Three-dimensional printing – or additive manufacturing – is one of the most exciting technological innovations in recent years. The process of creating products by meticulously combining thin layers of liquid plastic has revolutionized the way goods are manufactured, as well as the cost of these products. Now, educators worldwide are praising 3D printers as invaluable tools for college-level courses in a variety of fields – especially for the growing cadre of online universities that can now deliver materials to their students quickly and easily.
With the launch of NASA and the rise in computer-based technologies, college students flocked to engineering classes in the 60’s and 70’s. But since the 1980s, this number has been considerably reduced. Don Jalbert, a CAD/CAM mechanical design instructor at the Lewiston Regional Technical Center in Lewiston, Maine, believes that 3D printing enhances the engineering experience – and thus appeals to more young people. “When I taught CAD 10 years ago, the concepts were wholly theoretical because the students could not touch or feel the objects they created,” he said. “Now with the 3D printer, students can do much more than draw a part. They can evaluate it, refine it, assess how it fits in a larger assembly, and hand it to people. The 3D printer is a great recruiting tool for getting students excited about engineering.”
However, 3D technology is not simply relegated to engineering courses. Architecture students are able to create models that not only contribute nicely to presentations, but also introduce key building concepts on a much smaller scale. Biology students can produce three-dimensional molecular models to assist with their research. And fine arts students can generate sculptures, ornaments and other pieces for exhibition.
3D printing technology is also at the forefront of many exciting specialized academic programs. One example is the work of Dr. George H. Huang, professor and chair of the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Wright University in Ohio. In recent years, additive manufacturing has been the core of Dr. Huang’s micro air vehicle (MAV) design program. Much like a larger unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), MAVs are used by the U.S. Border and Custom Protection Agency to monitor suspicious activity. Unlike UAVs, MAVs are designed to patrol indoor areas. Using biomimicry principles, Dr. Huang and his students have designed a prototype that imitates the physical properties of a dragonfly. The professor intends to someday produce a model that weighs no more than five grams, and fits into the palm of a human hand.
Other programs have utilized the same technology in equally innovative ways.
- The CAM-LEM program at Case Western Reserve University uses stereolithography to improve the joints and surface details of various laminates.
- The Laurentian University Mining Automation Laboratory explores alternative ways to extract minerals from the Earth.
- The Berkeley Manufacturing Institute conducts research to determine the most efficient means of Internet-based part design and manufacture.
- The Rapid Prototyping Laboratory at the University of Waterloo in Canada uses laser technology to fabricate bone implants and create cellular structures for communications purposes.
The concept of 3D printing might seem straight out of a science fiction novel, but today it is very real. As researchers continue to explore the capabilities of this fascinating technology, educators are using it to breathe new life into academic programs long-regarded as ‘boring’ or ‘dry’. The result is a generation of students with a vast appreciation for engineering and design that has not been seen in 40 years.
Guest Blog Author: Estelle Shumann
Estelle Shumann is a writer interested in a wide range of educational methods. She currently writes and researches about online education.