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Additive manufacturing – also known as 3D printing – is becoming increasingly common at university libraries, industrial labs, and art studios. So far, it’s mainly been the purview of hobbyists and CAD users – at least as far as higher education has been concerned. But some schools are now using this exciting technology to solve real-world problems and revolutionize the manufacturing industry. Take the University of North Georgia, for example.
At the University of North Georgia, the art and physical therapy departments are collaborating to create low-cost assistive devices for severely disabled students. For now, they’re mainly focusing on custom devices that interface between quadriplegic kids and off-the-shelf tricycles.
At the moment, such orthotic devices can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. They’re cumbersome and time-consuming to manufacture, and young students rapidly outgrow them. For families with disabled kids, these products can be difficult or impossible to acquire.
Fortunately, 3D printing is drastically improving custom orthotics, while simultaneously driving down their prices. Dr. Jon Mehlferber, Visual Arts Professor at Northern Georgia, has been using Makerbot‘s Replicator to prototype a variety of parts: pedal attachments, headrests, saddles, and more. The Replicator works by extruding small amounts of plastic into hollow or webbed components, which then fit right onto the trikes for which they’re designed.
Is 3D printing limited to plastics? Not at all, says Mehlferber, who notes that higher-priced printers can process a variety of materials, including steel. These models often cost around $15,000 to $20,000, but they’ve already come down in price over the last few years. Some of the plastics-only models are now as cheap as $2,000, and even Makerbot’s most expensive printer is less than $3,000. These still aren’t very accessible to the average consumer, but are certainly cheap enough for expanding university departments.
Another huge benefit of 3D printing is that it allows for near-instantaneous customization. In the past, customization an orthotic device required plaster casts of the eventual user – a costly and time-consuming process. Now, with modeling software like Blender, designers and manufacturers simply need a few dimensions of the users and their devices. If a student outgrows a part, manufacturers can simply “print” a new model with the altered dimensions.
Mehlferber sees 3D printing as a perfect marriage of a constant need – manufacturing – and rapidly-improving technology. The combination of printers and CAD software is already driving down costs and production times for all sorts of items, and things are only looking up from here. In the near future, the addition of 3D scanners may even allow orthotists and other manufacturers to completely automate parts of their design processes.
As far as universities are concerned, it looks like 3D printing is only going to become more popular. They’re already occupying library and lab space that’s been freed up by digital data, and the prices keep heading southward. Because so many other resources have been digitized, it may soon come to pass that tangible objects – not papers – are the end products of students’ homework and tests.