Penn State Abington engineering students build their own 3-D printers

This fall, three teams of engineering students at Penn State Abington worked to build 3-D printers. While the term "3-D" is popularly associated with movies and games, “printing” in three dimensions has become critical to professional engineers. It allows them to create prototypes rapidly and relatively inexpensively, which decreases the time it takes for a product to move into the marketplace, according to Howard Medoff, associate professor of engineering at Abington campus.

The students in Medoff's EDSGN 100 class worked to build the printers from a kit. The class, required for all engineering majors who often refer to it as e-design 100, is typically populated with first-year students who “are assigned fun projects to see what engineers do,” he said. “The students have the opportunity to create, build and break things.”

Three printer kits were purchased for the class for $1,300 each, but creating a functioning printer isn’t as easy as mixing brownies from a box. Three groups of about 5 students each spent about a month soldering and wiring their contraptions. They also made countless phone calls to the manufacturer to track down additional parts and information.

“It was a typical engineering project: Things don’t work the way you think they will. It was frustrating for them,” Medoff said.

Only one team succeeded in creating a working model. A computer equipped with a software package called SolidWorks directed the printer. During the 90-minute process, a coil of plastic was fed into the printer and the device squirted out layers of extruded plastic. The result was a 2-inch-high white plastic squirrel.

The other two groups of students didn’t make it to the final printing stage because of a variety of issues, a problem that regularly besets engineers. Those difficulties led Medoff to assign a capstone reverse-engineering project: improve the assembly instructions for the printer kit to help increase the satisfaction among future customers.

“This was a terrific way for students to learn how frustrating engineering can be,” Medoff said.

The class also worked through several other projects during the fall semester including building mousetrap racers and creating a two-dimensional design of a playground. The project included research of voluminous real-world regulations from organizations such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission that govern playground construction.

Medoff said 3-D printing may bring about a collaboration with the campus’ art department.

The three printer kits were purchased with funding from a National Science Foundation grant, secured by a panel that included Janice Margle, associate professor of engineering at Abington. One of the objectives of the Toys ’n MORE (Mathematical Options for Retention in Engineering) grant is to increase interest in engineering, especially among women and underrepresented minorities. It has funded other projects across the University.