3D printing, traditional manufacturing and construction involved taking a large piece of metal (or some other type of material) and cutting it down in size until it was shaped properly. Some major manufacturing companies that are now using additive technology include General Electric, Boeing, Ford, Nike, the Hasbro toy company, and NASA.

3D printing technologies continue to have a substantial impact on the medical and dental industries. For example, hearing loss poses a significant and multifaceted challenge for people around the world. Hearing aids are ideally suited to 3D printing technology because they are easily personalized with an impression of each person’s ears and the cost and time involved in production is significantly less than it used to be. Today’s hearing aids are patient-matched devices that fit comfortably in or around the outer part of the ear. They are also known for improved longevity and optimal performance — a far cry from the whistling hearing aids of the past.

In terms of other medical usage, 3D printing has been utilized for prosthetic limbs, human organ transplants, surgical procedures, and surgical tools. A longstanding issue for children with prosthetic limbs is that they grow out of them very quickly. The effective additive technology also allows for better fitting prosthetics. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology continue to work on designing more comfortable prosthetic sockets (media.mit.edu).

In fact, explains Miguez, Plainsboro Public Library “worked with an Eagle Scout to print pieces for 150 prosthetic hands that the scout then assembled to add tension elements; these were donated to amputees in need via enablingthefuture.org, a nonprofit that works to provide designs for 3D printed prosthetics and connects volunteers with people who need these prosthetics.”

“During the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown, we printed face shield parts and mask size adapters that were then assembled by volunteers and sent to first responders and medical personnel when local supplies of commercially available masks and face shields had been consumed,” he continues. “We send these through a volunteer network for contact-free delivery.”

3D printing is also a natural fit for the worlds of art, architecture, and design. For many creative types, additive technology literally brings their vision off the page and into life, as a 3D sculpture, building model, and realistic visualizations. In fact, 3D printing is a great way for artists and architects to troubleshoot as they are able to see their ideas transformed into a realistic visual plane.

An entry in the NJIT Bridge Competition.

NJIT invites New Jersey high schools to compete in a yearly bridge competition. The annual event is announced in the fall and the competition takes place on NJIT’s campus in the spring.

William H. Pennock III, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at NJIT, explains, “The teams, often in the context of a STEM class or a club, work with a coach at their school and often a mentor who is an engineer or other professional in the built-environment industry. They design a bridge that has to meet geometric constraints in the rules and 3D print it. The bridge has to consist of multiple parts, and at the day of the competition, the teams are timed to see who can assemble their bridge fastest. They also present on their design process and inspiration. Once the bridge is checked for compliance, it is placed on a stand with increasing weight hung from the middle (center span) of the bridge.

“Most bridges weigh only about a pound and can hold around a factor of 100 of their weight. We’ve had bridges hold up to 500 pounds and not break in the past. We also check how much each bridge bends at a specific weight and compare, with the bridge that is the stiffest (bends the least) getting a high score in that category. This past year, we had 14 teams from around New Jersey compete, and the team from Governor Livingston High School [in Berkeley Heights] won the overall competition. The competition is named after David Good, a principal at MRCE [Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers], who played a central role in conceiving the idea for this competition, which he saw as a way to bring underrepresented high school students into STEM professions. Sadly, he passed away unexpectedly in 2023, and we carry on the competition in his name.”

There is also a collegiate bridge-building competition that was first begun in 2021. The initial year included engineering students from Stevens Institute of Technology, NJIT, and Princeton University.

“After that, NJIT applied to make it an American Society of Civil Engineers competition similar to the Steel Bridge and Concrete Canoe competitions they run for civil engineering students on an annual basis,” says Pennock. “Our first ASCE pilot was in 2023. This year, we had four competitions hosted by Stony Brook University (where NJIT took first place), George Mason University, Purdue University Northwest, and Missouri S&T. We are growing this competition and hope it will become a truly national competition soon.”

The first 100 percent bio-based 3D-printed home unveiled at the University of Maine. BioHome3D technology could help solve the housing crisis and combat global climate change. (Advanced Structures and Composites Center/University of Maine)

Architects and other design professionals are increasingly turning to 3D printers to produce tangible, highly-detailed architectural models that they can be taken into account when working on any sort of project. These models also help to identify flaws in the design or engineering and can often be a source of information for the construction site. 3D printing models are made using the CAD data (computer-aided design used to create models or architectural plans). 3D models are also helpful for pitching a project to a client, since most clients want to see a clear picture of what the final project will look like.

3D-printed signage at the Plainsboro Public Library.

Plainsboro Public Library offers free classes on 3D design using the TinkerCAD platform. Students in introductory classes will all design and print their own object. For 3D printing requests, visit https://plainsborolibrary.org/3d-printing/.

On the subject of 3D printing as an experiment and an art form, says Miguez. “The benefits of 3D printing here in Plainsboro are numerous. Being able to conceptualize a piece of art, a prototype part, or a piece for a Halloween costume and after designing it see it printed and become a real object is nothing short of magical. Seeing an idea you had made real is empowering and just exciting.”

He continues, “Having a way for local students to produce pieces for science experiments or robotics projects easily and cheaply is  revolutionary. Previously machine shops would have been required, and often priced out of reach of most people, let alone students. By introducing folks to these skills and this technology, we’re providing a space for creativity and technological equity…. In terms of local industries, the value of rapid prototyping is incredible. Being able to 3D print a part, check for size, and then order a metal fabricated piece based on your prototyped part and 3D design file speeds up manufacturing and experimentation.”

In terms of art museums and historic preservation, 3D printing can potentially be used by institutions to create replicas and artifacts. These economical reproductions are ideal teaching tools for museum visitors and are a detailed way to preserve model forms of sculptures, artwork, architecture, and more.

The Metropolitan Museum of New York is now hoping to interact with patrons digitally. According to its website, “visitors can photograph objects in the museum and then create their own digital models.” The Met even has a guide on their website that shows people how to apply models of their art objects to a 3D printer (metmuseum.org/articles/3d-printing). More than 70 3D models from the Met’s collection are available to download for free at thingiverse.com/met/designs.

“The gap between idea and creation  is cut drastically when the means of production live here in your local library,” says Miguez. ”It opens up possibilities and provides an onramp towards careers in 3D design and manufacturing that local corporations use and universities teach.”

As 3D printing is the way of the future, everyone is encouraged to take a class at their nearest resource center. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, instead, imagine taking an idea from your head and seeing it in printed form. In this way, everyone is their own architect and creator!

Above and below: 3D printed architectural models. (Courtesy of Studio Hillier)

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