ITS Tests New 3D Printer

ITS service center manager Tim Mills and senior Eli Riekeberg chat while working with the new 3-D printer. ITS financed the $1,800 device. Photo Credit: Bethany Boyle
ITS service center manager Tim Mills and senior Eli Riekeberg chat while working with the new 3-D printer. ITS financed the $1,800 device.
Photo Credit: Bethany Boyle

Truman State students soon might have opportunities to take printing to a new dimension.

Information Technology Services currently is testing a small 3-D printing device called MakerBot Replicators Mini. The machine uses digital modeling designs or scans of actual objects to create a replica using polylactic acid plastic. ITS financed the $1,800 device and is overseeing the experimental evaluation process to determine the best course of action for the printer going forward.

Donna Liss, ITS Chief Information Officer, says the printer has potential applications for many fields of study. She says so far, the Fine Arts Publications Area and the School of Science and Mathematics have expressed interest in obtaining a similar device. ITS also is looking into the possibility of a larger 3-D printer. The current machine undergoing testing has a small printing platform encased within a roughly one square foot plastic cube, and Liss says her department is interested in looking at some larger models.

Liss says the purpose of the 3-D printer is not for ITS use, but for students to have as a learning tool. She says this device could provide opportunities for teaching programming, modeling and many other techniques while experimenting with new software and technology.

Technical support specialist Julie Hanes says the process of printing a 3-D item has three basic steps — digitization, load and manipulation in the software and print. The digitizer is a laser scanner with a turntable platform. It scans an item placed on the turntable while rotating the item very slowly to capture as complete of a 3-D “image” as possible. Hanes says an item usually needs to be scanned several times to get an accurate digital representation which can be printed by the MakerBot Replicator Mini software.

Once loaded into the software, the user can manipulate the design to make the object larger or smaller, among other adjustments. When the design is complete to the user’s satisfaction, it can be printed in a variety of colors using polylactic acid plastic. Hanes says the printer can use only one color of plastic at a time, but nearly every color imaginable is available to order.

“We’re looking at trying to create more of a space for emerging technologies on campus,” Liss says. “That’s part of what this was for, to make sure that students who are graduating have at least some familiarity with some of these technologies that are a little bit more out there.”

Senior Eli Riekeberg says he thinks the chemistry department would be interested to have a 3-D printer available for use. He says the advantage of the printer would be the ability to quickly resume work when faced with a broken or defective instrument.

“If a part breaks that’s crucial to an experiment, you can come down here hopefully and get back up and running quickly,” Riekeberg says.

Technical support specialist Julie Hanes says ITS ordered the printer during early January and it first arrived on campus about three weeks ago. She says plans to obtain the printer have been in the works for some time.

Hanes says ITS formed a committee to discuss printer logistics and concerns. She says currently, the most pressing issues ITS faces with the printer is where to put it, how to make it available to students and how to manage its use.

As project leads, Hanes and Tim Mills, ITS service center manager, are testing and troubleshooting the new device. For the last few weeks, Hanes says she and other ITS team members have calibrated and experimented with the MakerBot Replicator Mini digitizer, software and the actual printer.

A bulldog stressball stands next to a purple, plastic replica.  ITS is testing a 3-D printer on Truman’s campus.  Photo Credit: Bethany Boyle
A bulldog stressball stands next to a purple, plastic replica. ITS is testing a 3-D printer on Truman’s campus.
Photo Credit: Bethany Boyle

“Right now we’re just in the testing phase, work out some of the kinks and learn how to use it properly,” Hanes says.

Mills says the printer is up and running now, but there are several issues the team is working to solve, including print failure, scanning difficulties and noise levels. He says the printer head can become jammed, so it is best to monitor the device in case this happens. However, that means someone would have to watch each print job, which is a time-consuming process. He says one small figurine can take more than an hour to complete.

The scanning mechanism also has given ITS some trouble, Mills says. He says it works best with certain lighting conditions, but ITS has yet to discover a well-lit area where items can be cleanly scanned. He also says the machine is too noisy to place in a public space. Mills says ITS is investigating possibilities for soundproofing the printing chamber, but that still is in the works. He says right now, the team will continue working to answer questions and resolve problems to make the 3-D printer available for students sometime during the near future.