3-D printer a boon for science students


3-D-printer---DumanIt seems like magic: Design a model on your computer, and a fancy machine squirts it out as a three-dimensional object, right here in the physical universe. This is the new frontier of 3-D printing, and the technology acquired by UIndy’s Department of Physics & Earth-Space Sciences promises to expand possibilities for students and their laboratory work, especially in physics and engineering courses.

Traditionally, department chair Tim Duman says, when specialty components and enclosures are needed for experiments, students have fabricated the items from various combinations of wood, metal, cardboard, polystyrene, and other materials. The possibilities are limited, and the process can be time-consuming, messy, and even dangerous if power tools are involved.

Enter the LulzBot TAZ 4 desktop 3-D printer, a product of Colorado-based open source hardware company Aleph Objects Inc. The new machine can produce items in plastic, nylon, and even exotic materials like wood. Its printing volume is nearly 12 by 11 by 10 inches. “Now I can say, if you can design it and it fits in this space, we can have it,” Duman says. The capability lends itself to physics courses in which students need specialty parts for rocket tests, meteorology, and astronomy courses that involve self-contained high-altitude balloon experiments, and engineering courses in computer-aided design and testing. The simple fact of being able to produce physical models of virtual designs can help students stay engaged in their coursework, says Associate Professor Steve Spicklemire. “We’re trying to connect real-world, hands-on stuff with high-level theory,” Spicklemire says. The printer can be connected to a laptop or controlled simply by plugging in an SD memory card containing the design. The printing material is purchased in spools of thin filament. So far, the faculty have been experimenting with Lego-like ABS, a common thermoplastic.