Items previously made by Columbia Basin College’s engineering technology students using the college’s bank of 3-D printers were mostly trinkets — small figures, vases, a small model of the Eiffel Tower, all made of colorful plastic.
Student Damien King pointed to a cream-colored crescent wrench sitting on a desk Monday. It’s heavy and solid compared with the objects made by the other printers. And it required no assembly — all the pieces, including the moving screw mechanism, were manufactured in place by the program’s newest machine.
“Being able to print our components and assemble them is amazing,” King said.
HAPO Community Credit Union donated $20,000 for the new printer, a uPrint SE Plus, for the students to further refine their design and engineering skills for a world where manufacturing and fabrication are being revolutionized.
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“Who knows where this will lead, but our students need to know the technology,” CBC President Rich Cummins said during a Monday news conference.
Engineering technology students studying three-dimensional design use 3-D printers to test designs made using computer drafting programs such as CAD. The machines use spools of colored plastic cable, which is melted as the object is made, layer by layer, from the ground up.
That’s different from common manufacturing processes used today, where items are cut out of a piece of material, creating a lot of wasted product, said professor Paige Wyatt.
The objects made by the latest 3-D printers are increasingly sophisticated, Wyatt and her students said, with applications for everything from organ replacements for medical patients to parts needed for highly engineered machines.
“There’s a student who saved a couple hundred dollars by making a car part,” Wyatt said.
The new printer isn’t fast — King notes that some objects can take up to 48 hours to manufacture — but it can better replicate perfect circles and other fine details for instruments and tools. It also uses a second type of material to act as framing for intricate pieces and which can be melted away with a chemical bath. That’s what allows for objects such as the crescent wrench to be made fully assembled.
The fact that space missions can now be orchestrated by computers as small as a smartphone, when they once required computers as large as a room 60 years ago, demonstrates the importance of students having a full understanding of 3-D printers, Cummins said. The way things are made is changing dramatically and knowledge of how to fully utilize 3-D printers is crucial.
“As our students are able to train on this equipment, their career options widen,” he said.
Student Jeremy Essman, who, like King, graduates from CBC this spring, said he’s enjoyed using the new printer more for allowing him to practice his design skills than for the ability to make things he could use in his future job.
He has 16 years of experience in masonry and concrete and wants to work in civil or structural engineering. But he acknowledges that printed components may end up having a role in that field as well as many others.
“It’s pretty impressive to me,” he said.