By Will Ferguson, College of Arts and Sciences
PULLMAN, Wash. – Machines in physics professor Peter Engels’ lab are custom-built to take precise measurements and withstand extreme temperatures. Each component is unique, expensive and time consuming to build.
But a new three-dimensional printer in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Technical Services Instrument Shop gives Engels and other Washington State University researchers a faster and cheaper way to design and to build prototypes and parts for their research and equipment.
“This gives us unprecedented freedom in the design of our instruments, which is essential in the competitive field of ultra-cold physics,” said Engels.
Safe prototypes, cheaper parts
Technical Services’ new 3D printer, located in the basement of Webster Hall, is about the size of a vending machine and can make plastic objects as large as 10 inches wide, 10 inches long and 12 inches depth.
Long spools of plastic string are heated into a gel-like gel by an electrical circuit inside the printer. Then, a mechanical arm in the printer compartment precisely deposits the molten plastic layer by layer onto the printing platform.
Finally, Dave Savage, Director of the Instrument Shop, removes the finished object and rinses it in a detergent bath to remove the backing material. The whole process only takes a few hours.
“The benefits of 3D printing are twofold,” said Savage. “If you’re working on a prototype and you’re not sure about the geometry, you can print the part before spending the time and materials to machine it from metal.
“Or, if you need functional plastic parts that are not readily available off the shelf, the 3D printer can make them cheaper, faster, and at a fraction of the cost of machining them,” he said. declared.
Bone copies, cultural artefacts
Technical Services are planning to purchase a 3D scanner to increase the number of services it can provide to the WSU community. The device will allow Savage and his team to create digital copies of organs, bones, fragile cultural artifacts and other small objects that can then be recreated in durable plastic.
“We are just getting started in 3D printing,” he said. “I am really excited to work with researchers from different departments on campus. We can design just about anything they need help with.
Cheaper than milling, wholesale purchase
For example, Savage worked with Brian Clowers, assistant professor of chemistry, to custom design a protective housing to house an ion mobility spectrometer component.
“Scientific instruments tend to break over time, and commercial manufacturers prefer to wholesale spare parts,” Clowers said. “The good thing about the new 3D printer is that I can send Dave my own designs for one component and finish just one the next day. It saves time and money.
Recently, Savage printed latches to secure the doors to animal enclosures in the veterinary facility. Milling the latches in the machine shop would have cost $ 18 each, he said. The fully functional 3D printed versions cost around $ 5 each.
“We have a price scale based on the volume of material and the printing time,” he said. “It costs about $ 4.50 per cubic inch of plastic, then $ 4.20 per hour of machine time. I will press the print button on my way out and have a finished part when I enter the store the next morning.