Think about 3-D printing and you might think about something super high-tech. It’s the kind of thing that happens in laboratories and at big companies. It’s definitely not kid stuff.
Except when it is.
At Philipsburg-Osceola Middle School, students are getting their hands on some of the new technology.
Randy Edelman teaches tech at the middle school. He also guides the technology club through exploring new projects. The newest is a 3-D printer that looks more low-tech than it sounds.
The machine came to the class through a partnership with Penn State’s physics department and the university’s CarbonEarth fellowship program.
“And ourselves,” Edelman said. “I participated in research to get it up and running.”
That’s right: up and running. The printer — a complicated setup of wooden frame, metal rails, glass plates and gears — was not exactly plug-and-play when they took it out of the box.
“We bought a kit. It came in pieces,” Edelman said, calling it a “very entry-level” hobbyist version.
It took a while to get it working, but ultimately the first project for the printer was, well, the printer. Using designs at Thingiverse, a website for 3-D printing projects, Edelman and his students printed knobs for the printer’s controls and a holder for the spool of plastic filament that is the “ink” that forms all of the items.
The printer uses polylactic acid or PLA, a biodegradable plastic made from plants. The plastic is heated to 184 degrees Celsius and then deposited onto a glass plate, also heated to 145 degrees Celsius. The depositor moves back and forth, side to side and up and down to create the product in question.
“It’s a difficult kind of thing. You really have to start thinking in three dimensions. You think you’re already doing that, but when it comes to designing, you usually don’t,” Edelman said.
Lindsey Bickel, a seventh-grader, can tell you that. She’s taking her time with her project, an attempt to render her name in a solid form. It has not been as simple as writing the letters and having the printer follow the pattern.
Instead, Edelman said, she has to think about how the letters come together, how they connect and the negative spaces inside and around them to come up with a successful design.
By contrast, the tech club boys who are working on their solar car are having an easier time with some simple but important shapes.
“We are making wheels,” seventh-grader Dylan Gilmore said.
They used a 3-D modeling program to make the design. They tried the wheels in different sizes. Each one took 20 to 30 minutes to go from strands of red plastic cable to solid wheels about the size of a compact disc.
The club has also made other things. Some tried patterns they found for key chains and trinkets. Others got input from another educator. Math teacher Jackie Mills helped them come up with tessellation puzzles that don’t just show how the machine works, but emphasize its precision as the identical pieces interlock in infinite ways.
Edelman said using the printer is an intersection of math, science, geometry, art and design.
“Technology such as the 3-D printer allows our students to make real-world connections to 21st century concepts and innovation. It’s a hands-on learning experience for our kids,” Assistant Principal Brian Pelka said. “Through this technology, our kids create tangible products of their own imagination and effort.”
Right now, Edelman said, the printer is mostly used by the tech club, but other students are giving it a try, too. Bickel isn’t a tech club member, just an interested student who wanted to get her hands on it.
“I like to see how it works. I think it’s really cool,” she said.