What do a transfer box on your car, the mold for your new retainer, and a desktop pencil holder have in common? They are all products that can be created using a three-dimensional printer. An industry valued at a whopping $12.6 billion in 2020 according to market data analyzing firm Statista, 3D printing products and services are mostly known for their uses in the manufacturing and engineering fields, but the technology is largely a curiosity to those outside of those industries.
The process itself is known as additive manufacturing, as opposed to subtractive processes such as drilling and milling.
“You have three steps that you have to do,” says Arthur Chlebowski, assistant professor of engineering at the University of Southern Indiana. “You have to come up with a 3D design, you slice it (in a program) like a slice of bread, and then you give it to the machine.”
2D printers have an x-axis and y-axis, such as length and width, while 3D printers also have a y-axis of height. Instead of printing onto paper, 3D printers print plastic layer by layer onto a base and often add specialized materials for support that can later be removed. In the 3D world, ink is replaced with plastics (polymers), metal, and even concrete.
The most common technique in 3D printing is a term trademarked by Stratasys — maker of the first 3D printers to hit markets in the mid-1990s — called Fused Deposition Modeling (also known as Fused Filament Fabrication). FDM utilizes a filament of plastic that is heated until it’s malleable and deposited through the printer nozzle like liquid through a hot glue gun.
“I always tell people that a 3D printer is no different than a paper printer,” says Andy Beadles, engineering instructor at Southern Indiana Career & Technical Center. “The trick is, what you send over (to the printer) makes a huge difference.”
3D designs transferred to the printer are created using Computer-Aided Design software. Many schools and businesses in the Tri-State use SolidWorks software, which creates a 3D model and slices it into individual layers like the layers of a sandwich, giving the printer XYZ coordinates to read.
Once the printer is running, creators can sit back and wait for as little as a few minutes to up to a few days for a completed product. Filaments come in a variety of colors and can create products to be hollow, solid, flexible, or even glow in the dark. Products also can be aesthetically modified through techniques like sanding, painting, or dip coating.
Originating in the mid-1980s, 3D printing is an industry expected to grow at an annual rate of 17 percent between 2020 and 2023. In fact, it’s even becoming mainstream, with tabletop printers now available at retailers such as Staples and Home Depot. As technology evolves and printers become increasingly affordable, Tri-State educational institutions with decades-long histories of 3D printing have emerged as leaders, balancing staying in the know on industry standards with preparing the community and its students for a 3D future.
The Southern Indiana Career & Technical Center has used 3D printers in its curriculum since 2004. The tech school educates juniors (who attend in the mornings) and seniors (who attend afternoons) from Indiana high schools in Spencer, Posey, Vanderburgh, Warrick, and Gibson counties in 22 areas of study focusing on science, technology, engineering, and math.
“Part of our deal here at the Tech Center is staying on top of industry standards, because we want our kids when they are here as seniors in high school to go into a company or internship to be up on the news and the best stuff the industry has,” says engineering instructor Emily Reidford.
Beadles’ and Reidford’s courses are project-based, so 3D printing plays a key role. After lecturing on a subject, such as how to utilize intensive CAD software, students largely have unlimited access to the printers during class time for course and client related projects.
“They can start anything they want to during class, and it can run overnight,” says Emily. “It’s one of the first things I get asked at every event and open house: ‘Do we get to use the 3D printer?’”
Besides course work, students use the printers for projects submitted to the school by community members and local companies, and second-semester seniors can spend their SICTC portion of the day working in industry-related internships.
Shawn Lightner and Reece Reitz are North High School seniors who have attended SICTC for both eligible years. The students first learned about 3D printing in North’s introduction to engineering and design course and now have their own tabletop printers at home.
“Being introduced to (3D printing) four years before I even go on to college really helps prepare you and understand how the design your making on the computer translates to what you actually hold,” says Lightner.
“There are some people who I know at my home school who are seniors, and they have no idea what’s going on,” adds Reitz. “They’re terrified about college, paying for everything, and (SICTC) had done that already for me. I’ve gotten past that unprepared phase, so now I can build and keep going forward.”
As the engineering coordinator for the district, Beadles organizes all the engineering courses in the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation and says several schools down to the K-6 level have 3D printers operating in their classrooms. In higher education, 3D printing isn’t new but plays an increasingly integral role in engineering experiences.
