3D Printing

MIT Manufactures New 3D Printing Ideas

The next major leap forward in additive manufacturing — more commonly known as 3D printing — could pour out of a graduate course at MIT. Already, some capstone projects from the class have resulted in patent applications and others have been written up for peer-reviewed publication.

John Hart, an MIT associate professor in mechanical engineering, introduced his "additive manufacturing" course in 2013, after moving to the Massachusetts institution from the University of Michigan College of Engineering. The 14-week course covers the basics, such as how additive manufacturing works, machine technologies, design methods, how additive manufacturing addresses industry needs and emerging processes and materials.

Along the way students learn how to use commercial-grade 3D printers to fabricate objects they've designed themselves. From there they move into design and printing of lightweight bridges intended to sustain as much weight as possible while conforming to specific constraints as part of a class competition.

Next, they're asked to "reinvent" the technology of 3D printing.

As Hart explained in an article on the MIT website, "I asked them to think completely off the rails, if they could conceive a 3-D printer that's never been made before, or a useful material that can't be printed using current printers." The goal: "to identify the biggest problems or creative opportunities, then rein ourselves in and say, 'What can we actually do this semester?'"

In a paper recently published in Additive Manufacturing, Hart described how teams created prototype machines for 3D printing molten glass, soft-serve ice cream, biodegradable material and carbon fiber composites; other teams came up with machines to handle "large-area parallel extrusion of polymers" and perform "in situ optical scanning" of the printing process.

Ice cream and glass? As Hart explained, to achieve food printing, the student team flipped over a "low-cost printer" and placed it inside a freezer, then fed it a stream of ice cream solution from a rotating Cuisinart. To help the ice cream maintain its shape as stars and circles as it printed out, the team "piped in" steady shots of liquid nitrogen. "I had never eaten something that came out of a project before," said Hart. "It was cool."

The glass printing prototype was built from scratch. It was tested in the MIT Glass Lab, where students scooped molten glass from a furnace, poured it into a printer and stood next to it with a heat source as they figured out how to perform the process. That's one of the printer designs that has gone off for patent consideration.

Now Hart has turned his additive manufacturing program into a one-week executive education offering, which will be delivered this summer. The $4,700 class will teach participants the same kinds of basics, share case studies and provide hands-on time with equipment.

"Through our teaching and research, we hope to open up new opportunities for 3-D printing," Hart noted. "To me, it's not clear yet what all those opportunities are. It's only a matter of time for the creativity of the world to figure that out."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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