3-D Printers Show Unlimited Potential

by Luke Jones  on Monday, Feb. 4, 2013 12:00 am  

“We’ve made impeller blades that we’ve used to make molds off of,” Hill said. “Then we’ve actually made molds for impeller blades, and molds for sleeves, and parts that are hard to fabricate. Other than just making parts to make other stuff out of, we make parts to test as well.”

On a smaller scale, 3-D printers can make manufacturers out of individuals. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock, for example, also has a 3-D printer, which is used both for study and business.

George Tebbetts, chair of the engineering technology department at UALR, said the machine was purchased about two years ago with some startup money for a faculty member in system engineering. The faculty member has since left, leaving it to the devices of the engineering department.

Since then, fellow engineering professor David Luneau started using the printer to manufacture part of a special wireless bird-watching camera he designed that fits into tree cavities. Luneau, who famously shot the 2004 video that Cornell University experts declared to be of an ivory-billed woodpecker in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, sells the cameras from his website for about $500 each and sends them all over the country.

Tebbetts said he and Luneau had also printed and sold parts to Cameron of Houston’s process valve facility in Little Rock and Avionics & Systems Integrations Group of North Little Rock. The money they make then goes toward buying more cartridges for the school’s 3-D printer. Tebbetts said the cartridges cost about $250 each.

The technology does have some limitations. Creating an object can take a long time, and if the process is interrupted — say, by a power outage — the machine shuts down and has to start the project over.

“If you’ve got something that takes 140 hours, about 110 hours in you’re puckering, hoping that doesn’t happen,” Hill said.

A 3-D printer can make a working mechanical object, usually by “tricking” the machine into thinking the object is a solid piece but leaving tiny threads of plastic between the moving parts. But machine parts made of plastic are usually not terribly useful.

“One of the things you see typically is a wrench,” Tebbetts said. “They are good demos, but plastic won’t carry heavy loads. It does show what kinds of intricate things you can make.”

Additionally, most 3-D printers are limited to opaque ABS plastic and can’t make an object larger than the space inside the chamber.

“We would really like to have the ability to put different kinds of material in,” Hill said, noting that he’d like to be able to produce bigger objects made of stronger material to withstand more vigorous testing.




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