By PAUL BOREHAM
Intermittent buzzing, zipping and humming sounds are echoing from a small back room in Doon’s Conestoga Students Inc. (CSI) office. In a tiny workshop, a little machine scoots back and forth on its own accord, as if it has a mind of its own. It hovers around a small object, seemingly thinking what to do next. Then there’s a zap and a little more is added. It’s making something, but what?
Makerbot Replicator Z18 – a 3D printer – is the newest addition to CSI’s service hub and is ready to get busy making all manner of things for Conestoga College students.
“It was a cool idea that was brought up by a director last year,” said Jeff Scherer, president of CSI. “3D printing is becoming a new up-and-coming method of printing. It’s relatively inexpensive to operate, and relatively inexpensive for students,” he said. Listed at $6,500 on Makerbot’s website, it was purchased through the technology enhancement fee that is a small part of tuition. The plastic filament that feeds into the printer head costs about $50 per roll.
CSI is charging 50 cents an hour and Scherer estimates a typical item will cost $2-3 and take about five hours.
There’s not enough room at the service hub for the Makerbot – at roughly 3.5 ft. in height and 1.5 ft. sq. – and so it’s making its home in CSI’s graphic designer’s office for now. Students need to stop in, fill out a short application form and bring along the project file on a USB stick. Files need to be in proper formats: .stl, .obj, .thing or .makerbot. Bonnie Humphries, CSI’s graphic design manager, will upload the file and provide a time and price estimate. She takes care of it from there. Pick-up and payment is at the service hub.
A 3D scanner can be used in conjunction with software to produce and play around with images. But these options aren’t available at CSI and must be done off-site.
Kitchener Public Library (KPL) has had a Makerbot working away at its main branch since its new facility opened in 2014. The Digital Media Lab includes a smaller, desktop version of the Makerbot (listed at $2,900). A long table also holds a scanner and a computer to make and edit projects.
“Since we’ve had the 3D printer, it has been used almost continuously,” said Lesa Balch, director of technologies and content at KPL. “It’s very popular.” In fact, there is rarely a time it is not running, she said.
The service is free to all patrons on a first-come, first-served basis.
“We want to give people an opportunity to try something new. They’ve maybe heard about 3D printing but they’ve never had an opportunity to see what it looks like, or try to build something,” said Balch.
The one caveat is that patrons must stick around while their project is “printing.” What is there to do in a library to pass a few hours?
“Look at books,” said a middle-aged man, who was at that moment waiting for a shiny, lime-green phone case to be perfected by the beeping, buzzing Mr. Makerbot.
Delan Abbas, a KPL IT technician, also joined the conversation and said a phone case will take about two hours.
Abbas then demonstrated how the scanner can capture an image and be manipulated in size and form to the whims of creativity on the software, before sending it on to the Makerman/woman to do its thing.
“You can also do faces,” added Abbas. “I scanned a friend’s head and printed it for him. It’s very fun. People like that a lot.”
Small items that are broken can be brought in, scanned and made new again, said Balch. The sky is the limit with what can be created – for fun or for complete practicality. IT staff are there to help patrons just starting out with it, and there are workshops every so often.
Both KPL and CSI staff recommend starting with a downloaded object from a website. These include everything from makeup stands to soap dishes; computer and phone accessories of all kinds; things that make noise, such as whistles, and even body parts. (How about a heart or a humerus bone?) But one of the main goals for the printer at the college is for students to use it for assignments.
“When you look at students in engineering and architectural programs, they’re required to print things one-dimensional to show the dynamics of a building they’ve created,” said Scherer. “I think it’s a cool opportunity to take their design work that they’re already printing out in a program that’s compatible with a 3D printer, and accessing (CSI’s new printer).”
All of this kowtowing to 3D technology is not for nothing. It’s buzzing louder than ever across the 401 at Conestoga’s Cambridge campus. A large, $400,000 machine sits in a room of its own, part of a larger facility strewn with fancy equipment, called the Centre for Smart Manufacturing.
“This is the future right here – absolutely 100 per cent,” said Dan Strype, a technologist for the School of Engineering, standing in front of the Stratasys Eden500V 3D printer that he is in charge of.
“The key feature about this machine is that it is accurate to within 25 microns,” said Strype. It leaves a pristine, glossy or matte finish (matte if it is to be painted).
It’s used mainly for research – a tool to make prototypes of objects that would otherwise take a lot of time and money to produce by hand.
A recent success story saw two Conestoga students – brothers Luke and Jesse Hambly – create something they call a Pressa Bottle. Their website claims “Pressa is the original creator of pressed water – a bottle allowing you to press flavour from fruits and vegetables into your water.”
“Luke proved out his designs on this printer and they’re actually in production now,” said Strype.
Besides accessing the printer through school programs, students go through the entrepreneurial office at Doon and work out their far-flung ideas on the machine. “It has to have an educational or entrepreneurial flavour to it,” said Strype, though he did admit a race car has come out of its bosom once or twice – “just to see if it could be done,” he said, with a mischievous smile.
The dental industry is also a big user of it, he said. Shiny new dentures have clicked their way out of it and ended up in people’s mouths. Additionally, companies will partner with the college to make prototypes of products being developed.
“I’ve heard they’re actually 3D printing houses,” said Strype. That led to a wider discussion about how it could be used to make shelters for refugees in desert camps. (All that would be needed is a generator and materials, such as sand, that are available on-site.)
They’re also used for artistic endeavours.
“Movies like Ironman – a lot of the armour is actually 3D printed. You see a lot of 3D printed sculptures,” said Strype. They’re used in the medical field. Using a scanner, amputees can have their stump scanned for a perfectly-fitting prosthetic – made on a 3D machine.
There’s also a green aspect to making things 3D-style. The energy consumption is much less than using conventional machines in a shop, said Strype.
While the Makerbot now available at Doon is crude compared to the printer he operates, Strype said it is still valuable.
“Having a 3D machine accessible at Doon campus is fantastic. The cheaper printers are an entry point into that world,” he said.
“I’ll be interested to see how much it picks up as final projects are due,” said Scherer. “I think that will be the determining factor in whether we expand (the service).”
To see some items that can be downloaded and printed, go to thingiverse.com