It has been a tremendously busy summer. Specifically:
1. I finished my MS Ed through Purdue University in Learning Design & Technology.
2. I led a cohort of 16 michiana area educators as site coordinator of the NSF-funded Research Experience for Teachers program at the University of Notre Dame, through the Center for Sustainable Energy (cSEND).
3. I moved from rural Culver, Indiana to not-remotely-rural Manhattan.
I find myself just now being able to sit down and reflect upon my summer experience. For this post, I’m going to just focus on my RET experience, specifically with my area of research.
Last summer, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Paul McGinn, a chemical engineering professor at Notre Dame. My work focused on solid-state ceramic electrolytes that are used in novel Li-ion battery applications. Very cool stuff (feel free to read my previous posts on this subject here).
This summer, I was excited to be able to work with Dr. McGinn again, though on an entirely different project. This summer, we (myself and Lexi Kutch, a math instructor from New Prarie High School) focused on 3d printing. Specifically, we were tasked with assembly of a 3d printer (locally sourced from SeeMeCNC.com, an engineering outfit located in Goshen, Indiana), and the development of activities that could be used within the classroom focused on the printer. In addition, another student was working on adapting the printer to be able to print ceramic slurries.
A Quick 3D Printing Primer
If you are unfamiliar with 3d printers, they are a class of machines which fabricate 3-dimensional objects out of a variety of materials. The printer that we were assembling used plastic, as do most commercially available “personal” style 3d printers. Specifically, our printer uses 1.75 mm PLA plastic to print. Here’s the breakdown of how this process works:
- A digital 3D file of the object to be printed is created using software. The file is typically exported as a .STL file.
- In order to be printed, the .STL file must be translated into a language understood by the printer, called G-Code. In essence, software which produces the G-Code slices the 3D image into a series of printable layers, as well as adding code that instructs the printer to preheat the print bed and extruder nozzle.
- Plastic filament is fed into a heated extruder nozzle, where it is heated to a point where it will flow, yet is not completely fluid. This is called heating the material to its glass transition phase.
- Electric stepper motors move the heated extruder across a heated bed, where the plastic is deposited in approximately 0.2 mm thick layers.
- At the conclusion of the print, the end G-Code lifts the heated nozzle off of the print, and the plastic filament is retracted so that the nozzle does not clog.
So, Lexi and I spent a few weeks assembling and calibrating the printer, and we were off to the races. We printed all kinds of objects, and once we had the printer dialed-in, the prints were increasingly impressive (check out the Yoda-head vase below!)
Throughout the process, it became clear that 3d printers could serve as tremendously powerful prototyping tools. Once you became familiar with 3d drawing software such as Google SketchUp, you can essentially create one-off products that meet a specific need, as well as design different versions of a product in a short time frame.
Now, this is not to say that the printing process is quick. Large objects require quite a bit of time to complete. The Yoda head vase above took roughly 32 hours to print, though it was at high resolution and reduced print speed. Smaller components can be produced in a few hours. For introductory engineering courses in high school settings, the inclusion of a 3d printer can be an excellent means by which to bring student ideas to life, and test ideas in real world settings. Very powerful stuff!
Printing Novel Materials
While Lexi and I were working on assembling and printing objects with our printer, another student was busy working on a similar printer with a very different task. Her goal was to retrofit the printer so that a ceramic slurry could be used as print material. Talk about a perfect meshing of arts and science! The printer she used was the same model as the one we had constructed, with modifications to the print arms and extruder head. Essentially, the heating element had been removed, and replaced with an auger and syringe that could be filled with a special formulation of ceramic. We were only able to view the preliminary results of her work by the end of the summer, but even her first prints were impressive! The printer achieves a level of detail and fineness that no human hand could recreate on a potter’s wheel. In addition, there are tremendous applications where specialized ceramics could be printed in place, allowing for custom ceramic solutions. The video below shows one of the first prints from the retrofitted printer.
I’m excited to see how the printer is further modified to allow for larger volume ceramics to be printed, as well as to see the limits of the resolution of this method of printing ceramics.