3D printer capabilities form the future of higher ed

Behind the scenes of effective campus 3D printing operations
By: | Issue: June, 2017
May 29, 2017

Amid students cutting textiles, making shoes, firing ceramics and making prints at the Parsons School of Design’s Making Center in midtown Manhattan is a whole wall of 3D printers. The 28,000-square-foot center’s 15 MakerBot printers churn out everything from jewelry and lacey sculptures to small figurines and architectural models.

Having all the printers in one place is important for both service and cost. “We can take advantage of the volume and offer everything students need while saving money,” says Will McHale, director of the Making Center.

As a result, the $15 million center is one of the busiest places on the school’s urban campus.

3D printing may be new to many higher education administrators, but for students it’s already old hat, as they were likely introduced to it in middle or high school. “3D Printing has changed dramatically over the past couple of years,” says Jesse Roitenberg, national education manager at Stratasys, a provider and consultant for 3D printers.

“There are more low-cost options, which has led to elementary and middle schools purchasing, which has led to the high schools, colleges and universities having to step up their game.”

Technology consultant Terry Wohlers estimates the industry saw over $6 billion in sales in 2016 and is growing at 17 percent a year. Colorado-based Wohler Associates, his marketing and analysis firm, tracks 113 higher ed programs that offer 3D printing.

The 3D printing concept of additive manufacturing turns the established industrial world on its head.

Rather than traditional subtractive manufacturing—where material is removed with saws, milling machines or other venerable techniques to reveal the final object—3D printing builds the object a tiny (often microscopic) layer at a time based on a computer-generated design. It’s not only more precise but produces less waste.

“It’s the future of making things,” says Elliott Levine, distinguished technologist at HP. “Every student deserves the opportunity to at least try it out or at best become an expert. Hardly a department in the modern university is untouched by the 3D printing revolution.”

As with any technology with a growing presence on campus, it’s important for administrators to consider best practices for 3D printing so the institution gets its money’s worth.

Beyond engineering

Engineering, materials science, design and software departments adopted 3D printing early. Now, art, architecture, anthropology and medical students increasingly use the technology to visualize and create complicated forms.

In fact, the range on campus is astounding, with biology researchers printing protein models to see how they might fit together and paleoanthropologists recreating the skull of an ancient ancestor that lived 2 million years ago.

When multiple disciplines use printers, campuses should strongly consider consolidating the devices in a 3D lab. Duke University’s Innovation Co-Lab, for example, houses 60 3D printers that can produce a variety of items in different materials.

“Putting them all in one place allows us to have the variety of equipment needed and staff it with technicians to help students get it right,” says Evan Levine, the lab’s director.

Students can walk in with a design on a memory stick or upload it to the lab’s cloud servers for printing. Last year, the lab executed 13,000 print jobs. Users can typically pick up their completed item in a day or two.

The University of Texas at El Paso’s WM Keck Center for 3D Innovations puts the emphasis on its staff and on preparing the designs for printing. “We spend a lot of time prepping the files and combining smaller parts together to take advantage of larger machines,” says David Espalin, associate director of the WM Keck Center.

“Being thoughtful about how they’re utilized lets us get by with fewer printers.”

In fact, HP’s Levine claims that using the latest large-format 3D printers lets campuses save as much as 50 percent compared to smaller desktop systems that are cheaper to acquire but more expensive to operate. “This economy of scale helps to keep costs under control,” he says.

Such printers are available from HP as well as Stratasys and MakerBot.

Fee models

It may be called printing, but there are few similarities between paper and 3D devices. Rather than completed jobs piling up in the printer’s output tray for students and faculty to pick up, a technician needs to carefully remove the previous job from the printer, re-level the system and check on the raw material supply before starting the next project.

Factoring in the estimated 30 minutes of maintenance per week that each system requires, 3D printing can be a labor-intensive operation.

As 3D printing spreads across the curriculum, how students pay for their creations is a work in progress. At the moment, it seems like no two schools have the same policy. For instance, Duke doesn’t charge students and treats the cost of the machines, staff and raw materials as part of the university’s infrastructure.

In contrast, Parson charges students based on the volume or weight of the raw materials used and the type of 3D printer. A 4-ounce project might cost about $35.

The 3D printing lab at Texas State University’s Alkek Library takes a hybrid approach to fees: charging for the raw materials and the time needed to create the item. A 4-ounce prosthetic arm, for example, would cost a student $115 to make.

This covers only the raw materials and upkeep on the machinery—the rest of the expense is covered by the school’s Instructional Technologies Support budget, says Scott Johnson, the lab coordinator.

Print it somewhere else

Campus officials contemplating shelling out several million dollars to outfit a 3D lab might consider an alternative: outsourcing some or all of the printing. There are dozens of off-site services—including Shapeways, Selecto and Voodoo Manufacturing—that print 3D items for colleges.

“The upside is that there’s little or no cost to the school’s infrastructure and the price of the models produced are competitive,” says Lauren Slowik, education design evangelist at New York-based Shapeways, which has relationships with hundreds of colleges.

Some retain the service for all 3D printing; others use it during the busy period at the end of the semester or for specialty materials, like platinum or sandstone.

While most schools have only two or three different printing materials, Shapeways can work with 60.

After receiving the item’s printing file, Shapeways creates the object and ships it to the student in a couple of days. A bonus is that students who register with the company using their college email address get a 15 percent discount. The company also offer grants to students with interesting designs.

Plus, for budding entrepreneurs, Shapeways will sell student designs on its marketplace website.

Startup stimulus

The 3D printing effort at UTEP further blurs the line between school and commerce with America Makes, its in-house 3D printing business. Anyone can upload a file to order just about any sort of 3D model, but the intent is not to turn 3D printing into a profit center for the college.

The goal is to provide on-the-job training for students who are highly sought after by industry, Espalin says.

“The real idea is to give students the experience of working in a 3D manufacturing environment,” he adds. “It turns learning into manufacturing.”

And that’s what higher education should be all about: anticipating the needs of next-generation students with novel instruction and training.

They not only can master 3D printing, but also will launch the next wave of multibillion dollar companies that make everything from custom eyeglass frames to an iPhone car-adapter to a soap dish shaped like a Roman Aqueduct.

Brian Nadel is a Pelham, New York-based technology writer.