Wabash 3D Printing Center Among First at Liberal Arts Schools

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The center will become fully operational within a year. The center will become fully operational within a year.

As 3D printing revolutionizes the manufacturing industry—and finds niche roles in a long list of other sectors—educators are following suit in how they train tomorrow’s work force. With 3D printing centers being more common at large universities with engineering departments, Wabash College believes it’s among the first liberal arts schools of its size to launch a 3D printing center. From prototyping to artistry, the school believes 3D printing is a “game changer” in its curriculum and in connecting with local businesses.

The college is using a $22,000 grant from Independent Colleges of Indiana/Ball Brothers Venture Fund to establish the 3D Printing and Fabrication Center (3D-PFC) on campus.

“[3D printing] is going to be something that connects across so many fields and disciplines. It’s so ubiquitous that, in a way, it’s a liberal arts model of technology being used across the curriculum,” says 3D-PFC Director Dr. Lon Porter. 

Porter—also an associate professor of chemistry—sees his field, in particular, as a building block for 3D printing. He says most polymers used in 3D printers are off-the-shelf, but complex chemistry is opening the door for “some really exotic materials to come to the marketplace.” He notes polymers with embedded carbon fibers are being used to 3D print high-strength parts for engines and drones.

“We’re starting to see materials that are much more application-driven. Another example would be polymers that change color based on light exposure or temperature,” says Porter. “So, if you have a part that you know is going to stress at a certain temperature, you can put it in a working prototype. Based on the chemistry, at a certain temperature it will change colors, and you can do stress tests in real time.” 

Housing eight 3D printers, it’s likely the center will generate a large demand for unique materials to print with.  The college’s Center for Innovation, Business and Entrepreneurship (CIBE) will serve as a liaison with local businesses. CIBE Director Roland Morin says students will work on solving real-world prototype and manufacturing challenges.

“There’s a significant amount of manufacturing that happens in Montgomery County,” says Morin. “And we hear a lot about how liberal arts students do very well within manufacturing; there’s a lot about solving problems in new and interesting ways. So we need to give our students an understanding of what is additive manufacturing.” 

The center is also giving students an opportunity to flex their entrepreneurial muscles. Cole Chapman, a chemistry major, has been working at the center for several months. He’s printing fluorimeters, which he says typically cost about $30,000 for an industrial version, but his team has printed a smaller one for about $75.

“The idea is to get instrumentation into the hands of teachers and educators who could use these low-cost tools to show off these different processes and get kids interested in the sciences,” says Chapman. “These [instruments] do chemical processes that you normally couldn’t show in a middle school or high school, or even undergraduate level.”

The process of making smaller and less expensive scientific tools for use in the field or in classrooms is called miniaturization. Chapman, who wants to be an analytical chemist, says it’s “big right now” in the bioanalytical field.

“It’s highly possible that I’ll continue to use 3D printing, especially with the field I’m looking at,” says Chapman. “The really cool thing about 3D printing is if my model didn’t work the first day, I’ll redesign it and print out another one tomorrow. It makes prototyping very, very easy.” 

Scheduled to become fully operational within a year, the center will be part of every department’s curriculum. The school says the 3D-PFC will use a “holistic” approach to study 3D printing, focusing on STEAM—adding “art” to the traditional STEM fields.

“Introducing our students to cutting-edge know-how and cutting-edge technologies—these are going to be skills that I would daresay are going to be prerequisites to a lot of fields in the near future,” says Porter. “This is bringing different disciplines together and preparing our students to solve the problems of the 21st century.”

Porter says the college will use the center to collaborate with local businesses.
Porter, who also teaches chemistry, says 3D printing is an entirely new way to problem solve.
Chapman says using the 3D printer is helping prepare him for his future career.
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