Arts explores: Thayer machine shop 3-D printers
Of the many technologies that have been developed at or gifted to the Thayer School of Engineering Machine Shop, the 3-D printer stands out in the way it attracts students from all disciplines to explore new ideas in design.
Dartmouth acquired the first 3-D printer in 1997 and subsequently obtained two more of these amazingly robust machines about 15 years ago, special instructor Peter Fontaine said.
Fontaine said that Dartmouth’s first 3-D printer was made by Stratasys, a company founded by Scott Crump.
“Scott Crump literally invented it in his backyard,” Fontaine said. “He invented the FDM (fused deposition modeling) process out in his garage.”
Machine shop manager Kevin Baron said that Thayer was able to get a lot of the 3-D printing technology before other institutions because of Dartmouth’s connection to Scott Crump’s father, Ralph Crump, who was an overseer at Thayer.
“One of the ways [Ralph Crump] likes to express gratitude to Dartmouth College is to donate these machines that his son had played such a key role in developing,” Baron said.
Baron said that there are three different 3-D printers in Thayer: the Stratasys model, called the Titan, the Z printer and the Objet.
“The Stratasys model is fused deposition,” Baron said. “It uses a thermosetting plastic and sort of mimics a glue gun to build material on a platform.”
The Z printer is the only printer that can print in color and with plaster. The Objet, their most popular machine, uses a spray jet and urethane material, to manipulate chemistry in real time to get different material properties as it produces products in 3-D. The Objet originally came from the physics department, Baron said.
“A professor from the physics department got this on a grant, and over time, he became a little flummoxed at being the go-to person for getting 3-D printing in the Physics department,” Baron said, “So I made a deal with him. I said, ‘Well, give it to us. We’ll train students to use it, we’ll do all your work for you and we’ll make it available for everybody.’ He was delighted to send it over here and we were delighted to have access to it for the larger Dartmouth community.”
The printers are used for a multitude of purposes, including iterations of student design projects, “one-of-a-kind parts” and specialized attachments for research equipment. Baron noted that students often use parts they have printed in 3-D in conjunction with other tools.
“I’m seeing objects, research apparatuses being built in the labs with a hybrid combination of parts that have been machined, parts that have been cast and parts that have been 3-D printed, all assembled together and now are making a working device,” Baron said.
Besides being useful tools for engineers, the 3-D printers are used by a variety of departments, including physics, computer science and studio art.
“Digital artwork is really becoming quite a big thing,” Fontaine said. “[The studio art department] doesn’t have a facility where they can produce things like that, particularly like our Titan, which will build up to 14 inches tall, so they can actually do a sculpture, scaled down but still big enough so they can actually see it in visualized proportions.”
Baron commented on the possibilities that 3-D design creates, including the ability to “generate physical models of shapes that occur in nature.”
As a manager of the machine shop, Baron largely hopes to close the gap between what students imagine and what they can actually create.
“That’s what makes these printers so attractive, because they’re one way of closing the gap in capturing ideas,” Baron said. “It empowers young designers who are just getting started. They find that with a series of keystrokes, they can make a real object from their imagination without any particular craft skills.”
Baron’s strategy is to turn over the 3-D printers to students and develop a student team that will manage the machines. Regarding a recent request by the Chemistry department to model molecules, Baron hopes to turn over some of that work to students.
“We don’t have time necessarily to support all that,” Baron said. “These processes however, are catnip to these students and by allowing maximum access to the equipment, we can keep things moving.”
While the machine shop has limited hours, students can access a 3-D printer any time they want at the FAB Lab, a separate machine shop facility that is open 24/7 to students after they have completed a short training session.
This training consists of a 20-minute video followed by a quick demonstration to prove that students understand how 3-D printing works.
“Students can come in here, download their designs and run this anytime they like,” Baron said. “Access is limited only by your ability to log on to the machine and access the software.”
Ivan Duong ’19, who started working at the machine shop this term, said that after only five weeks he had printed enough to be able to teach others. He has worked with the Mojo printer, which he called a “versatile machine” once students learn how to use Solidworks, the software Dartmouth printers operate on.
“It can make all your dreams come true, provided you can make those dreams in a 3-D software program,” Duong said.