3D Printing

Princeton Uses 3D Printers for Custom Lab Equipment

Three-dimensional (3D) printers have emerged as an important tool to help researchers at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) at Princeton University produce laboratory equipment.

Three-dimensional printers can create objects made of plastic, metal, ceramic or organic material by extruding thin layers of material according to computer-aided design (CAD) specifications. The researchers at PPPL conducted a series of experiments to determine how well a 3D printer could produce various types of lab equipment. They used the 3D printers to create plastic parts and tested those parts for use as electrical insulators and for operation in a vacuum. They published the results of their experiments in a paper in the American Journal of Physics.

The researchers discovered that while 3D printers can print many laboratory parts adequately, they aren't suitable for printing parts that require a high level of precision because the size of the individual layers of the printed part tend to vary from the specifications by a fraction of a millimeter. For parts that don't require that level of precision, the printers performed well.

The parts also passed the vacuum and stress tests. The strength of the resulting parts matched that of bulk plastic parts, and the 3D parts could withstand pulling. They also performed well in a vacuum, as long as they were kept below 75 degrees Celsius. When they exceeded that temperature, they emitted hydrocarbon gas, which can contaminate the vacuum and affect plasma experiments. The 3D-printed parts also proved suitable as dielectric insulators for electrodes.

"The ability to print this material in any size, shape or configuration provided an unmatched flexibility to quickly and efficiently test new configuration ideas for different experimental conditions," said Andrew Zwicker, the head of Science Education at PPPL, in a prepared statement.

The research paper, "The suitability of 3D printed plastic parts for laboratory use," can be found on the American Journal of Physics site.

About the Author

Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at leilameyer@gmail.com.

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