When UDPL’s first 3D Printer was delivered back in May of 2015, I was admittedly a novice. My greatest hope as I slid the Cube Printer out of its box was that I would be able to print pre-loaded files until I could figure out how do make my own. My literature background didn’t prepare me for working with additive printing technology, but I’m a quick learner and three years later I’m a confident designer, teacher, and 3D printer maintenance woman.
Since May of 2015, Kay Klocko and I have held sixty-four 3D printing classes that have been attended by 415 members of the UDPL community. That’s a lot of classes and a lot of printing! Exactly how much printing, you ask? Well, if you consider that the spools of plastic filament that we use in our printers each hold approximately 360 ft and we’ve gone through at least eight full spools (plus a whole bunch of partial spools!) that’s just about 2880 ft or a little over half a mile!
And in all of those classes and with all of those prints, I’ve answered countless questions about the printers and the technology used to make them work. I’m pretty good at answering most of these questions since I know the printers inside and out. I can tell you how to make a print stronger (change the shape of your infill pattern to linear) or cleaner (have some faith in your printer and files and only use support structure when it’s absolutely necessary) or prettier (white filament actually gives greater detail contrast than black). But in the last couple of weeks, most of the questions I’ve been asked haven’t had anything to do with what the UDPL printers have already done, but what they have the potential to do.
What the UDPL printers cannot do is print a working gun.
There are a lot of reasons for this including:
- Those files that are in the news were meant for resin printers and UDPL only has extruder printers. Without getting too technical, UDPL’s 3D printers work a lot like a glue gun – solid plastic is fed into a heated extruder which pipes out very thin layers of plastic which build upon each other until you have a finished product.You can watch your object emerge as it prints because the only plastic that comes from the printer is plastic that is necessary for the print. Resin printers lay down a layer of liquid adhesive in object-specific patterns that are then covered with powdered resin. As the resin cures, it hardens into the shape of whatever is being printed within a great pile of the powdered resin. The final object is unearthed from this pile and polished, leaving behind a lot of extra material. Resin printers do make stronger, more durable prints, but they are much more expensive machines that require a lot of ventilation.
- UDPL only uses one type of 3D printer filament and that’s polylactic acid (PLA) filament. It’s a biodegradable plastic made from corn that is recyclable and much safer for the environment. If any object made in our 3D printers ends up in a landfill, it will completely disappear within six months or sooner depending on temperature and humidity. In fact, PLA filament degrades so quickly under the right conditions that when Kay made a drain catcher for her kitchen sink, it dissolved under hot tap water in just a couple days! PLA isn’t made to stand up to heat of any kind, including that caused by the friction of firing a weapon. Our printers can also use Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), but we don’t because it isn’t biodegradable and because our printers don’t have heated print plates. Without heated print plates, ABS warps and makes sloppy prints.
- Currently staff, usually Kay or myself, screen the prints that go through our printers and while we’re mostly just looking for flaws in the files that could cause prints to fail, we’re also making sure that the objects we’re printing follow our guidelines. The UDPL 3D Printing Use Policy states that our printers will not print any objects that are “Unsafe, harmful, dangerous, or pose a threat to the well-being of others. This includes, but is not limited to, explosives, guns, gun parts, and other weapons.” (Click here if you’d like to read the entire policy.) We’ve considered this concern long before we ever placed the order for our first printer and it is something we are dedicated to following.
So what are the UDPL’s printers currently printing? Well, it changes day to day, but here are just a few of the projects we’ve participated in in the past year alone:
- Members of the UDHS Robotics Team used our printers to design parts for their competition robots including paddle “hands” that allow the robot to pick up objects.
- A 10th grade UDHS student worked with me, 3D artists in Sweden, marine biologists in Australia, and salt-water aquarium experts in Philadelphia to design artificial coral that can be placed in a tank to scaffold actual coral as it regenerates and grows.
- I had the honor of working with a team from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) to develop 3D models of common viruses (flu and strep) as well as models of the human immune system cells that attack them. These files and the models made from them were a part of a new AP Biology module CHOP was developing to help students learn how our immune system learns from vaccines.
- One of our teen summer interns has worked with an Upper Dublin grandfather to design and print a model of Superman wearing a cape with his grandsons’ names emblazoned across the back.
- A middle school student at SRMS designed, from scratch, a historically accurate (although very, very tiny) model of a colonial stockade which he then printed for an assignment in his history class.
- The first grade daughter of the UDHS librarian designed a 3D printed kitchen gadget to quickly cut slices of pizza into bite-sized pieces for her baby sister. And while the cutter didn’t work quite as well as she wanted, she did have the best presentation on inventions in her class!
- A rising UDHS senior worked with me this spring to develop a series of workshops for elementary aged students that he will be co-teaching with me starting in the fall. These classes will not only teach 3rd through 5th graders how 3D printers work, but will give them the chance to design and print their own objects! As an added bonus, the designs will not only be able to be printed, but also imported into Minecraft or translated into plans that the students can create with LEGO bricks!
I encourage you to stop by the STEAM Lab any time to see our printers in action. Most days they’re printing something or other (right now I’m in the middle of a project to print dinosaurs in every color of filament we offer – I’m up to fourteen and still have a few more to do!) If they aren’t printing, I’d be happy to run a test print for you so that you can watch a chain or a small shark appear before your eyes. If you can’t make it in to see us, you can also visit our 3D printing information page by clicking here.