Since its inception, metal 3D printing comes in many shapes and sizes. With the technological advances made in the past few years, you can now go from idea to finished metal part in less than 48 hours. Using metal 3D printing to educate the next generation of engineers and product designers is therefore a reality for a growing number of universities around the world. In this guide to metal 3D printing in education you will learn:
- The benefits of using a metal 3D printer in technical university programs
- How metal 3D printing works and what you can achieve
- How two universities are using metal 3D printing to improve skills
- Tips & tricks for setting up your own 3D printing lab
Making the case for metal 3D printing in education
University programs with a technology focus, such as engineering, have two main objectives when educating their students. Firstly, they want their students to build a technical knowledge through theory-heavy classes. Secondly, they are a place for their students to learn and practice real job skills before moving on in their career.
The skills are often built through projects. This means the students learn through experience, not theory. However, this type of methodology requires technical resources in the shape of machinery, tools et cetera. Even though many universities may have desktop 3D printers throughout campus, there is rarely one, single lab to support students’ projects.
This is where innovation centers or fab labs come into play. These centers provide a centralized physical space for students to interface with manufacturing technology directly. From user cases worldwide, these centers have proven to be perfect places to introduce students to plastic and metal 3D printing. By having access to manufacturing technologies, we can better prepare the next generation of engineers for the growing use of 3D printing in the industry.
What is metal 3D printing?
Since its inception, metal 3D printing today comes in many shapes and sizes. In short, there is powder bed based metal printing and filament based printing. Power bed printing requires more from the user and the environment in which it operates. Therefore, in this guide, we will focus on filament based metal printing with the Metal X printer solution from the US company Markforged. It is one of the most accessible and cost-effective metal 3D printing solutions on the market. It also allows you to go from idea to finished part in less than 48 hours.
Filament based metal printing still uses powder, but in bound form. Bound powder is a technology used by metal FFF, or Free Form Fabrication. Bound powder is safer and less flammable than loose powder. Unlike loose powder, it doesn’t require specialized PPE or dedicated rooms to deploy. Bound powder solutions necessitate extra steps in order to remove binding material and sinter the printing media into fully metal parts.
In order to additively manufacture parts, 3D printers need to alter the phase of the printing media at some point during the process. Plastics — which have relatively low melting temperatures between 200C and 400C — are far simpler to print compared to metals, which typically have melting points in the 1100 to 1400C range. These high melting points mean that any metal printing technology must include a high energy process at some point during manufacturing.
A high energy process is constant — however, you can sort metal 3D printing processes by when and how they apply it:
During printing, as a means to form the part: Some printing processes build parts by metallically fusing them together, usually by means of a laser. These high energy processes that happen during printing are precise and isolated, with only the specific section of a part currently being printed subject to the process. As a result of this isolated high energy process, many parts incur internal stresses that must be thermally cured after printing.
After printing, as a means to metallically fuse an already formed part: In other processes, the part is formed using a low energy process, then metallically fused after printing using a high energy sintering furnace. This process works for both loose powder and bound powder based machines. Using a sintering furnace has advantages and disadvantages — parts sintered do not typically have internal stresses, but do require an additional step in the process.
Accessibility key to OsloMet’s 3D print lab
Mikael Omlid has worked for 11 years at the department of product design at Oslo Metropolitan University. Here, he has helped build a 3D printing lab that the students can utilize for their learning or for printing prototypes for projects. The product design program at the university is non-engineering based, meaning it has a more user and aesthetic focus.
“When we built the 3D printing lab, I had two main goals”, says Mikael Omlid. I wanted to make it accesible, meaning the students needed to have machines and technology that was easy to learn. I also wanted the lab to represent the current state of additive manufacturing technologies.
”What we have found when students use the lab is that we are not just pushing pure additive thinking, but also the hybridization of the prototyping process, using the right tools for the right job. They are able to think in completely new ways and can physically prototype things. This is something that is only possible using additive manufacturing.
3D printing for electric skateboards at Purdue University
US based Purdue University has an advanced prototyping facility and manufacturing center started by students, for students. The center has students using 3D printers for everything from electric skateboards to electric racing cars. The available technology is free for all students — of which there are 400,000 of them. Students have the opportunity to use 20 cloud-enabled 3D printers, including two Markforged Metal Xs and two Mark Twos, as well as traditional manufacturing equipment such as CNC mills, CNC lathes, and a full wood shop. The idea behind the center is to have students come in, try their hand at creating something, and drive a product from idea to actualization.
“3D printing is a really good way to introduce and entice people into fabrication with low effort and low risk,” says McMillin.
The center has over 20 student supervisors to assist anyone looking to use additive manufacturing for their project. McMillin says the Mark Two’s carbon infill control is something students enjoy the most.
“The resolution and fit and finish that you get out of those is superb in comparison. They print reliably and the finish is beautiful straight off the machine.”
Tips for building a 3D printing lab
Job skills at technical universities and vocational schools are often taught via project-centric curriculum. Here, students learn through experience instead of lecture. While project-centric curriculum is a great concept, most universities are not equipped to support the initiative. Fabrication resources are often dispersed throughout campus, largely unavailable for general student use. That’s where innovation centers come in. They provide a centralized physical space for students to interface with manufacturing technology directly.
Use of the space can vary from university to university, but most allow students to bring class, club, or personal projects from concept to creation. This is the perfect way to introduce students to additive manufacturing as a means to create parts that would traditionally be made using subtractive manufacturing methods.
Here are some key considerations for teachers, tech staff and purchasers when looking into setting up a 3D printing lab at a university or vocational school:
- A crucial first step is to find out what the needs are. Determine who needs or wants 3D printing capability; what they will use it for; what resources you may have; and what those who may already have 3D printing capability would like to do if they had more.
- Once a needs assessment is made, you can start browsing for what 3D printers to invest in. It may be a good idea to appoint someone in charge of printer selection and another person or group to make sure the lab is set up according to rules and regulations.
- When looking for the right printer models, make sure to factor in service, software, warranty, training and licenses. Also, calculate the total cost of operations. Make ample time for the investment – three to six months might be needed.