An East Carolina University course that included fabricating designs on a 3-D printer captured the imagination of two students who went on to build their own machines.
Matt McCotter and Brad Raynor, both seniors in the Department of Technology Systems, were enrolled in professor Ranjeet Agarwala's rapid prototyping class last year when they first used a 3-D printer. The machines create what their name implies: 3-D objects that are printed using various materials such as raw plastic or a powder substance based on designs created as ".STL" files.
The College of Technology and Computer Science houses four industrial 3-D printers, which are shared across multiple disciplines. There is also a 3-D printer in the Office of Innovation and Economic Development. Instruction on those machines can help students bring innovative ideas to future careers, Agarwala said.
"We'd never seen anything like it before we were in the class," McCotter said.
"You're not taking a block of something and cutting away from it, you're taking a design and hitting print," Raynor said.
Sheldon Dryer, another senior with experience in 3-D printing, said 3-D printing allows students to take what they've learned and develop something tangible, like the flower shown above that he designed and printed on the 3-D printer.
The pair paid for a weekend workshop in Raleigh soon after in which a company provided them each with a kit and taught a class on building personal 3-D printers. They worked into the night to assemble and test the machines and have been using them ever since. Even the printer's gears are created using 3-D printer plastic. If a part breaks, they can print another.
McCotter and Raynor are primarily printing small novelty objects and gifts for friends and family. However, there are also significant real-world advantages to the machines.
Agarwala has found that the ability to make prototypes is promising for a range of fields including art, cartography, architecture and building, automotive manufacturing or even medicine.
"If you want an idea of what something (you're creating) will be, this is like a rough draft," Raynor said. "They can look at it and see what needs changing."
It can also be a teaching tool, Agarwala said, as it promotes understanding not only through sight but through touch.
"It gives students an end goal," added Sheldon Dryer, another senior who has experience in 3-D printing. "You can design it, but at the end of this you can have it and take it home with you.
"(As a designer), you're taking what (faculty) have taught you so far and creating something completely on your own."
Raynor said he imagines the buzz around 3-D printers will grow similarly to when personal computers first came on the market. It'll be a small community at first, he said, but demand will grow and machines will get more affordable. And there'll be no assembly required.
"(With 3-D printing) anything you can think of, you can now create," Raynor said.