Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Friday, October 4, 2013

Library expands campus access to 3-D printers

The 3D Lab, part of the U-M Library’s Digital Media Commons on North Campus, is expanding campus access to 3-D printers with a grant from the university’s Third Century Initiative.

Six Cube printers currently reside in the 3D Lab, located in the Duderstadt Center, along with free material, tutorials, and support. In the next few weeks, the Cube printers will be relocated to other spaces around the Duderstadt Center, and early next year they will be made available on Central Campus.

  3-D printers

The 3D Lab on North Campus has six Cube 3-D printers available for use by the campus community. Lab staff members are available to answer questions and give one-on-one consultations. Hours are 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday.(Photo courtesy of the U-M Library)

Anyone in the university community can access the printers, materials, and support to create their own 3-D objects from digital designs.

“It’s an amazing feeling to go from curiosity to design to holding a physical object in your hand,” says Eric Maslowski, manager of the 3D Lab. “But right now there is an educational gap between theory and application, and our goal is to bridge that gap.”

The Third Century Initiative is designed to develop innovative, multidisciplinary approaches to teaching and scholarship, with the goal of stimulating creative thinking among students and faculty and to develop programs that intensify learning experiences beyond the classroom. Grants are awarded for the most exciting and innovative ideas from across campus to enhance action-based, experiential learning.

The Cube is a small machine, but it offers a world of possibilities in do-it-yourself 3-D printing. It extrudes melted plastic through a print head to build up the printed part layer by layer, and provides a quick and inexpensive way to produce objects.

Maslowski says the Cube can print just about any 3-D item, from the size of a dime to 5.5 square inches. Some examples are a case for a smartphone or other device, a sculpture, jewelry, or a miniature model of a dog. U-M researchers have used 3-D printers for rapid prototyping to develop medical simulation devices, wind turbines, airplane parts, and much more.

“The printers are not difficult to use. The secret lies in creating content,” Maslowski says. The Cube prints from a 3-D file — specifically, STL files, which are widely used for rapid prototyping and computer-aided manufacturing. They can be exported from many engineering and artistic software applications, including CAD, modeling, and animation software.

Maslowski says that he’s learned to keep an open mind about who might show up to use the printers.

"We’ve had people from mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, medicine, paleontology, art and design, architecture, and more. It will be interesting to watch as new audiences discover the Cubes,” he says.

“The small size and low cost of using a Cube allows for iterative design, so you can draw a 3-D sketch, print it, refine it, print it, refine it, and then go for higher fidelity on a more expensive machine.”

For example, sculptors can create a wax model, scan it to a digital file, and print at a reduced size to fine-tune the design before casting. This ability to resize can have other advantages: the artist that created a bust of Bo Schembechler for the athletic department used a 3-D printer to make smaller keepsake versions for donors. He estimates it saved him a month’s worth of remodeling.

To take advantage of the newly expanded access to 3-D printing, bring an STL file to the 3D Lab. Free materials are available on a first-come, first-served basis to encourage initial use and experimentation, after which users must bring their own cartridges.

This is the first in a series of how-to videos giving step-by-step instructions about U-M's 3-D printers.