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Engineering students use 3-D printers to make models, tools, totems

Inside the lobby of Randolph Hall, one is likely to see at least one student, normally more, surrounding a new high-tech vending machine that spits out objects far greater than any soda pop, candy bar, or cup of instant coffee. Its inventory is infinite. You create the product. In 3-D. In minutes.

   

The DreamVendor creates 3-D objects using a melted plastic material to form each piece, which quickly hardens. The DreamVendor creates 3-D objects using a melted plastic material to form each piece, which quickly hardens. Unlike the larger, higher-end machines in the DREAMS Lab in the basement of Randolph Hall, the DreamVendor is limited to producing objects not larger than a baseball.

“If you dream it, we can build it,” said Christopher Williams, tipping his hat, with tongue in cheek, to the sports drama “Field of Dreams.”

An assistant professor with Virginia Tech’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Department of Engineering Education, both in the College of Engineering, Williams is director of the DREAMS — that’s Design, Research, and Education for Additive Manufacturing Systems — Laboratory. 

The lab is dedicated to exploring the field of additive manufacturing, or in lay terms, 3-D printing. That’s where the DreamVendor, the device at Randolph Hall, comes in.

The DreamVendor is a set of four 3-D printers that can create any physical shape a person designs using software, with the content pre-provided on an SD card inserted into the machine. A few buttons pushed and — voila! — instant manufacturing at one’s fingertips. 

The only rule: The object has to be smaller than a baseball.

Do it yourself

The DreamVendor uses a form of melted plastic, the same material used to make Legos and other common consumer products, during the creation process. In additive manufacturing, a hot liquid plastic is selectively extruded onto a base and then quickly hardens, a process similar to using a hot glue gun.

Williams said any innovative idea a student has for an invention, object, or tool can be made ready as a prototype within minutes, thus cutting development time and the hassle of finding proper machines. The object doesn’t have to be a new invention either, but simply a fun item — say a totem — the student dreams up and can manufacture.

   

David McCarthy, at left, who graduated in 2012 with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, and Nicholas Meisel of Montclair, Va., a doctoral student in mechanical engineering, work on one of the DREAMS Lab’s more complex, higher-end 3-D printers. David McCarthy, at left, who graduated in 2012 with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, and Nicholas Meisel of Montclair, Va., a doctoral student in mechanical engineering, work on one of the DREAMS Lab’s more complex, higher-end 3-D printers.

“We call it democratized manufacturing,” Williams said. “Students have great ideas, but it costs money to be innovative, to make something, and it’s difficult to find a machine and materials. ... Now, anyone can do this. Lack of access is no longer a barrier to entry to innovation. Manufacturing was the barrier, now it no longer has to be.”

The public-access machine is one of a kind, with no other known university having such a set up as of summer 2012.

The printers are kit-built from a company called MakerBot, with new software added by Williams’ students to make usage easier, and stacked inside a glass-and-metal case. Students from across the College of Engineering and the full university have used the DreamVendor to manufacture objects for personal use, classroom projects, or research, Williams said.

“We were very surprised at how quickly the community grasped some of the more complex concepts of additive manufacturing,” said Amy Elliott of Fayetteville, Tenn., a doctoral student in mechanical engineering who was one of the leaders in designing and implementing the DreamVendor. “We have students who have never set foot in our lab explain to other students how some of our more complicated machines work. It’s very rewarding to know that so many to see the value in the work we do.”

Lab without limits

The DreamVendor may serve as the public face of the DREAMS Lab, but it’s only a sliver of the 3-D printing work and research projects undertaken by the group of about 10 graduate and undergraduate students. The technology of 3-D printing itself is only roughly 25 years old, basically at its beginning.

   

In spring 2012, Christopher Williams, assistant professor in the departments of mechanical engineering and engineering education, took members of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors on a tour of the DREAMS Lab and showed the group the DreamVendor. In spring 2012, Christopher Williams, assistant professor in the departments of mechanical engineering and engineering education, took members of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors on a tour of the DREAMS Lab and showed the group the DreamVendor.

In a basement lab inside Randolph Hall, several high-end, machines can print 3-D objects far larger than the DreamVendor can and from such materials as polymers, metals, ceramics, and even bio-materials and nano-composites. At the Kroehling Advanced Materials Foundry on Plantation Road, a massive 3-D printer utilizes foundry sand to create molds for casting of steel or aluminum.

Yes, the 3-D printers have their funs sides — intricate chess pieces have been created — but Williams’ team is focused on serious work, having printed objects for university research projects, including parts for an autonomous quad-copter and, separately, a heart-valve machine, as well as bat-ear models.

“We don’t make cool stuff for the sake of making cool stuff. We’re a research lab,” he said. And the possibilities, as with dreams, are limitless.

For more information on this topic, contact Steven Mackay at 540-231-4787.

Multimedia: Experience the lab

  • Photo gallery: Students create intricate shapes, figures, and tools in the DREAMS Lab, using large, high-end 3-D printers. 
  • Video: Amy Elliot, master’s student in mechanical engineering, explains the DreamVendor.
  • Video: The DreamVendor creates an object in this time-lapse video.
  • Video: Assistant Professor Christopher Williams gives a tour of the DREAMS Lab.

How to use DreamVendor

    DREAMS Lab prints

Want to make your own miniature Darth Vader or HokieBird head? Need to make a part for or a personal or classroom design project? DreamVendor is here. 

Open to all Virginia Tech students to use gratis, you provide the design on an SD card, press start, and you’re good to go. Detailed instructions, tips, and suggestions on using the DreamVendor are at the DREAMS Lab website

The machine is in the lobby of Randolph Hall.

By the numbers: DreamVendor

  • 4: Number of 3-D Makerbot Thing O Matic printers
  • 8: Number of students on the DreamVendor team
  • 45: Minutes it takes to build a 1.25-inch tall HokieBird bust
  • 49: Cubic inches of available build space in each printer
  • 500: Volunteer hours invested in design and build of machine
  • 4,500: Feet of plastic filament used since DreamVendor’s March 2012 debut
  • 10,500: Total cost of machine in dollars, with Student Engineers Council donating $7,500 
  • Infinite: Number of design options

3-D mathematical models assist blind student

    Chelsea Cook studies inside the College of Science’s projectile physics lab in fall 2011.

Translating text into Braille is straight-forward work. But how does one translate calculus models with intricate shapes and shadings for a blind person to easily understand? 

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    Spotlight on innovation

From left are: Michael Barclift of Yorktown, Va., a junior in mechanical engineering; Igor Zamlinksy of Atlanta, a former master’s student in mechanical engineering; Amy Elliott of Fayetteville, Tenn., a doctoral student in mechanical engineering; Jacob Moore of Blacksburg, Va., a doctoral student with dual concentrations in mechanical engineering and engineering education; David McCarthy, a 2012 master’s graduate in mechanical engineering; Nicholas Meisel of Montclair, Va., a doctoral student in mechanical engineering; and Christopher Williams, assistant professor in the departments mechanical engineering and engineering education.

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