3D printer delivers new design freedom
In a dimly lit room on the sixth floor of Webster Physical Sciences Building, computers, vacuum chambers, and lasers ceaselessly hum as they monitor the speed and trajectory of super-cooled atoms.
The machines in physics professor Peter Engels’ laboratory are all custom-manufactured to take precise measurements and withstand extreme temperatures.
Every component—from the high-tech lasers that keep atoms chilled just a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero to the plastic clamps that hold radiofrequency coils in place—is one-of-a-kind, expensive, and time-consuming to construct.
But a new 3-dimensional printer in the CAS Technical Services Instrument Shop now offers Engels and other researchers across the University a faster and cheaper way to design and build prototype parts for their research and equipment.
“Tech Services’ 3D printer has opened up new possibilities for rapid prototyping as well as design of custom parts that would be very difficult or even impossible to manufacture using conventional techniques,” Engels said. “It gives us unprecedented freedom in our instrument design, which is critical in the competitive field of ultra-cold physics.”
Printing in plastic
3D printing is the process of making a three-dimensional solid object from a digital file. Technical Services’ new 3D printer, located in the basement of Webster hall, is about the size of a vending machine and can make plastic objects as large as 10 inches wide, 10 inches long, and 12 inches deep. Using a program called SolidWorks, Dave Savage, instrument shop manager, designs prototype parts, small models, and a multitude of functional devices to the researchers’ exact specifications. He then uploads the design files to the 3D machine and hits the “print” button.
Long spools of plastic string are heated into a gel-like goo by an electrical circuit inside the printer. Next, a mechanical arm in the printer’s compartment precisely deposits the molten plastic layer by layer onto the printing platform. Finally, Savage removes the completed object and rinses it in a detergent bath to remove the support material. The entire process takes only a few hours.
“The advantages of 3D printing are twofold,” Savage said. “If you are working on a prototype and aren’t sure about the geometry, you can print the part before you commit the time and materials to machine it from metal. Or, if you need functioning plastic parts that are not readily available commercially, the 3D printer can make them cheaper, quicker, and at a fraction of the cost of machining them.”
Savage has created custom objects for researchers across the college and University. For example, he worked with Engels to design and print radio frequency coil mounts that provide precise optical access for laser beams, and with Brian Clowers, assistant professor of chemistry, to custom design a protective casing to house an ion mobility spectrometer component.
“Scientific instruments have a tendency to break over time, and commercial manufacturers prefer to sell replacement parts in bulk,” Clowers said. “The great thing about the new 3D printer is I can send Dave my own designs for a component and have a single one completed the next day. It saves time and money.”
Recently, Savage printed plastic cam latches for securing the doors of custom-built animal enclosures at the veterinary facility. Milling the cam latches from solid material in the machine shop would have cost $18 each, Savage said. The 3D printed versions, fully functional, cost around $5 each.
“We have a price scale based on the volume of material and the print time,” Savage said. “It costs about $4.50 per cubic inch of plastic and then $4.20 per hour of time on the machine. I’ll hit the print button on the way out the door and I’ll have a completed part when I come into the shop the next morning.”
Technical Services plans to buy a 3D scanner to increase the number of services they can provide the University community. The device will enable Savage and his Instrument Shop team to create digital copies of organs, bones, fragile cultural artifacts, and other small objects that can then be recreated in durable plastic.
“We’re just getting started in the realm of 3D printing,” Savage said. “I’m really excited about working with researchers from different departments across campus. We can design just about anything they need help with.”