If you want to see the future of engineering education, one of the best places to start is the department’s new Rapid-Prototyping Laboratory. This $2 million facility features a growing array of sophisticated 3-D printers including an $180,000 Fortus 400mc capable of producing objects in plastic within an accuracy of +/– 0.005 inch.
“These machines are marvels of technology,” says Dwight Dart, the design lab engineer. “They take designs produced in computer-aided design (CAD) programs and translate them into real objects, building them up a layer at a time.” The lab also includes computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines, automated machine tools that cut designs from solid materials. Dart has just installed a second, powerful CNC in the lab, which can work with virtually any kind of metal.
As impressive as this technology is, the real impact is felt in the classroom. “There is no better, more immediate way for students to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a particular design than through rapid prototyping,” Dart says. “In the process, they also gain a better appreciation of what it takes to be a more thoughtful, creative designer.”
Although the lab has been operational for just a year, rapid prototyping has already been incorporated into the curriculum of many department and Engineering School courses. In a section of Introduction to Engineering, for instance, students compete to design and produce the strongest cantilever using just 2 cubic inches of plastic. Last semester’s winning design supported 85 pounds.
In his third-year mechatronics class, Assistant Professor Gavin Garner used the 3-D printers to create all the parts needed to create a 2-D printer and supplied the necessary motors and switches. He challenged students to perform the software and electronic engineering necessary to make it functional, both in manual and automatic mode.
Not surprisingly, the Rapid-Prototyping Laboratory is now a gathering place for students working on design projects — just as it was meant to be. This modern, light-filled facility includes a lounge where students can collaborate on their projects, and also houses more than a dozen CAD workstations, separated from the prototyping area by a wall of glass. “It’s a place where students can take an idea and turn it into something tangible,” Dart says. “That’s a powerful experience.”