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Printing in Three Dimensions at Springfield College

Joe Brown

Joe Brown/The Student
Joe Brown/The Student

The first reaction Springfield College Professor Harold InDelicato receives when a student discovers that there is a new 3-D printer on campus is usually worth a hearty laugh.

“I’ve actually had a number of people come over and say, ‘I’ve got my glasses…where’s the 3-D printer?’”

The 3-D printer on the second floor of Blake Hall in the MAYA Lab is nothing like the stereoscopic 3-D that most people are accustomed to in the movie theater, where images appear to pop off of the two-dimensional screen and provide depth to the picture. In fact, the printer itself is nothing like most printers. It does not even use ink.

“It’s actually a rapid-prototyping device. It’s made to make things,” InDelicato said. “It makes physical objects from ABS plastic.”

The printer looks more like something found in a science lab than in a student’s dorm room. It moves as it works, using a process called plastic heat extrusion to coil hot plastic, which basically sticks together as the machine gradually releases the plastic.

The printer is in its infant year at Springfield after InDelicato decided that it was a worthy investment.

“I was interested in a bunch of new technologies, and I was looking at options for Springfield College, and I thought that this technology would be beneficial to most of my students in terms of 3-D and modeling,” the second-year Springfield College professor said.

The positive applications that 3-D printers can achieve are practically limitless at this point, according to InDelicato. Higher-level experimental printers are already being used in the medical field to help treat burn victims. Instead of printing with plastic, those printers use actual human skin. It may sound gross, but it is a process that is helping to save lives.

“That’s why I was so interested in this technology in the first place, just seeing how much it can make a difference in our world, and all the good that can happen because of something like this,” InDelicato said.

NASA is also using 3-D printers to experiment with creating components while in space on a mission.

“It’s like taking an entire warehouse and compressing it into a piece of plastic and then while you go you make what you want,” InDelicato added.

The 3-D printer in the Visual and Performing Arts Department is a mid-level device made for the average consumer, but also capable of professional prints. It can print on a 5-by-5 in. scale, so InDelicato and several students have experimented by printing a number of different objects. They include such items as an adjustable wrench that can actually adjust, an octopus, a flea, a microbe, and a human skull based on a real model. Most of the models’ sizes are adjusted to either be larger or smaller than their actual sizes.

“We’re trying to print as many different things as possible so we can look at the different areas that could be involved in this technology,” InDelicato said.

With great power, however, comes great responsibility. There are concerns that people can use these printers for violence. It is possible to create a gun, which can fire a few shots before breaking down and falling apart. The printer in the MAYA Lab is under lock and key, and is kept under close watch. InDelicato believes that a failsafe device will be inserted into devices in the near future to prevent them from being used for the wrong purposes.

The possibilities for 3-D printers are still not completely discovered, which means that the applications for the devices are perhaps endless. InDelicato hopes to create a class at the institution focused on using the printer and experimenting with its capabilities. He stressed that the printer may belong to the Visual and Performing Arts Department, but that it is for the use of all of Springfield College.

“We want to bring others over here and we really want to integrate this device with all of the departments,” InDelicato said. “I think this device is perfect for something like that because you have so many different disciplines interacting towards a goal.”

It may not require 3-D glasses to operate, but the future of printing has arrived at Springfield College.

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