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The University of Alabama

College of Engineering Opens 3-D Printing Lab

No longer a future technology, 3-D printing is becoming more commonplace in manufacturing and business, prompting the College of Engineering to open a lab that encourages creativity among faculty and students.

No longer a future technology, 3-D printing is becoming more commonplace in manufacturing and business, prompting the College of Engineering to open a lab that encourages creativity among faculty and students.

By Adam Jones

The UA 3-D Printing Lab is free to anyone on campus to test the bounds of the relatively new technology of additive manufacturing, the process of creating objects by layering material on itself. In its first semester, the lab has already attracted faculty and staff from art, theater, biology, engineering and the other sciences eager to use the technology.

“The lab will allow us to better prepare our students for the sorts of environments they will see when entering the work force and help them develop the skills so critical in getting products to market,” said Dr. Charles L. Karr, dean of the College. “We made the decision to open the laboratory to students across the campus because it allows for the added benefit of providing engineering students with access to a truly cross disciplinary environment, one that will allow for innovation and creativity.”

The lab is a collection of new 3-D printers along with printers that were already in the College, said Dr. Andrew Graettinger, lab director and associate professor in the department of civil, construction and environmental engineering. There are three desktop-sized printers for smaller jobs, two commercial-scale printers for intricate or larger jobs and a wax printer used to make parts that can be later cast in metal. There is also a 3-D scanner that can create three-dimensional models from real-world objects. The 3-D printers generate accurate representations of parts designed in several software programs including SolidWorks, AutoCAD and Google SketchUp.

“We’re really on the cutting edge with the lab’s capabilities,” Graettinger said. “The College and University are in an excellent position for the future.”

The process is quick. The lab can receive a design and often print the part within a day, reducing fabrication, manufacturing or shipping delays, he said.

130293_MW_3D_Printing_LabThe 3-D printing works similar to a standard printer, but instead of printing flat words on paper with ink, 3-D printers build up layers of plastic and continue upward and outward to create objects, even those with moving parts. As the technology has improved over the past roughly 15 years, it has become cheaper and smaller, allowing for desktop-sized 3-D printers costing not much more than a personal computer. Graettinger said the technology’s impact could be similar to the printing press that made publishing easier and cheaper centuries ago.

“You’ve basically taken manufacturing and given it to everybody now,” he said.

Engineers of every stripe will likely use the technology in the coming years as it spreads to a broader range of industries and businesses, and the College’s lab will help UA students tinker with the technology outside the classroom, Graettinger said.

“We want to promote creativity, and that means keeping it open and free,” he said. “If there is a true need for the part, then we encourage people to turn their ideas into something they can hold in their hand.”

Already, engineering students working on projects have taken to the lab to make prototypes or usable parts, but others have also come. A biology professor printed out a model of a microscopic bug to show in class, Graettinger said. Students from the College of Arts and Sciences used the lab to print parts for theater set design, and art students print creative pieces for design courses.

“There are some very complex forms that would otherwise be extremely difficult to construct without this technology,” said Jamey Grimes, an instructor in the department of art and art history who teaches a 3-D design course popular with engineering students.

“Including this new tool just makes sense next to other traditional methods, especially in classes where the goal is thinking and creating in three dimensions,” Grimes said. “There is a lot of work involved in this type of project, so that a student on the band saw has as much to coordinate as someone working with a 3-D printer. The fundamental thinking and communication does not change.”

Working with the engineering 3-D Printing Lab and also with the Rodgers Science Library, which has an open-use 3-D printer, Grimes brought 3-D printed art from his students along with a printer to Kentuck Art Night recently in downtown Northport to showcase the technology’s possibilities.

“Lots of different people are using this technology, and it still feels new,” Grimes said. “Like any other tool, once people see how it works and get a chance to play, it can inspire new ideas. I find that when art and engineering collide, exciting things happen.”