The function of a printer has traditionally been confined to an office space. You print, scan, copy or fax documents and that’s it. Nowadays, the capabilities of printers have expanded beyond its original design with the emergence of three-dimensional printing technology. And while innovative strides are usually seen as exclusive and inaccessible, a group of students at UC Irvine have taken it upon themselves to make it available to the entire student body in the form of the 3D Printing Club.
Since its inception in March 2014, the 3D Printing Club has accumulated a diverse board of officers from all majors in the School of Engineering. As stated on their club website, the organization’s goal is “to provide an innovative and creative space for students to thrive and develop as innovators, leaders and inventors.” Projects Committee Chair Luke Guirguis was quick to point out, however, that you don’t need to be an engineering major to join the club.
“People from all majors are welcome,” explained Guirguis, a fourth-year aerospace engineering major himself. “We have art students who walk in here or students working on senior design projects.”
In order to gain access to the printers, the club offers three levels of membership for interested students ranging from $20 to $40. Each level is allocated a set number of hours that the student can use the printer and those hours can be utilized throughout the entire year.
Located in room 437 on the fourth floor of Engineering Tower, the club’s facilities house six 3D printers, whose market price can be upwards of $1,000. All printers use fused deposition modeling, a common technique for 3D modeling and print with two main plastics: acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA). For many, PLA is the preferred option as it tends to be more consumer-friendly, takes less steps to create the model and is biodegradable. ABS, on the other hand, requires more experience.
“The bed of the printer needs to heat up for ABS because it tends to shrink when it cools, so heating the bed prevents warping or curling of the edges,” explained Guirguis. “You need to constantly measure the temperature and ventilate it.”
Although PLA is stronger in composition, ABS produces a more aesthetically pleasing design. You can easily polish it with acetone whereas PLA requires a rougher approach, such as sandpaper.
In order to begin the printing process, you must first create a design. For those that aren’t as ambitious, you can download a pre-existing design onto an SD card from programs such as Thingiverse.com. Solidworks is another program that is quite popular and is easy to use. Those who are not as proficient using printing programming shouldn’t fear, as workshops are just one benefit of belonging to the club.
“We offer workshops on how to begin 3D printing and how to use certain softwares,” said Guirguis. “I’m planning on providing a Solidworks workshop soon as well.”
Once you’ve finished using the 3D program and settled on the design, the prepared file must then be uploaded to the printer itself. After the printer processes the file, the plastic starts to heat up to its melting point and is layered on the bed. Depending on the design, printing can last from three minutes to three hours.
“A lot of students will come in here and print personal projects for themselves — it’s not just for academics,” explained Guirguis.
One of these students is Ed Wong, a fourth-year medical student who sees 3D printing as more of a hobby.
“You can’t avoid technology, so one way to get engaged is getting hands on experience,” said Wong. “Just have fun with it.”
His next big project? “My girlfriend and I are working on creating the best tube squeezer the world has ever seen,” he laughed. “We like to think of ways to make people’s lives easier.”
Besides providing a space for students to engage in academia and pursue personal projects, the club has expanded its vision for 3D printing beyond the university and has started to collaborate with organizations such as e-NABLE, a global network of innovative thinkers whose mission is to improve the lives of others through 3D technology.
“The medical field can really excel with the help of this technology,” said Guirguis, “such as hand prosthetics.”
A typical hand prosthetic can cost thousands of dollars, but with the assistance of 3D printing, the price can be lowered dramatically. Both organizations are working toward producing fully mechanized hand prosthetics that can be readily available at a more affordable price without compromising the durability. While large government agencies such as NASA are using metal 3D printers to make parts for rockets, there is talk within the medical field of combining 3D printing with stem cell research to fabricate human tissue.
“The application for this technology is vast,” said Wong. “UCI is unique in that we can stay updated on technology and students can explore the limitless applications for themselves.”