Engineering adds new dimension with 3D printers

Heather Hughes // Special to Western News

Mechanical and Materials Engineering professor O. Remus Tutunea-Fatan shows a skull printed using a 3D printer, located in a new laboratory in the Spencer Engineering Building. The skull is a prototype made for a fourth-year capstone design project testing the clenching forces of a simulated human jaw.

If you dream it, you can build it. This is not just a mantra; it has become a reality for Mechanical and Materials Engineering students thanks to a new 3D printing lab.

Featuring eight 3D printers, the Spencer Engineering Building lab was integrated into the department’s undergraduate curriculum this fall. While the primary users of the lab will be the Mechanical and Materials Engineering students enrolled in design and manufacturing-oriented courses, the 3D printers will serve a broader variety of activities ranging from outreach events to student megaprojects.

Students can now take designs from “inside their heads to inside their hands,” said Mechanical and Materials Engineering professor O. Remus Tutunea-Fatan.

3D pinted skull

“With additive manufacturing, you can produce almost anything you can think of,” he continued. “You can produce almost any shape, which was, and still is, never the case with conventional subtractive manufacturing technologies.”

The use of 3D printers is similar to traditional printers, except they rely on spools of plastics – rather than paper, ink and toner – to ‘print,’ ‘build’ or ‘make’ the design. Smaller objects can take only a few minutes; larger-size objects can take up to few days.

3D printing technology has been around for decades. Within the last few years, however, the printer prices have dropped significantly leading to their widespread adoption by ‘do-it-yourself’ enthusiasts and hobbyists.

“3D printing is a true instance of lights-out manufacturing,” Tutunea-Fatan said.

This means the user does not have to be present to monitor the building process – far from a reality for most conventional fabrication processes.

“I have been teaching the CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) machining course for several years now. The one question that often comes from students, who are not familiar enough with this technology, is ‘Where is the make-it-now button?’ Unfortunately, machining is not yet there and – who knows – it might never be,” Tutunea-Fatan said.

“Because of this, anyone looking for a way to quickly materialize a design should be seriously looking into 3D printing – that is already a ‘one-push button’ technology.”

The incorporation of the 3D printing laboratory into the Western Engineering curriculum is aligned with the changing demands in mechanical engineering education. For example, the University of Pennsylvania announced an upgrade to its 3D printing facility this summer, while Carleton University launched its Discovery Centre in the spring, featuring 3D printers. Similarly, Ryerson University recently established its own Advanced Manufacturing, Design and 3D Printing Lab.

While Western Engineering may not be the first to set up such a lab, this facility gives students the opportunity to explore and use the 3D printers for their own design projects, in addition to the structured curriculum applications, said J. Maciej Floryan, chair of Mechanical and Materials Engineering.

“We are working hard to build this equipment into the curriculum,” he continued. “I think we are likely the first to bring this technology to the level where students just go to the lab and make parts – sort of like going to library and taking books out.”

The 3D printers will help students have a better understanding of the challenges of moving from design to manufacturing.

“When you make several parts and try to put them together, you will see immediately, if they fit together or not,” Tutunea-Fatan said. “For students, this new opportunity will give them a totally new perspective on the fabrication and assembly of a mechanical system comprised of multiple components.”

The use of 3D printers as part of the academic curriculum is expected to help students develop skills that will directly benefit them in the workforce, especially because companies have started to use additive manufacturing on a growing scale either for their prototyping or even serial production needs.

“3D printers will help our students to better experience and employ hands-on skills,” Tutunea-Fatan said. “At the end of the day, this is what additive manufacturing means: one starts with nothing on the 3D printer’s platform and a continuous deposit of material slowly turns an initial design idea into a physical component that can be then better understood and analyzed.”