March 3, 2010

3-D Printers Give Both Architects and Engineers a Technological Advantage

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Students passing through Duffield yesterday afternoon during BOOM! — an annual engineering robotics expo — might have wondered if they had stepped accidentally into the future. The futuristic items on display included a 3-D printer owned by Cornell’s robotics lab that prints out on plastic rather than paper. The printer can even print robots, according to Prof. Hod Lipson, mechanical and aerospace engineering and computing and information science, who works with the printer.

“3-D printers are one of the biggest revolutions that is waiting to happen,” Lipson said.

The architecture department also owns two 3-D printers. Rather than producing robots, architecture students print out prototypes of their designs. In the past, students relied on computer-driven tools and laser cutters to produce these prototypes, but that changed in Oct. 2009 when Cornell’s architecture department acquired two ZPrinter 450s, the newest model of 3-D printer.

Giffen Ott ’12, a second-year architecture student, recently designed a pair of glasses and used the printer to gauge their physical appearance, hoping to pinpoint any room for improvement.

“I just send my model to the printer and within a relatively short amount of time I have a finished prototype that I could analyze and make necessary adjustments on,” Ott said.

Students like Ott use a computerized 3-D modeling program called Rhino to generate their prototype. They then send the image to Frank Parish, Digital Fabrication Technician, who operates the printers. Parish runs the image through a program that produces a composite model developed “from the bottom up,” he said.

Images are printed on 1/4,000 inch-thick sheets of powder. After a sheet is printed, a roller flattens the powder and at the same time spreads a fresh layer to be printed on. This process continues until the bay holding the powder is filled, at which point Parish separates the dust, revealing a finished prototype.

“It’s similar to drawing a picture on a bunch of pieces of paper and cutting out that shape and then gluing all the pieces together, stacking them one on top of the other,” Parish said.

3-D printing technology has been around for the last 10 years. But Cornell’s model is innovative in that it can be used in an office setting. Previous printers were housed in separate rooms because of the mass amounts of dust they generated, according to Parish. The current printer solves this problem by maintaining a continuous negative pressure, which keeps all airborne materials inside.

“I wouldn’t be able to work in this room if we had the old one,” Parish said.

The printer also runs faster than older models. According to Parish, it takes about one hour to print each inch of thickness. The printer can print models up to the size of an 8x10x8 inch cube.

Architecture students who use the printer will have to pay a fee determined by the price of materials, labor and other factors, Parish said. However, since students would pay similar amounts to develop their own prototypes by hand, the cost doesn’t seem so bad.

AJ DiValerio ’13, a third-year architecture student, recently spent $50 on producing a prototype and says the money was well worth it.

“I didn’t have to worry about using so many different tools and investing a lot of time and money,” said DiValerio. “All I had to do was develop my image and send it to the printer.”

Original Author: Andrew Boryga