This 3D ‘sci-fi technology’ is revolutionizing universities

Critical uses for 3D printing expand to all departments; faculty say it’s the future

3D-universities-technologyIn just the span of one year, a relatively new technology is beginning to transform every department within colleges and universities, thanks to its versatility, general affordability, and ‘wow’ factor: 3D printing. And from campus libraries to chemistry departments, faculty and students are reaping the benefits of what was once considered science fiction.

“If you can think of it, you can print it,” said Tony Frankino, assistant professor of biology in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Houston (UH), who believes that 3D printers are transforming university teaching and research.

The concept of 3D printing has been around since the 1980s, but advances in the technology–along with reduced costs–have made the printers more practical for everyday use in academia.

(Next page: How universities are using 3D every day)

UH is just one of many universities that have added 3D printers to their labs over the past few years. The Information Technology Center at the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NSM) installed the first on campus in 2005.

The printers are most often used to illustrate complex concepts in the classroom, but a handful of academics have begun to use them to facilitate their research. While plastic is the most common medium, Frankino said some printers can produce designs in metals, ceramics and even biological tissues.

For example, one of the NSM printers was used to build a series of small wind tunnels that one of Frankino’s Ph.D. students used to study fruit flies and their ability to adapt to new environments. He also used the printer to make smaller scale models of the wind tunnels to take to conferences and lectures as a visual aid to explain the research.

Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, a professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Cullen College of Engineering, has used a printer to make accessories for the robotic exoskeletons he uses to help adults with paralysis, stroke or other movement disorders.

But his dreams are far bigger.

Contreras-Vidal’s research focuses on developing algorithms that read electrical activity in the brain and translate it into movement. He envisions using 3D printers to produce custom-designed exoskeletons for children with cerebral palsy.

The exoskeleton, guided by the brain-machine interface, could provide a form of therapy to treat the movement disorder, he said.

For now, many researchers say the printers’ greatest value is in creating models of complex concepts, both to help explain their research and as a teaching tool in their classrooms.

Chemist Ognjen Miljanic began using a 3D printer several years ago to illustrate some of the concepts his graduate classes were discussing.

He also has printed out models of his own work–the crystal molecules he works with are far too tiny for visitors to the lab to see, and the 3D models are great for presentations.

“For us, the impact on research, it’s not quite there yet,” he said. “The impact on teaching, it’s dramatic.”

(Next page: Innovative applications; A good price)

Applications unheard-of

Speaking of dramatic, visiting professor of anthropology at Miami University, Jeb Card, is using 3D technology to create replicas of ancient artifacts, including two that were stolen from the department in June 2013.

Before the items were taken, Card scanned a 19th century pipe and a painted effigy vessel from the Greater Nicoya region of Costa Rica. The scans stored their digital information on his computer.

With the use of a new color 3D print at the B.E.S.T. Library, Card printed replicas of the objects with the same dimensions and colors. The printer puts down layers of gypsum powder and coats them with ink, creating a denser, more detailed replica than other 3D printers on campus that produce plastic replicas.

“This is obviously a significant thing for us, to revive a lost object through this technology,” Card said in a press release.

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According to the University, Card purchased 3D scanning equipment and a laptop computer with about $7,000 that was part of a larger Student Technology Fee grant.

To him, the coolest thing is being able to share the 3D files electronically.

“I can email a virtual form of an object to somebody,” he said in statement. “They can either examine it on a computer or they can print one out if they have a printer. That starts to become a big deal.”

Card expects to have 40 students using the scanner by the end of spring semester 2014 to produce replicas of various artifacts and even embedded 3D PDFs of scanned objects—read with Adobe software or printed—that may eventually become part of a virtual online museum he plans to build.

For example, Card was able to download an image that had been scanned by Cornell University staff of a clay Cuneiform tablet from Iraq, which features some of the oldest writing in the world.

A technology for everyone

Card isn’t the only professor interested in future, widely-accessible application of this technology.

Miljanic included a proposal involving 3D printing when he applied to the Cottrell Scholars program, creating a database of plans for 3D models geared to widely-taught advanced chemistry classes, which would allow faculty members anywhere to print the models at their own institutions.

“The cost has dropped over the last 10 years,” he said. “The barrier now is that many people are uncomfortable trying to prepare a 3D model design.”

The savings is not just financial. Frankino estimated that designing a wind tunnel like the one used in previous research could have taken a year and $60,000 to have manufactured elsewhere.

Making it via 3D printing took two weeks and cost $2,000.

“That’s pretty science fiction to me,” he said. “That’s amazing.”

(Editor’s note: Information from multiple press releases were used in this report)

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