Taylor Hornung, a graduate student studying mechanical engineering, rummages through a cardboard box and proudly pulls out a cobalt blue Nittany Lion Shrine, followed by a chess rook and owl figurine. It's a seemingly ordinary assortment of plastic trinkets, yet these objects are not your average baubles. They were all created using 3-D printers by students in Penn State's 3-D Printing Club.
The students not only printed each object — 0.25-millimeter layer by 0.25-millimeter layer — they also hand built four of the club's six 3-D printers.
Co-founded in 2013 by Hornung and a group of engineering students, the 3-D Printing Club has evolved into a community of about 30 3-D printing hobbyists interested in the hands-on aspects of printing and building and modifying 3-D printers.
3-D printing is a method of additive manufacturing where successive layers of a material (such as plastic filament) are deposited layer by layer onto a flat surface to create a 3-D object. Today, the manufacturing technique is playing a key role in advancing such areas as medicine, food, and the aerospace and automotive industries.
"A lot of our members are here because they're passionate about 3-D printing — just really into it," said Hornung, the club's president. "We draw in a lot of engineering students but it's definitely not a requirement. As a club, we try to teach everyone everything they need to know to create a 3-D model, slice it up using software and do a print."
In addition to the student club, the University offers a 3-D printing class in the College of Engineering and printing services for students studying architecture, information sciences and technology, and mechanical and nuclear engineering, among others.
"But what's exciting about our club is that it's so hands-on and open to anyone," said Hornung, who would like to work in 3-D printer research and development when he graduates. "As students, we learn a lot about theory in class, so for me, getting to do something with my hands is really enjoyable — I can create absolutely anything I want."
Among its bevy of engineers, the club also has members from the College of Agricultural Sciences and the Smeal College of Business.
Wesley Hart, a senior studying supply chain management, knew nothing about 3-D printing when he joined the club last spring. Today, he not only knows how to use the printer, he's hoping 3-D printing, along with his business knowledge, will help him fulfill his career dream to one day manufacture electric guitars.
"I came for a club meeting and realized it was a really cool group of kids who could help me learn," Hart said. "I brought only guitar knowledge. They were really willing to teach and to help me achieve my goal of using computer-aided design (CAD) software and 3-D printers to build instruments."
At the time, Hart was doing research for his independent study about experimental pickup design for electric guitars. He began to use the 3-D printers to create prototypes of plastic bobbins, which are a component of an electric guitar's pickup: a device that captures the vibration of the guitar strings and turns it into an electrical signal when plugged into an amplifier.
Hart could have bought expensive pre-made bobbins or ordered custom bobbin molds, but instead decided to prototype his own bobbin shapes with extreme tapers and intricate curves to create new sounds.
"I think the power of 3-D printing today is really in prototyping," Hart said. "You can take an idea and test things very quickly and inexpensively and then go back to the drawing board if needed. Something that used to take months, like waiting for or making parts, can now be printed in a matter of hours."
This semester, Hart is planning to 3-D print a guitar with an interlocking body design that will fit together like a puzzle (it will have a conventional neck and strings). Just like a traditionally manufactured guitar, Hart will be able to plug the instrument into an amp and play.
"It's fun and incredibly useful to have access to these resources," Hart said. "If I were back home tinkering around in my garage, I would have had to use very crude techniques to achieve my vision — the fact that we have these tools as Penn State students is really cool."
The club itself has six 3-D printers: Two metal Solidoodles (Doodle 1 and Doodle 2) came pre-assembled, two wooden models from MakerFarm came as kits and the last two (Ruby and Sapphire) were built from scratch using threaded metal rods, bolts, 3-D printed parts and Arduino boards.
This semester, Valerie Miller, an architectural engineering student and the club's treasurer, has been using the printers to make DIY cookie cutters in the shapes of superheroes Spider-Man, Nightwing and Iron Man.
To make her prints, she first creates the design (or finds one using an open-source design site like Thingiverse) using 3-D modeling software such as SolidWorks or Google SketchUp. The file is then formatted into code using a slicing program, which breaks the model up into digital layers and tells the nozzle that extrudes the plastic filament how fast and where to move to make each layer. At this point, Miller chooses her plastic (either acrylonitrile butadiene styrene or polylactic acid) and threads the spool into the printer.
The nozzle heats and then deposits the plastic filament onto a sheet of glass, where it immediately hardens. After the first layer is down, the most tentative part of the process, Miller can pretty much leave it alone. While some prints can take hours (the Nittany Lion Shrine took about nine and a half), her cookie cutters will only print for about an hour and a half.
In addition to her role as club treasurer, Miller, along with Hornung and other members, participate in 3-D printing demonstrations at such Penn State events as the Engineering Alumni Tailgate and Science-U fairs at local schools — key ways the club reaches out to the community to spread the word about 3-D printing and STEM fields.
"I think there's a lot in the near future that will be built with 3-D printers — there's even talk about it being as common in your home as a regular printer," Miller said. "That might not be feasible right now, but I think it's definitely something schools should be teaching."
For Hart, the value of 3-D printing is in the countless ways he can apply the technology to his musical and business pursuits.
"I find it so fascinating that I am able to take an idea I have in my head, sketch it on a piece of paper, get help from engineering students to design it on the computer, and then bring it to a 3-D printer and watch it come to life," Hart said. "People always say 'dreams to reality' — I think that's what 3-D printers do. They make dreams a reality."
For more IT stories at Penn State, visit news.it.psu.edu.