FARMINGTON — The technology sounds like it could be out of a "Star Trek" episode. But San Juan College School of Trades and Technology students daily are using machines that take pictures drawn on a computer and transform them into tangible three-dimensional objects within a matter of hours.
The implications for industry are enormous and will revolutionize how businesses design prototypes and models for future production, said David Scott, assistant professor in the college's drafting department. The printer can also help hobbyists, such as those who restore vintage automobiles, by manufacturing hard-to-find parts.
To make a 3-D printer object, technicians first create a digital drawing on a computer. Then the drawing is exported into what's called a stereolithography - or STL - file.
"It's similar to a CAT scan, in that it takes cross-section images of an object," Scott said. He and fellow assistant drafting professor Brian Seavey oversee operation of the college's 3-D printer.
Computer software next converts the STL file into commands the 3-D printer can understand, and the printer squirts out thin layers of hot plastic onto a metal plate that lowers as each layer is deposited. The plastic cools almost instantly, and a separate support material is also applied by the printer to fill any holes or gaps in the object to hold it intact that is removed after the object is completed. At the end of the process, what remains is a solid reproduction, composed of durable plastic, of the original drawing.
Scott, Seavey and their students have used the printer to create intricate objects such as a wrench and a military whistle that actually functions like a normal whistle.
"It already is revolutionary, especially for companies that need a quick prototype," said Scott. "The way it's been done in the past, in order to make an impression or a mold of something, you had to have a highly-skilled person make the mold by hand, usually out of wood. It can cost a few thousand dollars, and it can take weeks to build."
The 3-D printer, on the other hand, can produce such a mold within 6 to 8 hours, and costs about $100 for a 5-cubic-inch mold.
"The real time constriction is in the design process, but where using the 3-D printer becomes a huge time saver is in manufacturing the actual model," said Seavey.
One local inventor has already taken advantage of the college's 3-D printer, and is hoping to begin building a business using the prototypes produced by the machine.
Dr. Greg Stilwell is a retired podiatrist who has been researching orthotics for "minimalist" runners that use very thin running shoes instead of traditional running shoes. Because many of these runners have experienced injuries due to the shoes providing little impact protection for the feet and legs, Stilwell designed an insert that will work inside a minimalist running shoe, helping to prevent these injuries.
Looking to someday market the inserts, Stilwell was working with the College's Enterprise Center to develop a business plan, and the center referred him to Scott and Seavey who, along with their students, utilized the 3-D printer to make a mold for the inserts. It took the printer 3 hours to manufacture the mold. Stilwell hopes to continue to utilize the Enterprise Center to incubate his business, Hozhoni Health Services, and is currently researching manufacturing equipment that he can use to make the inserts locally.
"The inserts will actually work in any type of shoe, including sandals and dress shoes," he said.
Carmen Martinez is director of the college's Small Business Center, and says she hopes to see more collaborations with local businesses like this one.
"We're trying to get business members to partner like this with the college because we not only have some useful tools (like the 3-D printer), but we also have expertise that can really help," she said. "It's also exciting to give students hands-on learning experiences. They're not just learning about theories, they're getting the perspective of using the tools on an actual project. I see these partnerships as a win-win for everyone."