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This Machine Lifts Printing Off the Page


Until recently, printing images from the computer has been a limited process, stuck in a single dimension, in which a picture is stenciled with ink onto a flat sheet of paper.

But with the introduction during the past decade of machines designed to recreate images (i.e. shapes) in three dimensions, the future of printing has lifted off the page and become unlimited.

Smith College has stepped into that future with its own 3-D printer—a Zprinter 310, officially, made by Z-Corp, an international hi-tech equipment manufacturer—that takes a scan of a three-dimensional image and automatically casts it in physical form.

Three-dimensional printers, also known as rapid prototypers, have been introduced to the market with wide-ranging applications. Such machines are already being used to make candy in any imaginable shape, and jewelry of wildly intricate design. Behrokh Khoshnevis, an engineer at the University of Southern California, has invented a prototyper that is soon expected to print out an entire 2,000-square-foot house in a single day.

And while one company called Desktop Factory soon plans to introduce a 3-D printer, available for under $5,000, that can recreate plastic models, it may be a while before three-dimensional printers become a staple of every home, as some predict.

Smith’s 3-D printer, a $30,000 machine, was purchased two years ago with a combination of funds from the Picker Engineering Program and a $93,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Those funds also supported the purchase of a laser scanning device and a laser cutting machine.

Joseph O’Rourke, the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor of Computer Science and chair of that department, procured the grant and has since become the campus expert on 3-D printing. O’Rourke sees great potential for the technology used by the college’s printer.

“I knew that this type of machine was useful for engineering, and obviously for architecture,” said O’Rourke, “but I see a lot of possibilities for art. I wanted to connect art, science, engineering, mathematics. There are unlimited possibilities. I think it hasn’t been fully absorbed what the possibilities are.”

So far, O’Rourke has used the Zprinter in teaching his course on computer graphics, as well as to create solid objects of various shape and utility. His students have used the machine to print out intricate mini-replicas of several campus buildings designed on the computer. O’Rourke has even programmed the CT scan of a man’s skull (by request of a medical researcher) and printed out a replica.

“You can do things with this machine that you couldn’t do before,” said O’Rourke. “You could never do this by hand.”

All three-dimensional printers use a similar process of reading a scanned image and then physically recreating that image by emitting a series of layers of non-solid material, which are solidified during the printing process. A candy printer, for example, builds scanned layers of sugar, then heats the sugar to make a solid. The Desktop Factory machine builds an image with liquefied plastic that quickly cools in the shape of the scanned image.

Smith’s printer releases layers of a specially made powder followed closely by a binding agent that coalesces the powder into a hard chalky form. That form can then be painted or dipped in a coating material, or a mold can be made from the form using any material desired. It takes about four hours to complete the printing process.
“This machine is very intelligent,” says O’Rourke. “But it’s not easy to run. There’s a real art to using it. I’m still learning how to use the thing.”

O’Rourke is interested in exploring the many uses of the 3-D printer, he says, and invites students and faculty from the Five Colleges to investigate its possibilities.

"There's a lot of interest in linking art and technology at this college," he said. "I think it's a great avenue. I want to have art-oriented students as well as science students.”


8/14/07   By Eric Sean Weld
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