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3D printing expands for NDSU architecture students

FNS Photo by Michael Vosburg Ben Bernard shows some of the objects made in his 3D printing lab Thursday in the architecture department of North Dakota State University's downtown campus in Fargo. One of the six 3D printers in his lab sits to his left.

FARGO -- For students in North Dakota State University's architecture and landscape architecture program, if you can dream it, you can print it.

In a matter of minutes, students can design any object and have it printed before their eyes using one of the department's six 3D printers in Renaissance Hall.

Since December, the department has acquired six low-cost printers used by students for modeling projects and other entrepreneurial applications.

Ben Bernard, a technology specialist for the department who runs the lab, wants to see 3D printing technology in the hands of almost everyone as it becomes more affordable and easy to use. Bernard said he's considering partnerships to make 3D printing available across the university, at K-12 schools and for the larger community.

"As a land grant school, it's our job to be on the bleeding edge of technology and share that technology with the rest of the state," Bernard said.

While technology experts posit that 3D printing will change manufacturing and revolutionize the way objects are produced, Bernard sees practical household uses for everyone like replacing a shower curtain hook or knob.

For architecture students, 3D printing saves time and allows them to easily create detailed models that would be hard to replicate by hand using wood or cardboard.

Students can create their own designs using free software or download and edit 3D design templates. Designs are transmitted via SD card to the printer.

Depending on the size of the object, the layers and level of detail, a print job can take a few minutes or several hours.

The machines use PLA filament -- corn-based biodegradable plastic available in a wide array of colors. While the architecture students use plastic, 3D printing is possible with many other materials: ceramic, metals, bone and even tissue.

Other departments at NDSU have 3D printing capabilities, and their machines are higher quality and more expensive.

The electrical and computer engineering department at NDSU purchased a 3D printer in 2010 for nearly $20,000. It's more precise and uses higher quality materials than those in the architecture lab, said Laura Dallmann, an administrative assistant in the electrical and computer engineering department.

Dallmann said 3D printing is mainly used for senior students' capstone design projects like building enclosures for electronic equipment they've built.

For the architecture department, that kind of technology wasn't practical, Bernard said.

"It's exciting that the technology has become inexpensive enough for education to jump on board," he said.

The technology they're using is relatively user-friendly. Bernard said it takes students only about an hour to get set up and learn to use the printers for the first time.

John Schneider, a December 2012 NDSU graduate, is bringing 3D printing technology to the public through the studio he's opening in October.

At his studio, Meld Workshop, members have access to 3D printers, laser cutters and other equipment for creative types, inventors and hobbyists.

He agreed the technology behind 3D printing and design has simplified, especially the programs used to create printable designs.

"Before you almost had to be an engineer to understand how the 3D design works," he said.

While he said consumer use right now is limited, it will grow as designs for printable materials become more widespread.

"It's only a matter of time before you start to see people having 3D printers in their homes," Schneider said.