3D Printing in BOMI

Our Botany & Microbiology Department recently acquired a MakerBot Replicator 2 printer. For now, it’s being used to construct custom-made pieces of equipment for research in their labs. Professor Chris Wolverton arranged for its purchase and coordinates its use in his teaching lab. He calls it “a prototype builder” because you can print something out and take a look at it–more than that, you get a tactile appreciation of the piece–and easily identify opportunities for improvement. The equipment his student is producing now is not what he originally envisioned, it’s better.

Junior BOMI Major, Patrick Zmina knew he was going to be the one to learn how to use it as soon as he found out we had one. He quickly became the primary user of the printer and is happy to share what he’s picked up so far. He cautions that you can’t let the workstation go to sleep when in the midst of a job, which can take several hours. The printer will still be communicating with the computer, but it will no longer be functioning. You might wind up with the start of a piece and a glob of plastic on top. Although many free designs are available with the software and online, he’s had to learn both Google SketchUp and MarkerBot’s own MakerWare to build custom pieces for the labs. He knows these are marketable skills applicable to many careers, and he’s having fun.

As Wolverton described early on, he and Zmina started with a simple holder for an LED light.

Stands for holding LED lights in place–A without, B withWith that working piece under their belts, they started a more significant project: “a tray that would hold a digital camera in exactly the right position to take photos of roots on a Petri dish.” This they have accomplished, allowing them to precisely position not only the camera but the petri dish as well.

Setting up a petri dish for photography used to be a matter of finagling styrofoam and tape…Now the camera and the petri dish can be adjusted smoothly and will stay in positionThe camera tray slides forward and back while the petri dish slides from side to sideHere’s a short video of the printer in action. When building a piece it first lays a thin tray underneath the actual project. This is similar in purpose to the frames around model car pieces when taken out of the box, it just holds it in place. A recent update to the MakerWare software has it building honeycomb patterns, more efficient than the previous squares, on the inside. This also allows easier removal from the base.

Wolverton would like to promote campus-wide adoption of the device (or the purchase of additional printers) and expects an iterative approach similar to the actual use of the printer itself. “First folks will have to hear about it to get them thinking about how they might use it. Then they try it out and find what works and what doesn’t.” He hasn’t yet begun to explore the educational uses for it but can think of several examples, such as building 3D models of viral proteins to help students visualize and actually design models of their own.

Anyone interested in exploring how a 3D printer might be used in their own classrooms or labs may contact me or Chris directly.

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