by Liz Lizama
As new technologies continue to emerge, Virginia Tech’s Northern Virginia Center jumped on the opportunity to connect students, faculty and the local community with tools for 3D design and 3D printing. This spring, the Northern Virginia campus in West Falls Church launched its first Maker Lab after a yearlong effort to get the project operational.
Originally the space was used as a standard computer lab for instruction. “We thought we can convert this to something else,” said Dr. Kenneth Wong, Associate Dean of Virginia Tech’s National Capital Region and Director of the Northern Virginia Center, explaining the shift as most students owned tablets or computers now.
While Virginia Tech already owned one printer, the center successfully submitted a proposal to join 3D Systems Maker Lab Club, a community of institutions offering 3D design, scanning and printing. As a result, 3D Systems awarded the remaining printers.
“I think it’s a very interesting technology,” said Dr. Wong of his motivation for spearheading the initiative. “The other part was the university as a whole is interested in making a community for innovation and entrepreneurship, so we build this technology not only for our students, but the community in case someone wants to create a prototype.”
The lab is equipped with a total of seven 3D printers, a laser scanner and 20 workstations that have a number of design software options. Each can convert designs into a readable input file for the 3D printers. The printers use a roll of PLA plastic material, which melts at 215 degrees Celsius and hardens in order to create the desired 3D object.
The latest printing technology capabilities provide a community resource to a variety of fields. Educators particularly interested in using 3D printing for teaching math, design, arts, engineering or architecture can customize objects to use for instruction.
“One of the nice things about it is if you can design it, you can print it,” said Dr. Wong, in contrast to conventional design. “Rather than have to take a block and shape it,” he explained the simplicity of modifying blades in creating wind turbine models, as one example.
One student also used 3D printing to create a prosthetic hand.
The project seeks new approaches to learning, research and economic development but also aims to create a thriving community of inventors.
As such, the lab has open hours where staff is available to walk one through the design and printing process. Additionally, the center offers instructional workshops in order to learn ways to use 3D printing technology.
Dr. Wong said tutorials and designs are also available online for common use should one need that option.
Enabling the community access to design and printing technology fosters the creativity Virginia Tech hopes to achieve with this initiative. According to Dr. Wong, public libraries are exploring printing services where one can send a file to be printed by staff. The Maker Lab, on the other hand, encourages more design and innovation while also offering resources for guidance and exploration.