At the University of Southern Indiana, assistant professors of engineering Chlebowski and Todd Nelson teach students to use two machines in the Applied Engineering Center and another six machines, including one student-made delta-style printer, in the Business and Engineering building. Down the Lloyd Expressway, the University of Evansville’s Koch Center for Engineering and Science is home to 12 printers.
Both schools’ equipment varies from enclosed and open frame tabletop machines to professional temperature-controlled, manufacturing-grade printers. Instructors say the more diverse options students have access to, the more they can experiment and use the 3D printers for the universities’ goal: to demonstrate an understanding of the design process from start to finish.
Both schools allow 24/7 access to the printers. Many students utilize them for senior design projects, parts for competitions such as the Baja SAE off-road vehicle series or parts on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Club’s autonomous robot.
“We want them to use these machines,” says Chlebowski. “If 3D printing is something you want to learn … I want to get that student introduced to that concept or topic so that they can use it in the future. It’s all part of the learning experience. Try it out and see what happens. If it fails, it’s fine.”
In terms of formal curriculums, most courses focus on the concepts and tools needed to be a successful engineer and how 3D printing can fit into those processes. USI’s engineering technician program through the Center for Applied Research offers students 3D design services to community members. At UE, mechanical engineering freshmen start on 3D printing in their first semester with a class on 3D modeling from scratch.
“In the last five years where 3D printing has been a part of the curriculum, (students) know they’re going to design something in 3D,” says Jeff Cron, staff engineer for the UE School of Engineering and Computer Science. “It allows them to use their creativity.”
While the novelty of 3D printing is appealing to students, the universities’ focus on the machines and their software reflects the technology’s growing importance in local industries. Molding, baking, drilling, and milling are methods of traditional manufacturing that are well known for their effectiveness, but also their limited accessibility due to costs for setup and machinery.
3D printing has opened the doors for students, startups, and even hobbyists to create prototypes, test new products, and more. Nelson and Chlebowski use the printers for research, with Nelson focusing on mechanism design inspired by origami.
“3D printing’s been really awesome for it because I’ve been able to create geometries that weren’t possible using traditional manufacturing methods,” he says. “(3D printers) are more and more common in the industry. Students have the skills to take it, learn it in school, apply it, then hit the ground running. I think in terms of making new products and iteration, 3D printing is the way to go.”
On the commercial side of 3D printing, production and prototyping uses have exploded just within the past six years.
Faster turnaround times and stronger adaptability to design changes compared to traditional manufacturing processes such as injection molding has made 3D printing the preferred production method in more and more industries ranging from automobile manufacturers to industrial engineering labs.
Wired Orthodontic Lab, an appliance fabricator in Evansville formerly known as Ritter, uses two Envision One cDLM printers as well as a Formlabs Form 2 printer to create 3D oral models for clients, which are in turn used to create retainers and other orthodontic appliances. The retainers fabricated on these tabletop printers include Essix (clear plastic shells), Hawley (hard plastic plate connected by thin metal wires), and fixed (a thin wire than is bonded to the inside of the teeth).
The introduction of 3D printers to the industry has revolutionized the way labs such as Wired produce appliances, something owners Wesley Unfried and David Heim have experience first-hand.
Most adults who had braces when they were younger probably remember gagging on a gelatinous material stuck to the roof of their mouth to collect a dental impression when it was time to get their retainer. These impressions are what Unfried and Heim first used to fabricate retainers when they purchased Wired from previous owner Mark Ritter in 2015.
But that uncomfortable, rigid process soon became a method of the past as intra-oral scanners gradually replaced traditional dental impressions. The increased demand forced the two business partners to purchase their first 3D printer in 2017.
“It was a big change for us, going from the traditional way with impressions transitioning into 3D printing,” says Unfried. “It’s been a recent development within the last four years, and we got into it to meet the demand of our clients and to accommodate them.”
The newer EnvisionTEC printer’s speed and efficiency allow Wired to cut down on its production time from nearly three weeks to as little as an hour.
“The great thing about these EnvisionTEC printers that we’re using is the speed on those printers is about 45mm per hour,” says Unfried. “With that speed, we can usually print out about six working models, depending on orientation, in about 20 to 30 minutes. It all depends on the height of the model, but it just prints them out pretty dang quick.”
