West Windsor, N.J. – Welcome to the new age of manufacturing. Mercer County Community College’s (MCCC) Advanced Manufacturing Technology program, which began in Fall 2013, is now equipped with two state-of-the-art 3-D printers that will enable students to design items using Computer Aided Design (CAD) and then print them out as a 3-D model.
According to faculty member Harry Bittner, industrial use of 3-D printers is growing, with sales of these printers increasing by 30 percent each year. MCCC was able to purchase its printers through a donation from the Tuchman Foundation, which also provided scholarship funds for students studying Advanced Manufacturing Technology.
Mercer will offer “3-D Modeling/3-D Printing” (DRA 218) for the first time this fall in a 10-week session that begins Sept. 30. Students studying Electronic Engineering Technology (EET) and Advanced Manufacturing Technology (AMT) will be eligible to enroll, as well as others with approval of the program advisor.
Instructor Rich Vanderbilt observes that the trend is clearly towards automation in manufacturing. “The machines do the work, but we still need the people to install, operate, troubleshoot and maintain them,” he said. Bittner added that students who have thorough knowledge of the 3-D printers and their maintenance will have an advantage in the future job market.
In a recent demo for college administrators and staff, Bittner explained the basics of the technology while the printer hummed in the background as it "printed out" a mini-traffic cone. “These may look like toys but they are built on serious technology,” he said.
According to Bittner, the printing process starts with students creating a 3-D model in CAD software. The CAD model is further processed through additional software called a “slicer,” which cuts the 3-D model image into thin layers in a way that is similar to an MRI taking images of the body. The slicer information is sent to the 3-D printer, which creates the object layer by layer.
Bittner says that the process is exacting and delicate. The plastic is first heated to soften it and the printer’s build plate is heated to 220°C. Humidity must be controlled and the plate must be level and at a uniform temperature to ensure proper cooling of the item.
“This is technology that works together,” Bittner observes. “These printers grew out of the need to create inexpensive prototypes. You can make small changes while you are still in the design phase without the cost and inconvenience of revising tooling. It’s an economical way for manufacturers to look for errors.”
Bittner is excited about the printers’ applications, especially the printers that make metal objects. (MCCC expects to purchase an industrial grade 3-D printer in the coming year.) Uses range from creating jewelry to molds for football cleats to tire treads to medical and aerospace parts. The oil industry is using them to make drill bits for oil rigs. He notes that in the medical field alone, the printers are being used to create hearing aids, titanium jaw bones, prosthetic limbs, and hip and knee replacement parts.