Facing toward the future

KingstonHS3d_SM

A “robohand” functional prosthetic for a boy with a missing hand. A plastic model of a recording studio designed by an architect. Models of clamps used to lock down helicopter blades for a Shokan manufacturer.

These were among the items printed out on 3D printers at SUNY New Paltz, where the digital fabrication lab at the Hudson Valley Advanced Manufacturing Center is bringing together businesses and engineering students to localize the rapidly growing field of 3D printing.

Daniel Freedman, dean of SUNY’s School of Science and Engineering, described his program to businesspeople at a networking breakfast in Kingston organized by Ulster County’s office of economic development on January 21. Enrollments under Freedman’s aegis have doubled in the past five years, partly due to the inauguration of the 3D lab in May 2013. Last fall, a department of mechanical engineering was added to the existing offerings. (“The new major capitalizes on the college’s long-standing ABET-accredited programs in electrical and computer engineering and complements New Paltz’s rapidly evolving 3D printing initiative that supports additive manufacturing,” the press release had stated at that time.)

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Through the lab, businesses give students projects to work on, supporting the education of engineers who will become the employees companies need to build their own 3D programs. A senior design project will allow students to implement designs that in most cases are suggested by local industry. “This technology is going to influence every field,” explained Freedman. “Our goal is to supply scientists and engineers with access to equipment and access to expert advice, as well as research leading to start-ups in the local area.”

Randal Richers, president of New York Drilling Services in Saugerties, attended the talk last Wednesday in search of information that would help him get up and running on the $4000 printer he’s ordered. He’s researched enough to know that a 3D printer will enable him to design new drill parts more cheaply and more quickly than having prototypes made up on a milling machine. He’s undaunted by the fact that no one at his company has expertise in computer-aided design, or CAD, to facilitate use of the printer. “We’ll find someone who can do it, or we’ll figure it out,” he shrugged. “This is where the industry is going.”

Refrigerator-size printers

There are printers that have the capacity to print in metal or concrete, some of them big enough to print a concrete house in one day. The SUNY New Paltz machines are refrigerator-sized or desk-sized and use plastic similar to the substance Legos are made of. Filaments of the plastic are heated, extruded through a hole as small as .4 millimeter, and laid down in layers, with the print head guided by a software program.

Because the printing process can take four or five hours for each object, said Freedman, it’s not meant for large-scale production but for prototypes, molds, and individualized items. He gave the example of a product his lab made for a Hudson Valley-based company. “They sell a handmade silver bridal bouquet holder for $7000, but they wanted a cheaper one. They developed four or five designs that can be customized and printed out. This is how consumer products will change.”

When Kingston High School was celebrating its 100th anniversary, a student with an interest in engineering designed a commemorative model of the school. At the New Paltz lab, 150 copies were printed to sell at the high school.

A Poughkeepsie insurance agent came to the lab when a client with a recreational vehicle had an accident that wrecked his bumper. “The RV company went out of business,” said Freedman, “and he couldn’t get replacement parts. We printed him a new bumper that looked just like the old one.”

Jointed steel prosthetic devices for paraplegics generally cost around $30,000 each, so they are rarely made for children, who quickly outgrow the devices. For a local boy who was born with only one complete hand, the lab printed a functional prosthetic hand in plastic, using $20 worth of parts.

With so many possible applications, the field is limited, at this point, by the dearth of designers trained in CAD. SUNY New Paltz will fill the void.

Challenge Grant

New York State has awarded the College of Science and Engineering a $10-million NYSUNY 2020 Challenge Grant to construct an Engineering Innovation Hub, a new building that will help the school expand its 3D offerings. Two faculty members for the new mechanical engineering program authorized this past October are already in place, and one additional one is scheduled to be added each of the next three years to staff the mechanical engineering department. Besides solidifying the role of SUNY New Paltz as a leader in the field, the expansion continues to deepen connections with local companies and individual artists.

With the new program, there’ll be many more engineering students in New Paltz, of course. Dr. Baback Izadi, chair of the school’s electrical, mechanical and computer engineering department, said that there were now about 250 undergraduate engineering majors at the school. He expects that number to grow to 400 in two or three years. The entire science and engineering school for which Freedman is responsible experienced an enrollment increase in the past seven years from 423 to 898 undergraduates in the past seven years. Now it’ll grow even more, eclipsing the enrollments of the schools of business, education, and fine and performing arts. Only the college of liberal arts will have more enrollees than science and engineering.

More jobs for engineering graduates will result, of course. “There’s a clear need for mechanical engineers locally,” said Freedman. “It’s preventing companies in our area from expanding, with so much competition from New York City.”

The school is not limiting its 3D focus to engineers. Freedman reached down to a table and held up a plastic coffee pitcher with ridges swirling up its sides. “This is not something an engineer would design,” he remarked. “It’s not easy. This is the kind of thing an artist would make. And given all the artists in this area, it’s ideal for us to work with them.”

The SUNY art department has had a 3D printer for five years, with classes that teach students to use CAD for designing jewelry, sculpture, ceramics. The lab’s full-color 3D printer can reproduce a painting on the surface of an object, and the main CAD software taught at the school is Rhinoceros, an art-oriented program.

SolidWorks, an engineering-oriented software, is taught at SUNY Ulster, which also offers a certificate in 3D printing and feeds students into the New Paltz program.

Freedman plans to offer a series of lectures for businesspeople, inviting speakers such as the CEO of Makerbot, a Brooklyn-based 3D printer manufacturer that supplied most of the printers at the New Paltz lab. Miniclasses for the public will explain how to bring a model into CAD software in preparation for printing. The dean is already doing outreach to high schools and even to younger age groups.

“I tell the kids, ‘You can design and build any Lego block you want,’” said Freedman. “That gets their attention.”

 

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