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3-D printing today and tomorrow

Ben Bernard from North Dakota State University points to a MakerBot Replicator 2 machine during a presentation Tuesday at the Dickinson State University Strom Center.

Models of buildings and objects of art were examples used to illustrate the technology of 3-D printing when two North Dakota State University specialists spoke Tuesday at the Dickinson State University Strom Center.

“The sky is pretty much the limit as far as what we can manufacture,” said David Lehman, Extension specialist for the NDSU Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering. “As more printers get into the hands of enthusiasts, I see a lot of technology evolving very rapidly.”

Lehman was joined by Ben Bernard, a computer services specialist with NDSU’s Department of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. He spoke about how students use 3-D printing for design applications.

Lehman and Bernard demonstrated a MakerBot Replicator 2 that prints objects with a heated extruder and filament. 3-D printing is the process of making a solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. Using an additive process, the object is built one layer at a time.

In 2012, NDSU purchased two printers for $2,500 each. Four more printers were purchased last summer for the 3-D lab.

Printing compared to molds

 To introduce 3-D printing, Lehman said the process doesn’t lend itself for mass production because it’s not as fast as by using molds.

 “A lot of manufacturers are using them to test the function of prototypes they create on a computer and print them out in plastic to see how it fits together and how it operates,” he said. “So prototyping with 3-D printers saves manufacturers a lot of money, and also speeds up parts development.”

Lehman said the quality of 3-D plastics also isn’t quite the quality of what is produced from a mold.

“With plastic, it’s like you are laying weld bead on weld bead,” he said.

Lehman said the government has directed a manufacturing center to focus on developing 3-D printing. The government also is working with universities to develop filament materials.

Playing the role of a visionary, Lehman spoke about applications of 3-D printing.

“For farmers and ranchers, if a tractor breaks down, you could create the part from your printer in the shop,” he said.

Companies are working with 3-D printers in the aerospace industry, as well.

“If you had a printer on a space station, you could print out any tools you needed for any repair — this stuff is already happening,” he said.

The medical industry is another opportunity for 3-D printing. For example, a dentist might print the crown for a tooth.

NDSU is working on a prototype to create bone. The printer would create the structure (or scaffolding) of a bone and the cell-based material.

“Over time, the cell base eats the scaffolding, and all that is left is living bone,” he said.

Transforming manufacturing

 Lehman said 3-D printing has the capability to transform manufacturing.

“I think 3-D technology is disruptive enough to have a similar magnitude of impact to the Industrial Revolution,” he said.

He pointed to the current production of cellphones — consisting of metal, plastic and trace materials. One company produces the raw materials and another factory produces the circuit boards. The components are assembled, shipped to America and sold by retailers.

“Now, instead of all the factories and manufacturing distribution network, you basically buy the data and license agreement to print one cellphone,” he said. “Now, for me as the manufacturer, I have zero capital, but what happens to all the people who were making that cellphone? You’re looking at hundreds of thousands of people who were employed — what happens to them?”

Over time, Lehman expects companies to develop printers that work with plastics and metals simultaneously

“That’s my kind of view from a manufacturing end of things,” he said. “Things will be changing, for the good, bad or indifferent.”

Architecture design applications

The students enrolled in NDSU’s Architecture and Landscape Architecture program use 3-D printing as a design tool.

When the technology first came out in the 1980s, the cost of printers were $20,000 and higher. Then in 2011, Bernard asked a student to evaluate the technology and see what was feasible for the university. In a follow-up conversation, the student told Bernard that he had already ordered the parts for himself.

“So that’s how popular the technology has become,” Bernard said. “Something else that’s exciting and cool, I realized these printers do a lot more than being a design tool for my department. They are really good for teaching and research.”

A science teacher could print out a model of an atom or skull, while the astronomy department could print out a model of moon craters.

“Really, I look forward to seeing how other K-to-12 grades and universities will be using the printers for teaching and research,” he said.

Bernnard pointed to the durability and flexibility of the models.

“They are light because they are hollow and not using a whole lot of filament,” he said. “I weigh 250 pounds and I can’t break one.”

While the cost of printers has declined, so has the cost of filament. In the last nine months, the cost of a kilogram of filament went from $55 to $22. He’s also working on a grant to develop recycling of scrap materials.

After the Strom Center presentation, 3-D printing was demonstrated at the Career Fair sponsored by Roughrider Education Services Program Succeed 2020.

“I was impressed by the energy and enthusiasm the West River students showed for 3-D printing and design professions,” Bernard said. “Many see how fast the region is growing and want to be able to play a part in shaping it.”

Investing in the technology

Jim Peters, a technology teacher at Hagen Junior High School, was among those in the Strom Center audience.

“My plan is to actually have a printer in the classroom,” he said. “It’s so kids will be able to use 3-D printing as an important part of their future.”

During his research, he discovered the cost is less expensive than he thought.

“My students are only eighth-graders, but by the time they get to college or the work place, they will be familiar with it,” he said.

For those interested in the process, images, video and tours of the NDSU’s 3-D printing lab, contact Bernard by email at