In a massive machine shop filled with lathes, band saws and computer controlled mills, three brightly-lit 3-D printers look unimposing, but they represent a paradigm shift in engineering.
Weeks ago, the College of Engineering and Computer Science bought the Airwolf 3D HD2x from the Costa Mesa-based manufacturer and within a day, students were using the printer to create custom objects made from durable plastic.
Just a decade ago, the kind of 3-D printing being done in the Cal State Fullerton machine shop was done on extremely high-priced machines in the workshops of engineering and design corporations.
Now, students can take the 3-D models they are designing in their classes using software like SolidWorks or Pro/ENGINEER and print them directly to see how they function in the real world.
“If we can design it on a screen, we can manufacture it directly,” said Raman Unnikrishnan, Ph.D., dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science. “The near future is already here.”
As student engineers work on their senior design projects, the 3-D printers can cut out multiple stages of the engineering process. Students no longer need to send their designs to a manufacturer to create a mold and then wait for the manufacturer to send it back, the 3-D printers can print the projects in a few hours in the machine shop.
“It shortens the design cycle for sure,” Unnikrishnan said. “Students have very limited time, a semester goes by very quickly when you have a lot of complicated engineering projects.”
The objects created by the printer can be a final product, but often they are a stage of engineering. Once a part is printed, the engineer may realize that it needs to be slightly smaller or other adjustments need to be made. With the new printers, the engineer can go back on the computer, make modifications and have a new model on very short notice.
Once the design is finalized, molds of it can be made and the finished product can easily be mass produced.
Parts can even be downloaded from the Internet and printed directly, said Jonathan Woodland, the mechanical technician and graduate student who oversees the machine shop.
Once a 3-D design is fed into the printer, a printing head heats up a bead of plastic filament fed from a spool attached to the machine, much like a hot glue gun. Like pixels in a photo printed from a desktop inkjet printer, the head lays down line after line, starting from the bottom layer of the shape. Once the first layer is done, the printing tray moves down a notch and the machine starts on the next layer.
Layers build on each other until something that minutes ago only existed as a file in a computer becomes a solid, tangible object that a designer can hold in his or her hands.
The 3-D printers used in the machine shop retail for about $4,000, but Airwolf 3D provided discounts and free merchandise, as well as a second printing head add-on which allows printing two different colors or materials at the same time.
Unnikrishnan and Woodland were impressed with the company when they visited Airwolf 3D’s headquarters a few months ago, and met with Airwolf 3D President Mark Mathews and CEO Erick Wolf.
Since then, Wolf and Mathews have paid a visit to the College of ECS and this semester will be working with students on engineering senior projects.
Airwolf 3D was honored recently by the OC Tech Alliance with a High-Tech Innovation Award in the Enterprise Hardware and Device category.