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Power to the People: Mass Manufacturing for the Masses Takes Off with EDSGN 497D

How often have you wished you could manifest that perfect plastic doohickey: A bracket to keep the wobbly chair from sprawling guests on the floor; a cable organizer for the mess of wires behind the television; a replacement cover for the remote so that the batteries stop falling out; a plastic triforce statue to add some geek bling to your home decor?

Thanks to the innovation of open source 3D printing (OS3DP), known as RepRap, anyone can now create these items in just minutes. If you’ve paid any attention, even mainstream media outlets have been covering the diffusion of this technology into common experience.

Instead of ink, 3D printers use plastic filament to create three-dimensional physical objects from digital models developed on a computer. However, it is the open source element is what makes 3D printers truly unique. All the designs, instructions, and software are available online at no cost, and are constantly being improved by a community of dedicated individuals across the world. All that it takes to build a RepRap printer is a few hundred dollars for parts —many of which can be printed by an existing machine— and some free time. The do-it-yourself attitudes of the homebrew computer club seems to be replicated in the basements and garages of those who dabble in 3D printing.

This spirit of innovation has made its way to State College via a course (EDSGN 497D, Open Source 3D Printing), which focuses exclusively on RepRap design and technology. The class, which allows students to pursue interests across a variety of related fields, fosters not only innovation and creative problem solving, but also structured risk taking. Students choose development projects to pursue, such as the implementation of heated beds to reduce instances of warping as parts cool, and work both in class and out to realize their ideas. In addition to the research and development of new open source printer technology the course operates a print service for introductory engineering design classes and other university-affiliated organizations. Students from a wide range of Penn State’s academic disciplines, not just engineering, can contribute in a way that is relevant to their specialization.

Beyond an introduction to and immersion in the world of 3D printing, EDSGN497D also offers a crash course in modern issues of intellectual property, sustainability, and an environment in which the open-source maker mentality thrives without corporate support in a world obsessed with DRM, copyright, and licensing. Current events in the larger RepRap and maker communities are frequently topics of class discussion, as well as of weekly blog posts.

Maria Poluch, student coordinator of the printing service, joined this class last spring and is taking the course again this fall. “The class lets you experience what a real engineering design project is like. It forces you to work with different types of engineers and see how everything comes together as you see your project through,” Poluch said. “The class experience is unique for each student because you get to tailor the curriculum to your own interests. As a chemical engineer, I wanted to get a taste of entrepreneurship and was a part of the startup of the Print Service. Some students worked on building the printers and improving the design of parts, while others worked on perfecting the electronics and programing of the software we use. There’s a lot of flexibility, but the instructor expects you to leave some impact on the RepRap community.”

While the goal of having an open source 3D printer in every home is far from realized, the students of EDSGN 497D, and the rest of the RepRap community throughout the world, are working to bring every person the freedom of printing his or her own physical objects. Someday, these individuals hope their work may be spoken of in the same breath as Gutenburg’s printing press and Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web.

“With support, this could enable a new mode of education at all levels, where 3D printers develop the technology and engineering components in ‘STEM’ into curricula in truly dynamic way,” says instructor David Saint John. “This technology provides an affordable way for smaller schools or colleges to ‘level up’ their prototyping capabilities, it has uses in lowering research costs more widely, and it can be scaled up or down easily. We’re looking to fund wider distribution to educators in Pennsylvania, but this entire project happened by accident, to be honest, so our capabilities are limited by what donations we can find.”

Funding for the OS3DP project has been provided through generous contributions from the Samuel A. Shuman Endowment, as well as support from the Learning Factory and the The School for Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP).

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