CAMDEN —Sometimes, not all of the parts needed to perform a research lab experiment are readily available, but that isn’t stopping some creative Rutgers University–Camden students from thinking outside the box.If they don’t have it, they’ll invent it.
It’s becoming more common for students to use 3D printing technology to build tools for their research labs, and it’s much cheaper than buying spare parts or having them made.
“It depends on the project, but now we’re basically using a 3D printer every day to create something we need,” says John Tomko, a junior physics major at Rutgers–Camden.
In 3D printing, layers of material are formed to create three-dimensional objects produced from a 3D model designed on a computer. Tomko and his classmates have recently used the technology to print an object capable of holding a cuvette (a small tube) in place in order to better perform spectroscopic experiments.
“3D printing comes out of necessity for us,” says Sean O’Malley, an assistant professor of physics at Rutgers–Camden. “For example, we needed an object to hold an optical filter. We had no other good way of holding it in place, and it’s not a fancy part, but without 3D printing, it would be difficult to do. A few years ago, we probably would have had to design something and send it out to a machine shop to produce.”
The entire process — from concept to design to printing — takes only a few hours once the students determine what type of tool they’ll need to help perform their experiments.
“It’s become indispensable, because sometimes what you need isn’t available,” says Rich Jimenez, a Rutgers–Camden physics instructor and 2012 Rutgers–Camden graduate. “You can design and print your own device or tool and by the end of the day, you have it.”David Salas-de la Cruz, an assistant professor of chemistry at Rutgers–Camden, says 3D printing is changing the status quo in various industries.
“The technology is accessible to the public, and it’s already being used by mom-and-pop shops and in classrooms in high schools and universities,” Salas-de la Cruz says. He is the director of the Fabrication Lab at the LEAP Academy University Charter School, where Rutgers–Camden students assist LEAP students in grades 6-12 in hands-on, design-based projects that focus on the STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
There is a 3D printer in the “Fab Lab” and Rutgers–Camden students like Hideki Yamamoto help LEAP students design and print anything from gears for robotics projects to puzzle pieces. Yamamoto recently worked with LEAP students to conceptualize and print a reusable water filtration device that can be inserted into water bottles.
“My job was to make it go from a prototype to a working product,” says Yamamoto, a sophomore pre-engineering student. “In the end, we were able to obtain a provisional patent with the final version. Now we are working on performing design testing to improve its efficacy. This entire process — from designing a prototype to obtaining a patent — was all possible thanks to our 3D printers. This shows how 3D printers let students be more creative, giving them the ability to see their creations.”
Yamamoto continues, “The most satisfactory feeling is to see a student hold something that was only an idea minutes before it began printing.”
The number of objects that can be created with a 3D printer are almost limitless, Salas-de la Cruz says, from something as simple as the robotics gears made in the Fab Lab to something as complex as a prosthetic arm.
The technology is being used in the electronics and automotive industries among many others and, according to news reports, the US military has even designed its own 3D printer and models are being used by soldiers to repair weapons on the ground rather than wait weeks for parts to arrive.
“We’re living in an age of technical realization,” says Salas-de la Cruz, who recently delivered a talk on 3D printing at the University of Pennsylvania. “Engineers and business owners have an easy way to bring into practice innovative object solutions with 3D printing instead of going to another company to manufacture an object. It’s making businesses much more efficient and ultimately, we want to make it a bigger part of the curriculum here at Rutgers–Camden.”