3D printer delivers research design freedom campuswide

By Will Ferguson, College of Arts & Sciences

mini-HubblePULLMAN, Wash. – The machines in physics professor Peter Engels’ laboratory are custom-manufactured to take precise measurements and withstand extreme temperatures. Every component is one-of-a-kind, expensive and time-consuming to construct.

But a new 3-dimensional printer in the College of Arts & Sciences Technical Services Instrument Shop offers Engels and other researchers across Washington State University a faster and cheaper way to design and build prototypes and parts for their research and equipment.

“It gives us unprecedented freedom in our instrument design, which is critical in the competitive field of ultra-cold physics,” Engels said.

Sure prototypes, cheaper parts

Technical Services’ new 3D printer, located in the basement of Webster Hall, is about the size of a vending machine and can make plastic objects as large as 10 inches wide, 10 inches long and 12 inches deep.

Dave Savage holds a miniature, 3D-printed copy of the Hubble Telescope.

Long spools of plastic string are heated into a gel-like goo by an electrical circuit inside the printer. Next, a mechanical arm in the printer’s compartment precisely deposits the molten plastic layer by layer onto the printing platform.

Finally, instrument shop manager Dave Savage removes the completed object and rinses it in a detergent bath to remove the support material. The entire process takes only a few hours.

“The advantages of 3D printing are twofold,” Savage said. “If you are working on a prototype and aren’t sure about the geometry, you can print the part before you commit the time and materials to machine it from metal.

“Or, if you need functioning plastic parts that are not readily available commercially, the 3D printer can make them cheaper, quicker and at a fraction of the cost of machining them,” he said.

Copies of bones, cultural artifacts

Technical Services plans to buy a 3D scanner to increase the number of services it can provide to the WSU community. The device will enable Savage and his team to create digital copies of organs, bones, fragile cultural artifacts and other small objects that can then be recreated in durable plastic.

“We’re just getting started in the realm of 3D printing,” he said. “I’m really excited about working with researchers from different departments across campus. We can design just about anything they need help with.”

Cheaper than milling, bulk buying

For example, Savage worked with Brian Clowers, assistant professor of chemistry, to custom design a protective casing to house an ion mobility spectrometer component.

“Scientific instruments have a tendency to break over time, and commercial manufacturers prefer to sell replacement parts in bulk,” Clowers said. “The great thing about the new 3D printer is I can send Dave my own designs for a component and have a single one completed the next day. It saves time and money.”

Recently, Savage printed latches for securing the doors of animal enclosures at the veterinary facility. Milling the latches in the machine shop would have cost $18 each, he said. The 3D printed versions, fully functional, cost around $5 each.

“We have a price scale based on the volume of material and the print time,” he said. “It costs about $4.50 per cubic inch of plastic and then $4.20 per hour of time on the machine. I’ll hit the print button on the way out the door and I’ll have a completed part when I come into the shop the next morning.”