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LeTourneau University students put 3D printers to work

By by Reese Gordon rgordon@news-journal.com
Sept. 3, 2013 at 11 p.m.


Freshmen mechanical engineering students at LeTourneau University were introduced Tuesday to a technology that could shape the future - literally.

Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Jesse French said each student in Intro to Engineering Practice will design their own three-dimensional printer, which will replicate parts needed for future 3D printers.

"The first thing you test with your replicator is if you can replicate it," French said. "Later on, these students will start printing the parts to the next generation of printers."

Freshman Nathan Gaddis said having his own three-dimensional printer will enhance his learning experience.

"We can work with the design software that they're going to teach us how to use," he said. "And then we can see it put into action with our own ideas."

While the technology has been around - discussions of how to use the technology in curriculum began four years ago - today's students will further the possibilities of 3D printing.

"As far as I know we are the only university where an individual builds their own machine and is going to use it in all of his fall classes," he said. "I've had students ask me, 'Why didn't you do this with us two years ago'? We couldn't - because we are just getting to the point where there is an equipment supply to do this."

Senior Mechanical Engineering major David Wright helped bring the idea of the Replicating Rapid Prototype (Rep-Rap) program to life for the department.

"Another student and I got interested in this open source project," Wright said. "We found it online and communities were doing it as a hobby. We got interested and proposed it to Dr. DeLap, asking if this was something the school would be interested in exploring."

Ron DeLap, Dean of the School of Engineering and Engineering Technology, said the printers, which replicate models through the use of computer software, will be a staple of everyday life in the future.

"I see a big function of these printers in the future just being able to print replacement parts," DeLap said. "You can go on the Internet and download files to print all sorts of things. You can print the back cover of your phone and personalize it with your name on it if you want to. You can break a knob on your kitchen cabinet and print a replacement."

Wright said he sees the use of three-dimensional printers also being vital to the health industry.

"They're currently printing out artificial organs, (like) replacement knees that are scanned from an MRI of the individual person and then printed exactly to match that person's bone structure."

Even though the university already had a 3D printer, it was too expensive to operate and impractical for a class full of students.

"We said if we could give the same modeling ability to students at a lower cost, it would be a great asset for the school. We offered to build the school's machine if they purchased one of the kits. They purchased the kit and another student and I put it together, tested it, and started using it. We got really excited about it seeing what it could do."

While the use of three-dimensional printers has the capability of making life easier, it can also make life more dangerous. You can make a gun or rifle just like you can make a door knob or replacement joint.

"We'll probably see a lot more of those scanners at airports that are very intrusive and scan your entire body," DeLap said.

That concern, he said, should not overshadow the positive impact 3D printers could have on society and he believes LeTourneau students are just the people to enhance the machines' abilities.

"If we had a contest where you had to build something with your hands, these kids would win," the Dean said.

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