From the screen to your hand: 3-D printing lab installed in the College of Business

If students received a nickel for every 3-D printing lab affiliated with the College of Business, they would get 5 cents — not just in Champaign-Urbana, but at business schools throughout the world.

Youtube: 3-D Printing Lab

MakerLab is the College of Business’s new 3-D printing lab opened this semester to help students develop technological skills in design that empower them to succeed in an evolving consumer economy. The new lab accompanies a number of other 3-D labs already on campus, some of which are located at the Imaging Technology Group at Beckman Institute.

“The College of Business’ dean read a cover story in Wired magazine about how 3-D printing machines will change the world, and he was very receptive to our idea of the lab as a way to enhance the undergraduate experience,” said Aric Rindfleisch, executive director of MakerLab and professor of business administration. “We hope that students can take an interest in 3-D printing and build skills that we think, in a few years, will be very important.”

Vishal Sachdev, director of MakerLab and assistant professor of business administration, categorized 3-D printing as a form of “additive” manufacturing, where designs are built from the ground up, layer by layer.

Sachdev said 3-D printing uses design software to create three-dimensional models of objects that are sent to a printer, which creates physical objects out of a selected material including plastic and liquid.

“It’s a way of changing digits into physical evidence,” he said.

Rindfleisch added that 3-D printing has a variety of sources, and MakerLab mainly focuses on two ways for students to design their objects.

Students can download models from Thingiverse, a website Rindfleisch calls the “iTunes of designs and objects,” where they can modify and print over 50,000 objects spanning several categories.

Software programs are another source that offer the digital tools to essentially design objects, Rindfleisch said. MakerLab will use one particular program, Tinkercad, in one of its courses to teach students how to use software for 3-D printing.

MakerLab hosted an open lab Feb. 8 where students printed models of themselves from scanned images taken by a Kinect motion sensor in addition to using Thingiverse and Tinkercad.

MakerLab’s approval came after what Sachdev described as a “bubble” in the 3-D printing industry and its rising accessibility to consumers. He said 25 years of the technology’s existence were predominantly commercial, but recent years have seen growing activity among consumers.

“Now the machines can sit in your home, and the software’s so much easier to use,” Sachdev said. “The big players in 3-D printing have hyped up this new accessibility so much that their stock prices show a 300 percent growth in the last six months.”

Six printers sit together in MakerLab’s space, located in Room 103 of the Surveying Building. The printers, known as Replicator 2s, were named one of the best innovations of 2012 by Time magazine.

“Other areas on campus have much more advanced manufacturing machinery than the printers here, but they’re behind locked doors and you have to give an order to them,” Rindfleisch said. “The objective here and the ethos we stand behind is sharing open sources.”

MakerLab plans to hold design competitions along with their programming courses and experimenting with open hardware so interested students can interact with the lab as much as possible.

Rindfleisch and Sachdev encourage students and faculty to take on teaching and volunteer positions as well, hoping for learning experiences to extend beyond the uniform classroom setting.

Sachdev and Rindfleisch predict that MakerLab’s activities will be essential for many careers in the not-too-distant future.

According to the NMC Horizon Report, a research project designed to identify impactful and emerging technologies, 3-D printing skills were predicted to be required in curriculums across grade schools and higher education in the next four to five years.

Sachdev said one of MakerLab’s goals is to give students the ability to manage and leverage the innovation that’s possible with 3-D printing.

Rindfleisch said both of them believe America is moving toward the next industrial revolution, which they think will be small-scaled and personalized to fit consumers’ desktops.

Consumers now and in the future will have much more autonomy and control over the things they use, he said. As part of the business school that deals with firms and consumers, Rindfleisch added that it is important for the college and its students to be in touch with these changes.

“In college, I learned about the wired economics of buyers and consumers, and now we refer to the two as makers,” Rindfleisch said. “We’re used to that category of consumers basing decisions on things given to them, but now we’re given a perspective and capacity to create our own solutions. We want to explore that potential.”

Despite the increasing promise for 3-D printing, Sachdev and Rindfleisch remain humble toward MakerLab and hope for student turnout. MakerLab is open to all students, with open hours ranging from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday, 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday, and 10 a.m. to 5p.m. Friday in Room 103 of the Surveying Building.

“We’re just getting started and this is kind of an experiment,” Sachdev said. “This may be a temporary location, but we’re nevertheless excited to see what comes out of MakerLab.”

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