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McMaster Universitys EPIC Lab introduces students to 3D printing

Self-replicating RepRap 3D printers enable rapid prototyping to boost the learning experience

The availability of low-cost three-dimensional (3D) design and printing technology is revolutionizing not only product development, but also the teaching of design engineering at universities and other academic institutions worldwide. While there have been serious barriers to adopting the technology in the past such as the cost of hardware and also a lack of easy-to-use design software for non-CAD specialists, the open-source self-replicating RepRap 3D printer initiative, culminating in the latest Ormerod 3D printer, in addition to the free-for-download DesignSpark Mechanical 3D modelling software tool from RS Components, is transforming the landscape for engineering academia worldwide.

While 3D design and printing is becoming an essential part of the electronics product development process in many industries – increasing numbers of companies are beginning to see the benefits of using the technology to create quick-turn-around prototypes and save months in the design cycle – another area that can also significantly benefit from the availability of low-cost 3D printing technology is the world of academia. One educational establishment that is using the capabilities of the new generation of low-cost 3D printers – specifically the RepRap printers – is the McMaster University in Canada to further the learning experience of first-year engineering students.

Experiential Learning

McMaster University is based in Hamilton, Ontario, and is a leading public research institution that is well known for its innovation and excellence, as well as being listed in the top 100 universities across the world[1]. The Faculty of Engineering at the university has placed significant emphasis on experiential, or heuristic, learning for students in their first-year engineering courses. These first-year courses offer students the opportunity to explore different engineering disciplines before entering into specialization in their second year. To support this objective, the faculty has developed what it calls the Experiential Playground and Innovation Classroom (EPIC) to foster student exploratory inquiry into topics that are related to their design and programming courses.

A key tool in this approach has been the employment of 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, which introduces first year students to some of the difficulties faced in the manufacturing process. Manufacturing requires consideration for tolerance, physical limits, efficiency and material properties: and all of these must be considered to realize a design. Dr. Thomas E. Doyle, a Teaching Professor in the Faculty of Engineering at McMaster, believes that students should gain an appreciation for these factors and also gain respect for the simplest of designs that exist in everyday life.

First Steps

Several years ago, Dr. Doyle developed the ‘Cornerstone Design Project’. The project initially offered mechanical analysis and solid modeling; and while the modeling results were impressive, the functionality of the models was not the focus. In the next iteration, Dr. Doyle led guided analysis focusing on the function of mechanisms, such as small gear trains within common consumer products. The students were tasked with designing a retrofit mechanism under different spatial and temporal constraints. The use of a physical modeling and simulation tool enabled the shift of focus from form to function.

This simulation environment allowed students to take CAD solid models – via the STL (Stereo Lithography) file format – and interact with them in 3D simulations to verify their functionality. The physical modeling and simulation software also provided a framework for validation of the student design against specification under imposed constraints. However, Dr. Doyle observed a notably increased variance in the visualization performance of some of the students. It was this observation that led to the hypothesis that student visualization would benefit from having the ability to bring their concept out from the abstracted projection of the 2D computer screen and into physical reality through 3D printing.

A New Approach – and RepRap

As a complete design cycle, students are now presented a specification for a functional device; and through a series of labs and tutorials, they are able to progressively complete a working gear-train design. While the traditional ‘Design and Graphics’ course ends with evaluation of ‘form’, the new approach continues into the realization and assessment of ‘function’.  By employing an intermediate requirement of real-time 3D simulation, the students take their design and verify their calculations through iterative testing and fully validate that their project will meet the design specification before moving to rapid prototyping. Once validated, students then have the unique opportunity to use and interact directly with a 3D printer to realize their design.

Dr. Doyle chose the RepRap 3D printers because RepRapPro, the company that markets the RepRap printers, offered a robust product with a team that had extensive experience in mechanical engineering design, rapid prototyping and education. The introduction of small and inexpensive rapid-prototyping 3D printers into the EPIC lab has meant that students can see their designs emerge from the abstract into reality by way of additive 3D printing. This has become possible due to the rise of low-cost 3D printers such as the RepRap, which is now available at a price of less than £500 via RS Components for example.

Initially, the design project has students complete manual calculations of their mechanism.  Students then build CAD solid models and verify their design functionality in incremental steps using simulation software. Once verified, the students then use the same file from the simulation (STL format) for the 3D printing process; students are then provided a short series of instructions for loading their designs on to the printer for physical creation. A solid modeling tool such DesignSpark Mechanical also outputs in STL format allowing users to get started immediately with RepRap printers.

The 3D Design Package for Education and Industry

Student feedback has been so positive that the EPIC lab has now significantly expanded the number of printers available to students and Dr. Doyle’s design course has fully adopted the RepRapPro 3D printers into its requirements. According to Dr. Doyle, students are now able to show friends and family what they are doing, in addition to making a greater connection to the engineering community and also improving their perception of the engineering profession in the process.

McMaster University is just one university among a potential throng that is taking advantage of this emerging 3D design and printing revolution. Today, the availability of low-cost 3D printing technology such as the latest Ormerod RepRapPro 3D printer, in conjunction with free-for-download and easy-to-use 3D modelling software such as DesignSpark Mechanical and an extensive library of 3D models – all of which are available from RS Components – means that 3D design and rapid prototyping is available not just to CAD specialists, but is now within the reach of a much wider number of users. This expanded universe can significantly gain from the benefits of 3D design and includes not only electronics professionals from a multitude of industries, but also students learning engineering at a range of educational institutions.

Educational establishments looking to make 3D design and printing technology available to their engineering students should contact the local sales offices of RS Components or Allied Electronics, available via www.rs-components.com.

Further information on RepRapPro is available at: www.reprappro.com.

DesignSpark Mechanical is available for free download from www.designspark.com/mechanical and support for the tool can be found via the DesignSpark community at www.designspark.com.

About McMaster University

McMaster University is a Canadian public research university that has its main campus near Toronto in Hamilton, Ontario. Founded in 1887 – the university celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2012 – McMaster is ranked in the top 100 universities in the world (Shanghai Jiao Tong University Academic Ranking of World Universities, 2012). The university has a total sponsored research income of $325.9 million, ranking sixth in Canada in research intensity (averaging $248,600 in research income per full-time faculty member, Research Infosource Inc., 2012). McMaster University has 1,377 full-time faculty members (including clinicians) and in the 2012-13 academic year, the university had 21,025 full-time undergraduates and 3,436 full-time postgraduates. Further information on McMaster University is available at: www.mcmaster.ca. Further information on McMaster University’s Experiential Playground and Innovation Classroom (EPIC) is available at: epiclab.mcmaster.ca



[1] Shanghai Jiao Tong University Academic Ranking of World Universities, 2012

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6 May 2014, 14:45