A recent project at Indiana State University married two of the hottest trends in today’s manufacturing and logistics industry: drones and 3D printing. A group of seniors studying manufacturing engineering used a cutting-edge 3D printer to build two drones, technically called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Unlike years past when students ordered pre-manufactured parts to assemble, this project required them to “print” the entire frame of the drone using 3D printing technology—an emerging method that’s revolutionizing the manufacturing sector.

Major manufacturers from aerospace giants like General Electric and Boeing to toy maker Hasbro have publicly announced their use of the technology, while other companies are quietly exploring its potential. ISU Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Manufacturing Engineering Dr. Alister McLeod says the method enables manufacturers to “print” components from a computerized design, rather than machining them. He says employers are increasingly hungry for students who have 3D printing experience. (LISTEN McLeod1) 15097

“When you look at everything that’s happening in the manufacturing field from cost-saving initiatives to new designs,” says McLeod, “I think this particular technology is something a new graduate coming out of college should have an idea about, because they will be exposed to this throughout their entire careers.” (LISTEN McLeod2) 15098

To emphasize the cost-saving aspect of 3D printing, the project required the students to 3D build the frames for two UAVs—one with three propellers, and one with four propellers—while keeping dollar amounts down. McLeod challenged the two teams to complete their UAVs for $300 or less, about half of what it typically costs.

“We have a strong design program, and sometimes it’s hard for [students] to move from the design to an actual product,” says McLeod. “Being able to design something in computer-aided software is one thing, but then actually building it is a totally different thing. The students are given a chance to see how their virtual reality designs come out in actual reality.” (LISTEN McLeod3) 15099

For recent graduate Grant Fultz, the class project combined the best of both worlds; he earned a degree in mechanical engineering and minored in unmanned systems.

“This class was like a dream come true. It was probably one of the classes I enjoyed the most throughout my entire undergrad,” says Fultz. “It was hands-on work, and we got to build something from scratch and see it fly at the end of the course. By that time, I had enough UAV flight experience that I knew how to handle it pretty well too.” (LISTEN Fultz1) 15100

Fultz is hopeful his career will involve UAVs; he wants to land a job with NASA and has also applied for graduate school to continue studying UAVs.

“Almost everything I’ve applied for involves some sort of rapid prototyping or 3D manufacturing,” says Fultz. “It just seems like you almost need that experience now for any sort of research or engineering-related area.”

McLeod says he regularly fields calls from Rolls-Royce, Raytheon and GE “asking me to send them students.” He anticipates the department’s increasing work in 3D printing will drum up even more interest from manufacturers looking for graduates with experience in the budding technology.

“If you have an understanding of this particular technology, you are very marketable,” says McLeod. “All of the students in the manufacturing engineering technology major are hired before they leave school; this is a big, big field and a very sought after major. Even during the recession, it was these guys who were getting hired.”

While the project focused on engineering students, many of them were also completing a minor in UAVs. ISU recently announced students will be able to major in unmanned systems beginning in the fall; the university is the first in the state to offer a bachelor degree in UAVs.

School leaders say projects involving 3D printing will continue and even increase within the College of Technology. McLeod believes crossover with students now able to earn a degree in unmanned systems provides a one-two punch for graduates wanting to be on the leading edge of two technologies taking the industry by storm.

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