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3-D printing adds new dimension to first-year engineering

The addition of 3-D printing capabilities promises to add a whole new dimension to The Ohio State University College of Engineering’s nationally recognized First-Year Engineering Program.

“We’re in the beginning stages of introducing 3-D printing technology into the first-year program, using some accessible equipment, to give students a feel and a flavor for what it’s all about,” said John Merrill, director of the First-Year Engineering Program.

Focused on experiential learning, the First-Year Engineering Program, based in the Engineering Education Innovation Center (EEIC), exposes incoming students to the field of engineering through project-based design courses.

The EEIC purchased 12 new MakerBot Replicator 2 desktop 3-D printers for engineering students to move beyond just modeling objects. Each freshman Buckeye engineer will learn how to manufacture their own creations and see firsthand how to refine their work. The printed objects can then be incorporated into the students’ design-and-build team projects or used to enhance lab learning.

“The idea is to take the traditional field of engineering graphics and extend it into the 21st century,” Merrill said. “Not only using 3-D technology as far as computer animation is concerned, but also turning that into actual objects that the students can program and print.”

In order to print a three-dimensional object, 3-D printer software first slices the design into thin horizontal layers. The object is then printed a single layer at a time—in the case of the MakerBots using a renewable PLA, or Polylactic acid, bioplastic. The printed objects aren’t completely solid, but are instead filled in a hexagon pattern. Users can change the infill, or the size of the hexagon, based on the desired strength of the final object.

With 3-D printing, lack of skill or experience is removed as a barrier to manufacturing parts, explained Stuart Brand, program support specialist.

“Before, students would have an idea, create it in the CAD package, go over to our small shop in Smith Lab, pull out some hand tools and maybe get something that sort of looked like what they were trying to do,” he said. “Using the 3-D printers is a lot more like modern manufacturing, or at least prototyping. Students can make the part and use it immediately. It speeds up the design cycle and design process.”

Using the 3-D printers also requires students to think about manufacturing processes in new ways.

“Certain parts and geometries can’t be made well in the 3-D printer, so students have to keep that in the back of their minds,” said mechanical and aerospace engineering major Josh Stauffer, a student instructional assistant. “Just as a normal design engineer, when they’re making a part, has to keep in mind how it’s actually being made. It’s an introduction to the fact that they can’t just make anything and have it come out at the other end.”

The 3-D printing capability also enables the engineers who design the labs used in the first-year engineering courses to print parts on demand and improve equipment in ways not previously possible.

“The 3-D printers are really good for when you’re trying to come up with new ideas or make new things, because you can make your part relatively quickly,” said Instructional Lab Supervisor Neil Gardner. “If a part doesn’t work out right, it didn’t cost that much money to make, and you can make changes and print another part fairly quickly.”

Having 12 printers enables staff to enhance the first-year engineering courses taken by 1,900 students on the Columbus campus, and the Ohio State regional campuses in Lima, Mansfield, Marion and Newark.

“It’s really nice that you can design something in SolidWorks CAD software, then print the part out to see how it fits and works with whatever we’re trying to build or develop,” said Stauffer. “We can go ahead and just make one and, within a day, say ‘this is good’ and turn on all the machines and let them crank out parts.”

But the First-Year Engineering Program faculty and staff are most excited about the students’ reactions to the new technology.

“Working with a couple of other teaching assistants about my age and my point in our engineering careers, we said, ‘man if we had those things, it would have been so great!’” said Stauffer. “What’s really exciting is that the students will be able to immediately see what they can do and what technology is out there.”