From afar, it looks like any old office copy machine.
Upon closer inspection, it’s clear that the whirring, boxy contraption permanently cemented into the concrete floor is building something, offering viewers a glimpse of its deliberate, painstaking processes through a concave glass window arching over the device’s top end. A printer head, virtually the same found in any home inkjet, is meticulously spraying layer upon layer of resin into six U-shaped patterns of various colors, its progress invisible to the naked eye. A second, nearly identical device sits about two feet to the machine’s left.
In eight hours, the instrument on the right will have created six fully-functional whistles, each about 3 inches in length, to be handed out as souvenirs to visitors at the Tyler School of Art’s 3-D printing laboratory.
Stanley Lechtzin, founder and head of Tyler’s metals/jewelry/CAD-CAM program, has been at Temple since 1962 and helped bring these two printers to the art school in 2010, at the cost of more than $100,000 each.
“We were definitely the first, but now it’s all over in virtually every discipline,” Lechtzin said, peering through prescription safety goggles. “Medicine, engineering, mathematics, you name it. People are developing new applications in great speed and great profusion. My students are going out and buying [models] so they can then test their ideas at home, just as you would with a draft on a regular 2D printer.”
Lechtin said Tyler’s original machine, purchased around the turn of the new millennium via a grant from Tiffany and Co., was the first at any university in the nation. Since then, he’s watched the technology develop and drop in price, so much so that Temple’s TECH Center will begin offering smaller-scale 3D printing this semester.
In essence, 3D printers turn digitally-created models into physical objects at the click of a button. Users first create a full-scale model of their desired shape — be it a wedding ring or a set of dentures — using standard 3D drafting software. Lechtzin’s students mainly use a program called Rhinoceros.
When students are finished, the file is saved in a format that allows the printer to convert the shape into thousands of miniscule, printable layers. The file is sent to the printer, and the machine goes to work.
Lechtzin’s “flagship” machine is the Objet Eden350V, a solid, navy blue box that measures roughly 4-feet long by 4-feet tall. The 350V can print using a wide variety of plastics, from hard, opaque material used for piping, to softer, rubber-like medical plastic.
Lechtzin said the TECH Center’s new machines, manufactured by a company called MakerBot, are both smaller in size and lower in overall print quality than Tyler’s.
“There’s this great profusion of small, relatively inexpensive printers,” Lechtzin said. “These small printers don’t have the capacity or the resolution but have the speed and a very low price tag. I would have given anything to get one when I first started.”
Lecthzin said the technology has had a staggering effect on just about any major involved in manufacturing. His students, for example, use the printing lab to efficiently create jewelry, design usable products and rapidly prototype projects like toys or tables with a fraction of the effort it would take to otherwise build standard projects by hand.
“There isn’t any discipline that I can think of that isn’t some way impacted by 3D printing, just as the word processor has impacted everyone,” Lechtzin said over the rhythmic hum of the lab’s equipment.
Shriram Pillapakkam, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Temple, watches his students rapidly prototype projects each day, printing prototype parts for freshman hovercraft projects at a relatively instant rate.
“For students, it’s an exceptionally useful tool,” Pillapakkam said. “If they’re working on a project, they have whatever parts they want immediately. If it’s a complex part that they don’t have the skills to machine, it’s easy to just model it in a computer program and hit print. [It’s] that simple.”
A common trait among all 3D printers is that they each work layer by layer, building up sheets of resin or plastic upward from the bottom of an object. According to the website of Objet’s parent company, Stratasys, Lechtzin’s machine prints one 16-micron layer at a time. One micron represents one-thousandth of a millimeter, which means that a 5-inch object would take roughly 7,900 passes of the printer head to complete. Lechtzin said the average print job takes multiple hours and costs a student about $15.
Joe Williams, systems and technology manager at Temple Computer Services, said the TECH Center’s new, microwave-esque machine, the MakerBot Replicator 2X, came to the computer lab as a way to extend 3D printing to the common student, one that otherwise would have no knowledge of or access to rapid prototyping machinery.
“What we wanted to do was bring this technology to students en masse,” Williams said. “Unfortunately, if you aren’t an art student or an engineering student, you don’t have access to these resources. We’ve got business students that want to make prototypes of things.”
Williams said Temple will join Drexel University, the University of Michigan, Cornell University and a few other schools as some of the first colleges to offer 3D printing to all students, regardless of major.
“Some people just probably want to have fun with it,” Williams added, holding up a small figurine of a minion from the film “Despicable Me” printed as a test model.
Representatives from MakerBot estimate that virtually all schools and colleges have at least one of their models somewhere on school grounds.
A small section of graduate MJCC student Rachel Fine’s project, a set of body adornments designed to unfold and grow when the user becomes anxious or angry, began printing in Lechtzin’s lab at 1 p.m. It will not finish until 9:30 p.m.
Despite the relative lag, Fine said she’s ecstatic about the technology and its possibilities.
“I don’t think it’d be possible to make this [without 3D printing],” Fine said as Lechtzin peered over her 3D file. “This material is flexible when thin and firm when thick, and that’s not something that exists outside of 3D printing.” Fine is also Lechtzin’s lab assistant.
“As we approach this, it’s not a substitute for anything else,” Lechtzin said. “It’s a new medium. It allows the artist to think about things that they would otherwise never consider.”
Jerry Iannelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jerryiannelli.