That price drop has enabled faculty throughout the
University to experiment with the devices and introduce
them to students. Six printers have been purchased in
the past year, Vigeant says, each for less than $1,000.
In fact, there are now so many printers on campus
Vigeant has lost count. She tallies 15 owned by engineering
departments, four in the 7th Street Studio and two in
the Department of Art & Art History. Not included in
that number is Ernie, an orange M3D Micro printer
sitting atop Vigeant’s desk. The cost: about $350.
“It gets to a point where it’s not capital equipment
anymore,” she says. “It’s not an investment; it’s, ‘This
would be useful.’ ”
It’s clearly a price worth paying for training future
engineers. The technology has been embraced by the
biomedical engineering community, here and at large,
where it’s already used to create custom-fit prosthetics.
Someday soon printed medical devices could also
mimic the body by changing material properties as they
are printed, gradually morphing from hard to rubbery
— a feature with huge implications for surgically
implanted devices such as artificial heart valves. Within
a few decades, Kennedy says, doctors might transplant
organs grown from patients’ own cells, seeded to
propagate in 3-D printed scaffolds.
The technology could disrupt traditional machining,
warehousing and logistics operations too, adds Siegel,
if it evolves to print metal more reliably and quickly.
What does it mean, for instance, when auto-parts
suppliers no longer need to keep warehouses full of
replacement parts but can print to order?
But Vigeant also sees a more widespread ripple effect
that extends beyond the drafting room, production
floor and clinic. She can imagine a day when three-dimensional objects become just as pervasive a medium
as internet access has made images and videos.
“A way to think about it is in terms of communication,”
she says. “We have had students practice communicating
through writing for a long time, and we have a few
classes where we ask students to communicate visually
or kinesthetically. My hope is that when the way you’re
trying to express yourself works best as an item, you just
go make it.”
Take a virtual tour of the 7th Street Studio
See the library’s 3-D printer create a Bucknell bison.
Meiser printed the head of an animatronic vulture he
created with Professor Steve Shooter, mechanical
engineering, and, with Siegel, he has begun translating
3-D prints into metal using the lost-wax method —
combining a millennia-old technology with an emerging
one. Next fall, Meiser will introduce this technique and
others in a new digital-fabrication art course.
Meiser says designing 3-D forms on the computer has
changed the way he creates in the studio, encouraging
him to think in the keyboard commands Ctrl+C, V, X
and Z — the shortcuts for copy, paste, cut and undo.
“If I’m working with physical materials in the
sculpture studio and I make a mistake, sometimes I
actually think, ‘Undo,’ ” he says. “You can’t ‘undo’
things so easily in the real world. Sometimes you have
wasted material or make a mistake that requires a lot
of work to correct. It’s really empowering to design
in the digital space because you can quickly iterate
without worrying so much about failure. This ability
to freely experiment with outlandish ideas helps us
produce innovative results.”
What has enabled the spread of 3-D printing
technology at Bucknell and elsewhere is not that the
technology is new, for it’s not as new as it may seem, nor
as complicated. The technology has existed at Bucknell
for two decades, since the Department of Mechanical
Engineering purchased its first 3-D printer, a highly
precise machine made by Stratasys that’s still used
today. It has simply become much cheaper to access.
The drastic drop in prices has been almost laughable
to watch, says Pratt, who, through several internships,
has helped Ohio-based MakerGear refine its printer
from a tricky-to-assemble kit to a plug-and-play desktop unit. He points to perhaps the most captivating
to watch of the tools at the 7th Street Studio MakerSpace, a stereolithography printer, which uses a laser to
solidify points within a pool of liquid resin, lifting a
formed object layer by layer from the pool.
“That technology didn’t exist as something you could
buy for less than a quarter-million dollars three years
ago,” Pratt says. “The machine in there is $1,500. That’s
just one example.”
1) Jemuel Stephenson ’ 17, a student worker at the 7th Street
Studio who wrote a patent for a 3-D printer, checks a print’s
progress. 2) At the 7th Street Studio, the MakerGear printer
produces a replica of the magazine nameplate. 3) One of the more
advanced machines at the 7th Street Studio is the stereolithography printer. 4) Professor Joe Meiser uses an Xbox Kinect
to scan Jemuel Stephenson ’ 17 for a 3-D bust. 5) Professor Nate
Siegel, mechanical engineering, imitating Hamlet, holds a 3-D
printed skull. 6) Margot Vigeant, associate dean of engineering,
observes Ernie, her desktop 3-D printer.