Barry McNamara  |   Published February 04, 2015

3-D printing

What will ‘resident experts’ Crawford and Tsogtbaatar come up with next?
  • Monmouth physics students Berkh Tsogtbaatar and Patrick Crawford pose with the college’s new 3-D printer.
In the not-too-distant future – “within my lifetime,” predicts Monmouth College physics professor Chris Fasano – three-dimensional printers could be used to print body tissue, such as cartilage.
“The bio-mechanic possibilities are really interesting,” said Fasano. “Doctors could say, ‘We’re going to print you a better knee.’ They might print kidneys or hearts, eliminating the need for human transplants. The stakes are really high, and it’s a tremendously interesting and exciting field.”
Monmouth’s role in 3-D printing would “be part of the research effort” to make such medical advances possible, said Fasano. Thanks to a recent acquisition by the college, students are learning their way around the relatively new technology, which was first developed in the 1980s.
Like the famous ice cream chain Baskin and Robbins, Monmouth’s physics students have access to 31 different “flavors” of materials they can use in their department’s new 3-D printer. Although delicious desserts have been printed in 3-D, chocolate isn’t one of the flavors being used in the Center for Science and Business. Rather, some of the materials are crushed ceramic, which prints a “faux-stone” that resembles marble, and a faux-bronze, in addition to an assortment of nylons and plastics.
Berkh Tsogtbaatar, a sophomore from Skokie, and Patrick Crawford, a junior from Plainfield, are the resident experts of the new technology. Their first major project has been to help Fasano with his lightning research, for which he received a $228,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
The NSF grant allowed the college to purchase the printer, which is paying for itself already. The pieces that Tsogtbaatar and Crawford have printed would have cost about $100 apiece to purchase from a manufacturer, and Fasano needed as many as 100.
Fasano needs electric field mills to measure Earth’s static electric field in the moments before, during and after a lightning strike. The professor said he has been through Plans A, B and C to try to obtain the mills at a reasonable price. Plan D could also be called “Plan 3-D,” as the blades that Tsogtbaatar and Crawford have created for the mills “are coming out nicely,” said Fasano. “If they work, we will have finally solved our problem.”
“We realized, ‘Hey, we can make these ourselves,” said Tsogtbaatar, who did summer research on campus with Fasano, focusing on 3-D printing. “We printed the first set of blades, and they came out slightly porous. So (physics students) Nick Devor and Nick Olson are electroplating them, and we’ve switched materials to a different type of non-porous plastic to print the rest of them.”
To the layman, the 3-D printer has the look of a small aquarium, right down to its clear exterior. On one side of the printer is a spool that feeds the material into a section of metal teeth, which then forces the filament – or “ink” – up through a tube, where it is heated to more than 200 degrees Celsius (for nylons) and as high as 270 degrees (for metals). The latter temperature is more than 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
“The printer prints a layer, then drops the Z axis and prints another layer,” said Crawford, with Tsogtbaatar adding, “The movement clarity is less than a sub-millimeter. How accurately you can print depends on the material you’re using.”
The issue of repairs has been convenient so far, explained Crawford. “If one of the parts breaks, I’ll just print a new one. If it’s not metal or clear plastic on this machine, we can print it.”
“We picked this printer even though there are other ones that are more polished,” added Tsogtbaatar. “But there is no control on the user end of those printers. We have a lot more control with this one. As an example, we can change the speed of the printer mid-print. It also allowed us to use a lot more materials.”
What’s ahead for Monmouth’s most-accomplished 3-D printers to date?
Tsogtbaatar is working on a new way to measure rainfall as part of what Fasano called “a new kind of weather station.” The task, he said, is “very messy,” with plenty of code writing and code conversions to master but, he added, “They’ve both gotten really good at it, and they’re very excited about it.”
Beyond that, Tsogtbaatar said, “I’d like to explore industrial-grade printing – things that are multiple meters in size. I can think of an idea for a product, then print it out and see if it works. It’s rapid prototyping – cheap and fast.”
“I dream of helping to make the 3-D printer on the International Space Station more efficient,” said Crawford, who is also interested in the field of medical physics. “It’s a very integral part of the space initiative. If you’re in space, and you need a very specific type of wrench, you can print it.”
Neither Tsogtbaatar or Crawford is planning to print their food soon, however.
“It’s pretty cool, though,” said Crawford of the process. “You just run chocolate through the tube instead of nylon.”
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