College campuses forge ahead with 3-D printing


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While 3D printers are becoming increasingly common on college campuses, giving full-access to students is a trend officials said they may not want to risk.

Michigan State University recently made a 3D printer readily available for student use by putting it in the Main Library, according to the university’s library site. Though the University of Iowa has three 3D printers on campus, officials have not opened the printers for full use by students and are not considering it anytime soon.

3D printers create a three-dimensional object of almost any shape from a 3D model, using software programs. The software transfers the design template to the printer, which then lays down materials — such as plastic, powder, and steel — in successive layers until the product is finished. Two of the UI printers are at the Studio Arts Building, and one is at the Engineering Model Shop.

“The 3D printers at the Studio Arts Building offer services available to students, but our staff does not offer hands-on experience with them,” said Andrew Evans, a UI information technology consultant and 3D printing facility manager. As for putting a 3D printer in the Main Library, library staff members have explored the idea but found too many drawbacks.

“We would need staff members who have expertise in 3D printing and would be able to help students with their projects,” said Kristi Bontrager, the UI Libraries public-relations manager. The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences does offer training for 3D printers, but because of the high cost of materials and sensitivity of the equipment, the school requires that students be supervised by one of the printing staff.

Bontrager said she was also concerned with developing a cost-recovery procedure, considering additional expenses involved with the specialized printing and including the 3D printer in the current print-charge system. She said if the UI Libraries did decide to invest in a 3D printer for the Main Library, it would be in a location in which staff would work with students who use the technology.

“The 3D printer wouldn’t be sitting next to the regular printers,” Bontrager said. “As with any new technology, there would need to be significant assistance available for anyone’s use.” The UI is on par with other Big Ten universities, such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in its 3D printing policies.

At Wisconsin, extensive research into advancing the technology associated with 3D printing is taking place at the Morgridge Institute for Research, but the printers are not fully accessible to students. “[Wisconsin] has an advanced fabrication lab, and that’s where all our 3D technologies takes place,” said Brian Mattmiller, the communications manager at the Morgridge Institute.

Morgridge Institute mechanical engineer Robert Swader said the two 3D printers on Wisconsin’s campus are not available for student use. However, the institute does allow students to print on a cost-recovery basis by sending their files to designated operators.

“[The 3D printers] are expensive pieces of equipment,” Swader said. “If you made them open to anyone who wants to use them, it would be hazardous to the technology.” He said he imagines it’s becoming a trend to offer 3D printing services on college campuses.

The University of Minnesota and Penn State are also beginning to feature 3D printers on campus, according to their university websites. Both institutions offer access to two 3D printers for certain classes.

“3D printers are harder to operate, take additional training, and have an extensive cleaning procedure,” Swader said. “It would be risky to put our printers in such a public place, especially without staff members overlooking the technology.”

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