The images collected using intra-oral scanners are sent to the labs to be printed, and within a day, Wired can have clients’ retainers printed and delivered.
“A lot of our clients have iTero brand scanners, so we have a database that we go to on their website, then we download the files from there,” says Heim. “They are typically an STL (stereolithography) file.”
What makes the EnvisionTEC printers different from other types of 3D printers is the photopolymer resin used to produce the models. Referred to as Continuous Digital Light Manufacturing, this process involves a perforated build platform that is lowered into a tank of photopolymer resin that is cured with a projector lens and then pulled out of the resin. After the models are printed, they are cleaned with isopropyl alcohol to rinse off the excess resin and baked in a UV curing box.
While cDLM is just one type of 3D printing, the most common method is still FDM.
At Escalade Sports, a sporting goods manufacturer, distributor, and retailer headquartered in Evansville, engineers use a Stratasys F370 to print models for prototyping and design testing.
A team of six engineers at Escalade uses the printer, which is about the size of a refrigerator, to create models for nearly all of their designed products, from basketball goal rims and pickleball equipment to billiards, dart boards, and table tennis products.
“As we’re designing new products, the 3D printer gives us the ability to quickly find out if an idea is actually going to work or not,” says Design Engineer Clay Seitz. “When you design something on the computer, it’s easy to say it will work, but once you actually get a model physically in your hands, you can better see how components do or do not mesh together. A lot of things are difficult to actually visualize without a printed model.”
Using SolidWorks, engineers can fabricate just about any prototype that will fit onto the 14-by-10-by-14-inch build platform using a mix of Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene model filament and Quick Support Release filament. The support material is a fragile plastic used to prop up any overhanging or undercutting sections present and is printed alongside the model.
The printer nozzle heats the ABS filament to anywhere between 190 and 255 degrees Celsius depending on the material being printed. As the printer switches between laying down model and support material, the nozzle temperature fluctuates.
The QSR material can be broken off or dissolved when soaked in a bath of sodium hydroxide, leaving a freestanding prototype.
“That gives you the ability to print real complex shapes,” says Seitz. “Some of the at home printers that are a lot more basic, you have to design in the supports, but with our printers, it’ll automatically build up a dissolvable structure to support the models.”
While these larger, more complex printers aren’t suitable for residential use (the cost of one can reach tens of thousands of dollars), there’s no doubt that 3D printers have changed the game when it comes to production solutions.
“I’ve been lucky in my experience since I’ve gotten into the engineering field, we’ve had 3D printers,” he says. “But 10 or 12 years ago, before 3D printers became affordable, prototypes were mostly handmade. I know in the past here at Escalade Sports, we had machinists that fabricated prototypes in our shop for proof of concepts and testing.”
For hobbyists, 3D printing opens a door to nearly limitless possibilities. From fish-shaped fidget toys and board game pieces to pop culture trinkets, more consumers are eschewing shopping to instead design and print the things they want.
Due to its popularity, 3D printing prices continued to become more affordable. Individual, at-home units range from $300-$500, with higher-end versions retailing for up to $1,500.
“After that first year of (Introduction to Engineering and Design at North), I was enthralled with it, and that Christmas, I asked for a 3D printer of my own,” says Lightner. “I have a Creality Ender-3. It’s really affordable to get into 3D printers because I got mine for less than $200.”
“I like the fact that I can make (something) on a computer, play Minecraft, and then have it in real life,” says Reitz. “Going from computer to in my hand is really interesting.”
Reitz’s at-home projects have even included 3D-printed Christmas gifts.
“One woman I work with really likes squids,” he says. “It was around Christmas, and I made a 3D print for everyone, and for her it was a squid with a little Santa hat, and as I pulled it off the printer bed, you could move its tentacles.”
More than anything, 3D printers becoming mainstream has moved cutting-edge technology into the hands of people from an array of backgrounds and skill sets and opened the door to a world of innovation.
“(3D printing is) very versatile,” Lightner says. “You come up with an idea, you make a sketch and then you can immediately put that into our CAD software and design it, and within usually the same day you can create what you thought of and have it in your hand.”