From Tinker Toys To 3D Printing: Meet Dr. Timothy Simpson

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Dr. Timothy Simpson doesn’t consider himself a leader in the 3D printing field, but his body of work suggests otherwise. The jointly appointed professor has been hard at work since graduating Cornell in 1994. He spent time at Georgia Tech, MIT, and NASA’s Langley Research Center. He’s helped publish over 400 academic papers, which focused on everything from space exploration to the design of an ice scraper. More recently, he was named as a 2015 Penn State Teaching and Learning with Technology Fellow.

Yet when asked about all of these accomplishments, Dr. Simpson remains humble. Instead of taking all of credit, he is quick to share his recent accomplishments with his Penn State research lab: The Center for Innovative Materials Processing Through Direct Digital Deposition, or more simply called CIMP- 3D. “I would say that our lab is a leader in the field as we are fortunate to have a great team of faculty, researchers, staff, and students to work with at Penn State and the Applied Research Lab,” Simpson said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today given all the complexities you face when transitioning your products or your company to additive manufacturing.”

After all, 3D printing has really taken off in the past few years. The manufacturing process has encountered a sort of culture shift, as 3D printing has broken into the mainstream. 3D printers, which were once exclusively used in high caliber labs and facilities, can now be purchased as kits at Walmart for under $2,000. Maker spaces are building these machines, bringing the possibility of 3D printing to anyone who walks through their doors.

Penn State isn’t immune to this 3D printing sensation. Currently, there are more than 30 digital scanners and 3D printers on Penn State’s campus. While that number is impressive, Dr. Simpson is working to ensure every Penn State student will be able to have access to a 3D printer.

One of Dr. Simpson’s main projects as a TLT fellow is the Maker Commons initiative. Located in the library, the Maker Commons will give Penn State students access to a variety of technologies, including 3D printing using MakerBot technology. For Dr. Simpson, providing 3D printing access to students is an incredible feat for the university. “Can you imagine what will happen when anyone with a PSU ID can 3D print something?” said Dr. Simpson. “Oh, and it’s going to be free the first semester or two. It’s going to be awesome!”

However, the Maker Commons isn’t the only project Dr. Simpson is working on at the moment. Earlier this month the CIMP-3D announced a partnership with 3D Systems. The partnership, which is funded the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute America Makes, allows for the lab to add another 3D printer to Penn State’s repertoire. The new machine, a metal 3D printer, actually gives the lab more 3D printers than many companies in the field. The CIMP-3D lab will adapt some of their process monitoring and sensing technologies to 3D Systems’ machines, so the partnership is beneficial both for the company and for Penn State. “This will give them a competitive advantage in the marketplace, and hopefully lead to new projects and partnerships with other industry sponsors and government agencies,” Simpson said.

The future for Dr. Simpson and the CIMP-3D looks bright. Dr. Simpson has a slew of research questions he wants to investigate, mainly focusing on the design aspects of 3D printing. “I’m hoping to focus next [on helping] our design and analysis tools catch up with what additive manufacturing technology can already do,” said Dr. Simpson.

For Dr. Simpson, the educational component that comes along with all of these advances in 3D printing is just as important as research. That’s why he appeared at a congressional hearing over the summer about the importance of 3D printing in STEM education. Due to their affordable prices, more and more high schools are investing in 3D printers. These printers are investments, and educators need to understand how to integrate the technologies in their curriculums. Luckily, Dr. Simpson is full of ideas to make that happen. “They can print out complex mathematical equations to improve understanding, they can print out sample bones to look at how joints work in the body, and they can do all sorts of fun, hands-on activities that weren’t possible before,” Simpson said. “It’s making learning fun again.”

At his very core, Dr. Simpson is doing just that– making learning fun again. From his advanced research to his advocacy, he’s pushing the frontiers of what education can do. He even brings that passion for learning home. Just instead of focusing on design and analysis there, Simpson opts for Snap Circuits and Little Bits to teach his two kids about his work at Penn State. Though the thought of bringing a 3D printer home has crossed Simpson’s mind. “It’s amazing how fast they pick these things up,” said Dr. Simpson. “I’m also borrowing a 3D printer right now to see if my kids take an interest.”

Photo By: Penn State
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Anna Foley

Anna is a senior majoring in Communication Arts & Sciences and Spanish with a minor in Theatre. Yes, she went to Spain. Follow her half-funny thoughts @exfoleyator and send her chain emails at [email protected]

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