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It may seem the stuff of science fiction. But three-dimensional printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is part of the here and now in classrooms and manufacturers, and its use is finding favor across an increasing number of fields.
3D printing is a process of building objects from the bottom up. A computer takes a digital model - or CAD drawing - and transfers the information to a printer that starts with the bottom layer to build a structure in 3D, adding thin layer upon thin layer until the object is created.
“It's like constructing a building floor by floor,” explained Ibrahim Ozbolat, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at the University of Iowa. “You can build any complex shape you want.”
At the university, 3D printing technology is being integrated into student learning in a number of ways.
The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has a 3D printing lab available not only to students in the School of Art and Art History but to anyone associated with the university.
“We are prototyping in real size and scale,” said Monica Correia, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies for the School of Art and Art History.
“You can print a piece as large as furniture. And we have some students who are making jewelry.”
Correia added that interior-design students find the technology to be a valuable learning tool.
“Students are making small models to help them understand the design changes they need to make,” she said. “They can visualize what the space will look like.
"This used to be limited to paper and cutting and gluing pieces together.”
Correia noted that for the field, the addition of 3D design software years ago was important, but with 3D printing students' perspectives are broadened.
“You see something on the screen, but you really see it when it's printed. There are other things you can take into account that the computer doesn't allow for, such as gravity," she said.
"Students are getting a better understanding of what they are creating.”
While the UI Art School has two machines that print plastic - one from a powder base - machines exist that print a wide variety of materials.
“It's becoming endless,” said Correia, noting that clay, rubber and metal are possible materials for 3D printing. “It's an expensive investment, but it's amazing.”
While this technology has been around since the 1980s, it is being used increasingly in manufacturing - especially related to prototyping - to help reduce overall production time. New processes allow for functional items, such as toothbrushes and even chocolate, Ozbolat said.
Ozbolat noted this innovation is being used in the medical industry and the UI is no exception. Ozbolat leads a team of students and researchers at the UI's Center for Computer Aided Design that is using 3D printing technology to explore the possibilities of printing actual human tissue.
“We are using living cells as our base material to build something in 3D,” said Ozbolat, co-director of the Advanced Manufacturing Technology (AMTech) group working on the project.
The AMTech team - comprised of industrial, mechanical, electrical, polymer and biomedical engineers as well as medical researchers - built its own, highly unique 3D printer that operates multiple arms to print multiple parts of the tissue as once.
“We have to have the technology to build a vascular network because we are working with living tissue,” Ozbolat explained. “We added printer heads to increase the number of cell types we are printing at once.”
While it may sound futuristic, the long-term goal to produce functioning human organs in the next 10 years is not far-fetched. Ozbolat said their current work on printing a pancreatic organ to help regulate the body's level of insulin is promising.
“We can print cells that produce a minimal amount of insulin. We are working toward a large scale device that would secrete insulin comparable with the body. It's technology that could prevent diabetes.”
It may be a complicated process, but it's one, Ozbolat said, that could have lasting impact on our art, products and even our bodies.
Video produced by Max Freund/The Gazette.