3-D printing turns into a teaching tool for area students

By Bethany Knipp

A burgeoning technology, 3-D printers can make everything from gears and blocks to houses.

But in the basement of Rathbone Hall at Kansas State University, electrical and computer engineering students are using the printers for their hobbies.

Jake Sobering, a junior electrical engineering major, is the president of the Electronics Design Club, which oversees a $3,500 3-D printer, purchased a year and a half ago.

“It’s all about whatever each individual student wants to do so we bring them in and let’s say they have an interest in quadcopters, or robots, or something, and we go ‘OK, we can help you with robots,’” Sobering said.

The printer has gotten its fair share of use — exactly 1,179 hours as of Wednesday afternoon.

Some students use the printer for practical projects. Others are just fun.

“We have a lot of members who do just weird, random things like D&D figurines (Dungeons and Dragons),” Sobering said. “They print out a lot of miniatures for themselves.”

Andthestudentsdon’tevenhave to design them themselves.

“The software to design something like that is free online,’ Sobering said.‘It’skindofahassletogetto the printer but we make it work.’

Club treasurer David Schall, a senior electrical and industrial engineering major, used the printer to make his own parts for a drink mixer called Juicy Jarvis.

Schall said 3-D printing saves him money and he has his own at home that can print with 16 different materials, including wood using a mixture of sawdust and glue.

“(If) a part doesn’t exist that I need or they’re too expensive, for example, the peristaltic pumps, it’s a real thing, but I redesigned them because they can get really expensive ...,” Schall said.

Printing parts can take hours. The 3-D printer melts colored plastic and layers the material on its tray. It doesn’t look much different than a paper printer.

“Think about laying (hot glue) layer by layer, and you just keep buildingontopofit,”Soberingsaid.

Sobering is also working on a podcopter, a small flying vehicle, on which he hopes to eventually attach a camera.

On a whiteboard in the 3-D printing room, there’s a long list of projects that will most likely have parts made on a 3-D printer. The names of such projects indicate some of them could be classified. Examples include “The Sword Fighting Robots” and “Fusion Reactor of Death.”

K-State has other 3-D printers that are housed in its mechanical engineering and architecture departments. But high schools are also using them, too, including Manhattan High School. At Manhattan High, industrial technology teacher Monty Enright thought a 3-D printer would be good for his students.

He said after teaching at Manhattan Area Technical College for years, he knew it would be a “real strong plus for the drafting program.”

MATC, he said, bought a $25,000 printer several years ago. It is just a little bit bigger than a standard printer and prints in a closed environment. At the high school, the printing unit is open, which makes temperature control more challenging.

He said 3-D printing is a way for students to check their designs.

“If there’s a mistake it’s difficult to determine that with a computer but very easy to determine once the prototype is built,” Enright said. “If the model is done incorrectly, the printer won’t print it. The kids don’t like that, but I do.”

A Kansas Department of Education grant covered most of the printer’s $3,000 cost, Enright said.

“The easiest project that they make is just a key chain from designs that I give them,” he said.

Advanced students have also made dragsters, a ping pong paddle and parts for larger, assembled pieces.

“I try to let the kids be creative,” Enright said.

Typical 3-D printers can’t make very large items.

“It’s really pretty unlimited whatever items you want to draw as long as it’s not too big,” Enright said.

He said the printer restricts objects to about 8 inches in width and depth and 6 inches tall.

Schall said this is only the beginning. A Chinese company has already printed panels for houses, making them less expensive.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg for 3-D printing,” Schall said. “There’s a lot to it. A lot of innovation’s going into it. It’s a growing technology right now that’s still in its baby phase. It’s getting up there to start being on the consumer level.”

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